14 Classic Tech Rivalries

Chip TaylorThe greatest rivalries are fascinating to observe--and they invite everyone to choose sides and argue the merits of their favorite. Think Athens vs. Sparta. Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees. Coke vs. Pepsi. Wile E. Coyote vs. the Roadrunner.

Technology has its feuds, too--some of them to the death. The most recent example is Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD. (Did you bet on the outcome while it was still in doubt and end up with an on-its-way-to-being-obsolete player?) Here's a proper requiem for that clash of titans: "HD DVD Falls to Blu-ray Disc."

Luckily I hadn't committed to either side in that duel. Narrow escape! But the epic struggle got me pondering great technology rivalries of the past. Which are better: Macs or PCs? Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer? Laptop eraserheads or notebook touchpads? In the instances where a clear winner emerged, did might triumph over right (Lotus 1-2-3 vs. Microsoft Office Excel)?

Other rivalries may never achieve a satisfactory resolution, which make them all the more entertaining--or frustrating. Each of our picks of classic tech rivalries in recent history identifies the main combatants, and then invites you to vote on your favorite. Accept our apologies if we left out one of your favorites (PC World vs. PC Magazine, anyone?). Please add your picks to this list in the Comments section of the story.

Mac vs. PC

What's So Great About a Mac?

Apple products are the computing equivalent of gourmet sausage: We don't want to know what's inside these beautiful, expensive computers--or what's going on beneath the surface of the sleek Mac OS X. When it works, it works magically. When it doesn't work, we go to yoga class and wait for the next update. Oh, okay. Not only do the current Macintosh computers come equipped with some of the fastest, best-designed hardware available anywhere, but they also carry a stable, powerful, easy-to-use operating system that so far seems to be fairly immune to the security flaws and threats that menace Windows users. Top software developers--including Adobe and even Microsoft--continue to develop products for the Macintosh, making Macs competitive with Windows PCs in the workplace. A few key business applications (AutoCAD, for example) still require Windows--but fortunately, Macs also run Windows quite nicely. Apple's proprietary hardware is expensive compared to PC hardware, but third-party systems running OS X may soon become a reality. And isn't that Mac guy in the "Get a Mac" Apple commercials hip?

What's So Great About a PC?

More than a computing platform, the PC is a wide-open, mix-and-match hardware and software eco-system that can accommodate everything from water-cooled, Internet-connected, planet-warming gaming systems, to itty-bitty portable PCs. Instead of choosing from the limited hardware offerings of one company (Apple), you can shop around among hundreds of competitors for the exact configuration you need--usually for less money than the equivalent Mac would cost. (And you don't have to succumb to the holier-than-thou attitude worn on the sleeves of Macolytes.) You can even dump Windows and use one of the many excellent Linux distributions available for free. What's not to like about choices (or for that matter, about the PC guy in the Apple "Get a Mac" commercials, the embodiment of every PC user's inner geek)?

What's So Great About the Sony PlayStation 2?

Launched in 2000 and priced at $300 per unit, the PS2 become the fastest-selling console of all time, quickly overshadowed 1999's Sega Dreamcast, and later it outsold two challengers launched in 2001, the Nintendo GameCube and the Microsoft Xbox. Even today, slimmed-down PS2 units sell in greater numbers each month than Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, or PlayStation 3 consoles. Only the Nintendo DS handheld comes close to the PS2 in the size of its user base. Crucial to the PS2's original success were its built-in DVD (foreshadowing the inclusion of the Sony-backed Blu-ray format in the PS3) and its ability to play games designed for the original PlayStation and make them look better. Among the noteworthy add-ons available for the PlayStation 2's were a DVD remote, a hard disk, a mouse, a keyboard, a Linux kit, a headset/microphone, an Eye Toy camera, and game-specific peripherals such as the Singstar microphone and the Guitar Hero guitar. In 2005, PC World ranked the PlayStation 2 in 11th place on our list of the 50 greatest gadgets of the past 50 years.

What's So Great About the Microsoft Xbox?

After supplying the operating system for Sega's Dreamcast console, Microsoft ventured directly into the console race--with the PlayStation 2 squarely in its sights. Unlike the PS2, the $300 Xbox boasted a built-in 8GB hard drive and was broadband-ready out of the box (the Xbox Live Online gaming service launched a year later). The powerful Xbox had a PC-like design and used a modified 733-MHz Pentium III processor. One of its launch titles, Halo: Combat Evolved, emerged as the best-selling game of 2001. Microsoft slowly gained traction with its original Xbox. The company got quicker off the mark, too: In 2005, the original Xbox's successor, the Xbox 360, reached stores a full year before Sony countered with its PlayStation 3 and Nintendo unveiled its Wii.

Ballmer vs. Torvalds

What's So Great About Steve Ballmer?

When Steve Ballmer, aka Goliath, sets his sights on something, he gets it. Or he throws a chair (allegedly). Or he just goes crazy. He thinks Linux is for commies. Much of Microsoft's tremendous growth has occurred under Steve's watch as CEO, which began in 2000. His tenure has been marked by the acquisition of other companies, including Visio, Great Plains, and Groove Networks. Along the way, he became a billionaire. And with a couple of Microsoft compatriots, Steve appeared as one of the very few PC World centerfolds. But with software as we know it moving off of PCs and onto the Web, Ballmer desperately needs to acquire something new (like Yahoo or Facebook) to avoid being gnawed to death by Google.

What's So Great About Linus Torvalds?

Courtesy of Martin Streicher, Linuxmag.comLinus Torvalds, aka David, isn't against Microsoft products; he's just not interested in them. He began tinkering with the free, open-source operating system named after him while working on his master's degree in computer science. He doesn't throw things (even allegedly) or go crazy. Though he has final say over which programmers' contributions gain entry into the Linux operating system kernel, he is essentially a lowly programmer working for the Linux Foundation. Still, thanks to Torvalds, open-source software--and Linux in particular--may eventually eat Microsoft's lunch. And remember, David won his battle.

What's So Great About an Eraserhead?

No, not the David Lynch movie, but the cursor controller that sticks out of the middle of some laptop keyboards. Lenovo calls its version the TrackPoint. The obvious plus of the eraserhead pointer is that you don't have to move your hands from the touch-typing home row to move the cursor around the screen. Also, it's tactile, but not so easy to maneuver that you can make mistakes just by hitting it. Admittedly, the rubber tip can get slippery or gummy, depending on how sweaty your finger is and/or what you ate for lunch. But why mess with success?

What's So Great About a Touchpad?

The touchpad has some obvious advantages over the eraserhead pointer. For example, most touchpads let you scroll or perform other tasks by tapping or touching the pad's corners or sides. Apple's Multi-Touch trackpad raises the touchpad to a new level, enabling you to scroll, resize, rotate, and otherwise manipulate windows and other on-screen objects by making simple gestures. The obvious disadvantage of the touchpad is that it requires you to move your hands from the keyboard's home row. It also is less precise than a mouse for handling fine work on screen. On the other hand (or on the same hand), a touchpad wipes clean with a damp cloth if your egg salad sandwich performs impromptu gravity experiments on it at lunchtime.

Lotus 1-2-3 vs. Microsoft Office Excel

What's So Great About Lotus 1-2-3?

Courtesy of RetroSoftwareThough not the first spreadsheet program written for IBM's fledgling PC, Lotus 1-2-3 was the first great one, thanks to its speed, integrated functions, lack of bugs, and support for opening large spreadsheets in expanded memory. Though other spreadsheet programs written for MS-DOS matched and even improved on 1-2-3's features, none overtook it in popularity. In the late 1980s, though, Microsoft fielded an upstart spreadsheet called Excel for its Windows graphical interface. Lotus waited too long to release a Windows-based competitor (betting instead on IBM OS/2). By the time Windows 3.0 prompted a boom in Windows use, 1-2-3 had lost its lead. Rumors of 1-2-3's demise are premature, however; IBM still sells it as part of its Lotus SmartSuite office suite.

What's So Great About Excel?

If 1-2-3 was so great, how did a newcomer manage to usurp its position in just a few years? By the time Microsoft ported its Macintosh-based spreadsheet to the PC in 1987, most spreadsheets offered all the extra goodies that a number cruncher could want, including built-in formulas, macro languages, and database features. But Excel offered a couple of things that its competitors lacked: pull-down menus and WYSIWYG formatting that made it dramatically easier to use. Excel's time may be up, though: Today Microsoft's Office Live (which includes an Excel component) falls short of free Web-hosted applications such as Google Docs & Spreadsheets and Zoho Office.

What's So Great About Amazon?

On some level, you just want stuff. Never mind supporting local merchants, paying your fair share of sales tax, or even seeing something before buying it. Amazon gets that. The mother of all online stores has a huge array of stuff for sale, including used books, used CDs, and other collectibles sold through partner vendors (all the people who used to own used-book and -record stores in your town). The biggest downside to an Amazon transaction is guilt, because every order arrives in a dead-tree cardboard box stowed aboard a carbon-spewing delivery truck.

What's So Great About Your Local Bookstore?

My local bookstore is awesome. I love the library-like ambience, and occasionally I even buy something, especially if Christmas or someone's birthday is looming. Besides selling books, the store has an excellent selection of reading glasses and gourmet chocolates for immediate purchase (and gratification). The friendly staff members sometimes make great recommendations for reading that I would never think of. And I often discover interesting books by using my eyes as a kind of analog browser and the store shelves as a rudimentary site contents listing. Bonus: To go to my local bookstore, I have to leave my computer, if only for a few minutes. There are drawbacks, of course. Inevitably a local bookstore like mine has far fewer books to choose from than Amazon or a site like ABEBooks.com; and on top of that, I am obliged by societal mores to get dressed and brush my teeth before hopping into my carbon-spewing automobile to go shopping.

Intel vs. AMD

What's So Great About Intel?

Intel engineers created the first microprocessor, the 4004, in 1971. The rest (the part where Intel-powered PCs took over the world) is history. Amazingly, Intel's recent CPUs remain backward-compatible with software designed for the benchmark 80386 processor introduced in 1986. On the green side (ecologically speaking), the company's newer, smaller chips use silicon and other component materials more efficiently, require less power, and support dramatically faster speeds. And the company had the brilliant idea of branding its work: Remember the "Intel Inside" ad campaign, anyone? Competitors, including AMD, have tried to carve a little slice out of the Intel pie by reverse-engineering x86 processors of their own. So far, they're just playing catch up.

What's So Great About AMD?

For much of the early part of this century, Advanced Micro Devices enjoyed great success by producing processors that outperformed comparably priced Intel chips. Its earlier Athlon CPUs were performance champs, and they usually sold for less than comparable Intel products. But AMD stumbled when it tried to produce an immediate competitor to Intel's latest quadruple-core processors, and the company's purchase of graphics hardware maker ATI imposed a serious burden on its finances. AMD's plans to jump to 12-core processors by 2010 are interesting. And the prospect of success in an antitrust lawsuit alleging anticompetitive sales practices by Intel may be a source of optimism at AMD in 2008. Luckily, the company has some of the most loyal customers in the business. In any event, a serious competitor to Intel (especially one willing to go after it in court) is the surest way to guarantee better, less expensive products for consumers.

What's So Great About Bill Gates?

Courtesy of MicrosoftMicrosoft's success has earned Bill Gates $58 billion so far. Okay, so the prosecutor in the antitrust case United States vs. Microsoft would say that some of the business practices that generated that fortune were unethical, but business is business, right? This summer the former evil-software-empire chairman begins his new full-time job with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, giving a big chunk of that money away. Thanks to matching contributions from Bill's even richer card-playing buddy Warren Buffett, the foundation is currently endowed with nearly $40 billion, which it uses for such laudable activities as fostering global

agricultural development and financial services for the poor; fighting HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, and malnutrition; improving women's and children's health; and promoting literacy in the United States and abroad. Does the end justify the means?

What's So Great About Steve Jobs?

Courtesy of AppleSteve Jobs is the rock star of the tech world, and (reportedly) an insufferable egomaniac. He's a billionaire too, though nowhere near as wealthy as Bill Gates. His vision of what a computer or a gadget could be, starting with the Apple I in 1976, has always been way, way out there. He foresaw that a lot of people would pay extra for a phone or a laptop that was not merely functional but a work of art, with the result that now we have engineering marvels like the iPhone and the MacBook Air. For more than 30 years, Steve has been really excited about this stuff, browbeating and cajoling his people into make cooler devices, and then convincing the buying public of how insanely great these products are. And they are great (he says as he sips his Kool-Aid).

Inkjet Printers vs. Laser Printers

What's So Great About Inkjets?

Ah, little inkjet printer, you give us rich colors for our photographs--as long as we use your specially coated paper. But soon, so soon, the ink wells run dry, the colorful cataracts diminish, and everything comes out all blue or yellow. And since a replacement set of ink cartridges for you may cost as much as the whole printer did originally, we must bid you a sorrowful adieu and move on to a new printer--which, tragically, too, will find its way to sleep in the local landfill. More prosaically, some of your cartridges contain microchips that block printing after an expiration date or before the cartridge is empty; we can't understand why you won't let us print on our own schedule. We're perplexed that third-party cartridges tend to be far less expensive and often match the OEM cartridges' quality, and we harbor horrible suspicions as to why your manufacturer has gone to such great lengths to block their sales. But cheap access to a clean, pretty paper copy of the Google Map to the restaurant where we're going for supper or to a quickie photo of the kid for Grandma makes all that go away.

What's So Great About Laser Printers?

Oh mighty (and inexpensive) , for black-and-white documents you are the only way to go, pounding out prints at a cost per page of around 3 cents--much less than the cost of inkjet printing. And for color elements, such as charts, logos, and other graphics, your high-toned siblings, the color laser printers, produce longer-lasting prints faster than inkjets can, at about the same cost per page. True, when your cartridge finally conks out, the bill can really hurt--and if you're a color laser, the cartridges can set me back more than the printer did. So maybe I should share most of my "prints" via e-mail over my iPhone...

What's So Great About Microsoft Office?

Any old app can let you enter some characters, maybe italicize a few, and add some links. But if you want to do serious, manly work with office documents, you need Microsoft Office. Just try using mail merge on your documents in Google Docs. The feature doesn't exist, does it? Applying conditional formatting to your spreadsheets? Also AWOL. Creating a custom animation in your presentations? We didn't think so. Okay, so maybe you don't use these superpowers every day--but don't you want them to be there, ready to spring into action, when you do need them?

What's So Great About Google Docs?

Sure, Google Docs doesn't have all of the features of Microsoft Office. Today's animals aren't as big as the Tyrannosaurus Rex either, but we all know what happened to the Tyrant Lizard King. Plus, Google Docs has some cool features that Office doesn't--and they happen to be features you'll actually use, like the ability to get to your documents from any PC that has a Web connection. (You can even edit offline with Google Gears.) Another great feature is the ability to let friends and colleagues share and edit your documents without a hassle. Oh yeah, and did we mention it's free?

Netscape vs. Internet Explorer

What's So Great About Netscape?

Alas, poor Netscape has ceased to be. After debuting in 1994, Netscape (called Netscape Navigator starting with version 2.0) quickly became the most popular Web browser and helped turn a mostly text-based and underutilized global network of networks called the Internet into the hottest thing since (at the time) Tiffany-Amber Thiessen. Over the course of a byzantine series of version numbering systems and owners, Netscape gradually lost market share, but eventually it inspired the open-source Mozilla and Firefox browsers.

What's So Great About Internet Explorer?

Because Internet Explorer is integrated with Windows, it's always there, it loads quickly, and it continues to be the most popular browser in use. Some Web site components, such as Netflix's Watch Instantly feature, are written to work exclusively with Internet Explorer (sorry, Mac users). IE 7 has incorporated a few key amenities from Firefox, too, including pop-up blocking and a tabbed interface. The current version of Microsoft's browser, IE 7, works well and becomes a necessity at Web sites that refuse to work with Firefox. At this rate, though, by the time IE 8 comes out, its features will be lagging years behind those of Mozilla's Firefox.

What's So Great About Nintendo?

After a North American release through Atari fell through, Nintendo went it alone, unveiling its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) at the 1985 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Nintendo's Mario, the Mario Brothers sibling originally known as Jumpman, is arguably the best-known and most beloved video-game character in history. By 1990, the NES was the best-selling video game console in the United States, thanks to titles like Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt (with Zapper gun), The Legend of Zelda, and Donkey Kong Jr. In 1989, Nintendo began to lose market share in North America to Sega's 16-bit Genesis console--a circumstance that Nintendo sought to reverse in 1991 with the release of its own 16-bit console, the Super NES. These two 16-bit rivals were the key combatants in the notorious console wars of that era--a conflict that stirred more-intense schoolyard and media debate than today's Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3 rivalry. Were you a Mario maniac or a Sonic the Hedgehog kid?

What's So Great About Sega?

Sega launched its Master System in the United States only a few months after Nintendo's original NES became widely available. But Nintendo had a trump card to play against Sega: Its strict game developer contracts prohibited developers from releasing any NES game on any other console for two years. Because the NES had emerged as the dominant console, a developer had to decide between maximizing its game's sales and gambling on the success of a new console. This stark choice helped limit the game offerings Sega could muster. In 1989, Sega hit back with its Genesis console (known outside North America as the Mega Drive), the first true 16-bit console. The Genesis pushed the NEC TurboGrafx-16 into obscurity and quickly began eating into sales of Nintendo's original NES. Nintendo took two years to achieve parity on a technical level with the Genesis, via the 16-bit Super NES. Sega's blue-spiked mascot Sonic is a relative newcomer to the video-game scene (born in 1991). Though Sonic is a freedom-loving and independent super-hedgehog (faster than the speed of sound!) who can be counted on to come to the aid of his friends, he can be testy, and doesn't do well in water without a good running start.

Microsoft vs. Google

What's So Great About Microsoft?

In just 30 years, Microsoft has produced an array of successful products--notably, the Windows operating systems--that not only dominate, but in some cases define how the world does business. Microsoft has shown that it knows how to create and sell software better than any other company in history. So far. But as businesses gradually switch to open-source and Web-hosted services, Microsoft could see that dominance wither. The company's inability to win large audiences for its online products and services, plus the steady growth in popularity of Macs and Linux-based PCs, may not bode well. Microsoft sometimes seems to be its own worst enemy, too. Many people in the target audience for Windows Vista are convinced that running Windows XP on their existing PCs is just fine for now. Desperate to sell new versions of Office every couple of years, Microsoft develops innovations like ribbon menus and XML file formats--but lots of users say, "Thanks, but no thanks."

What's So Great About Google?

In less than ten years, Google has grown from an upstart search engine running out of a Silicon Valley garage into a $23 billion information technology powerhouse. Along the way, Google has broadened its portfolio of products and services by introducing game-changing technology to an existing market (Pagerank, Gmail) or by acquiring other promising companies and their products (Blogger, Writely). Unfortunately its march toward world dominance causes unease among privacy experts. Sound familiar? Though its approach isn't quite the same as Microsoft's lethal "embrace, extend, extinguish" modus operandi, Google has certainly managed to grab significant market share in some areas, while generating revenue along the way. But can it actually beat Microsoft in its strongest suites? 

What's So Great About Cable?

If you want the fastest download times at the lowest cost, cable is clearly the way to go. Companies like Comcast have put together great-looking service bundles that include cable TV service, voice over IP, and (claimed) download speeds of up to 12 mbps. When everything works properly, cable is simply superior to DSL. But the issue of shared access continues to bedevil cable. When your neighbors are downloading files, too, everyone's speeds will suffer. And, if you haven't had cable before, you'll have to add lines to your house. On the other hand, you won't have to deal with the phone company, which is a huge plus in any rational system of thought.  

What's So Great About DSL?

Sure, in most areas, even the fastest DSL connection can't match the speed of cable. On the other hand, you don't share your DSL bandwidth with your neighbors, so you really ought to get close to the advertised download and upload speeds from your DSL service provider. In most instances, you won't need any new wiring either because your existing phone lines can handle the job. So what's the catch? DSL speed depends heavily on the quality of your existing lines. If they are poor, your service will be poor. And you'll have to deal with your phone company (see above). But if you don't want to add cabling to your home, you don't insist on having the fastest download times, and you're in a loving relationship with AT&T, go for DSL.