Hello, I'm a Mac. And Bill's a PC

By now you've seen, no doubt many times, Apple's most recent Get a Mac commercial, in which poor PC can not get a word in (or out) without first clearing it (Cancel or allow?) through his grim, Secret-Service-style security agent. If for some reason you haven't seen it -- your television and your computer have been broken for the past month, perhaps, or you've just returned from keeping vigil at the morgue where Anna Nicole Smith has been slowly decomposing -- you can see it here. And you should see it, because it's the best of the series so far.

This is no small compliment, given how consistently smart and funny and clever and creative they've been. But this one is pure perfection: a marvel of brisk pacing, crisp editing, and deft comic timing, showcasing yet again the subtle brilliance and hilarity of John Hodgman's work as PC. (If they gave Emmy Awards for Best Actor in a Commercial Series, he'd have to start clearing his mantel.) It's really quite amazing that, after almost one year and 18 different ads, these spots not only remain fresh but actually keep getting better and better.

Almost equally amazing is the inability -- or perhaps the unwillingness -- of someone as smart as Bill Gates to understand how the ads work. When asked, in a recent interview with Newsweek magazine, whether he was bothered by the commercial in which PC must undergo upgrade surgery to install Windows Vista, the Microsoft Chairman replied, I've never seen it. I don't think over 90 percent of the [population] who use Windows PCs think of themselves as dullards, or the kind of klutzes that somebody is trying to say they are.

Mr. Gates, as he is wont to do when he talks about Macs and PCs, misses several key and painfully obvious points:

1) John Hodgman does not play a PC user. He plays a PC. (Technically, he plays a PC personified, but using language that sounds like it comes from an English Lit class might confuse Mr. Gates -- and, for that matter, a lot of PC users -- so I'm just gonna keep it simple.) The distinction is abundantly clear throughout the commercials -- PC users rarely strap web-cams to their heads, nor must they don hospital gowns to upgrade their operating systems -- but especially so at the beginning of every clip; his signature opening line is And I'm a PC, not And I'm a PC user.

2) PC is neither a dullard nor a klutz. He's a nice and earnest enough guy who, because he is often jealous of and occasionally frustrated by the status and achievements of his friend the Mac, is prone to making unfortunate decisions that sometimes lead to unpleasant consequences. But it's not his fault; he's just a victim of OS-envy

3) PC is the undisputed star of the commercials. Justin Long exudes an effortlessly cool, understated, charismatic vibe -- he is playing a Mac, after all -- but he never really has all that much to do. He is -- and this is the true, ironic brilliance of the conceit -- the straight man. He's kind and earnest, sincere and occasionally befuddled, always trying to help out his friend, but rarely does anything more than stuff his hands in his pockets and rattle off a few of his own best features and benefits. John Hodgman gets all the good lines, all the great costumes, all the most absurd and hilarious moments. He's the one who gets to snap at Mac and snark at their therapist and bristle at the Secret Service guy, roll around in a wheelchair and an arm-cast, and react to the relentless hounding of his own angel and devil doppelgangers. He's the one wearing the hospital gown, brandishing the used-car-lot sales signs, and storming off-screen with the webcam and the masking tape trailing forlornly from his head.

PC is to Mac what Wile E. Coyote was to the Roadrunner: the poor, pitiful foil for whom we feel some strange sort of empathy, even as we can't quite bring ourselves to identify with him. He won't ever win, and he can't even get his name in the title, but he's the one who makes the stories worth watching. He makes them great. And so he makes us -- even long-time, hardcore, holier-than-thou Apple zealots -- like him and even occasionally want to root for him.

If Bill Gates understood this, or could at least bring himself to admit it, perhaps he would feel better about the ad campaign. Or perhaps not. Elsewhere in that same interview, when he's saying silly and patently untrue things about Apple computers (Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally) or bragging about Vista features (the way the search lets you go through lots of things, including lots of photos... And then I might edit a high-definition movie and a make a little DVD that's got photos) that have been possible on a Mac for months or even years, he sounds an awful lot like PC in those commercials: by turns boastful and dismissive, trying too hard and succeeding too little, clinging to the tenuous and increasingly unpleasant company of his own mistaken assumptions. Much has been made of the notion that, at first glance, Mac and PC bear a more than passing resemblance to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And maybe that's what really bugs Mr. Gates about the commercials. Maybe he's not bothered by how they may hurt the feelings of 90 percent of computer users; maybe he's bothered by how they hurt his own.

But when he spends so much time upon the release of his new operating system sniping at Apple and its commercials, he only makes the resemblance more clear, the comparison more valid. As long as he's defensive and combative and so prone to being bugged by the cool-seeming competition, he will continue not just to look uncool, but also to remind computer users and commercial watchers of John Hodgman's feckless, fretting PC -- a character who, much like his defender, is just a smart guy prone to foolish choices, a likable but misguided soul who needs to accept his own flaws, embrace his own character, and, most of all, stop worrying about that other dude on the desktop.