|Monday, October 16, 2006
10:55 - "Don't Do That™"
Wil Shipley has a good takedown of an article by one Larry Bodine that trashes the Mac. Well, "good" in that it's entertaining and cathartic. But in another sense, it makes me feel like it's 2002 all over again, when we all wrote these impassioned treatises on why productivity was actually higher on a Mac with 40% of the raw speed of a contemporary PC, because multitasking was better and the interface was less stress-inducing or whatever it was we said. There was still an elephant in the room, namely that no amount of hype or rationalization could mask the platform's fundamental shortcomings. Which in those days were, let's face it, non-trivial.
Granted, things were way better in 2002 than in 1997—in some ways—but Apple was still struggling to build Mac OS X into a real, full-featured computing environment with world-class solutions for everyday tasks like web browsing and word processing. A man cannot live on iLife alone, no matter how good iLife is.
And now it's 2006, and things are tremendously better in Apple-land than they were even four years ago. We've got iLife-grade page layout and presentation software (and, possibly, a spreadsheet soon). We've got a web browser that makes pages look gorgeous. We've got built-in web cams and magnetic-lock power cables. We've got remote controls for sharing all our media between Macs. We've got legions of high-school kids cheering for Apple as they bob their white-earbudded heads, instead of jeering at their Mac-using friends. And now we've got Intel CPUs which eliminate the whole speed discrepancy thing, even though we're still waiting on Universal versions of Photoshop and Office.
But that doesn't mean people like Bodine, even if they don't go into the experience eager to find things to complain about on the Mac, are guaranteed to get a good impression.
Sometimes I wonder if the hype generated by the ads and the youngsters and colleagues Bodine quotes is developing an image that, even if it's entirely factually accurate in lab conditions, won't hold up when tested against a hostile audience, or even an audience without a huge attention span or a preinstalled set of rose-tinted glasses. The unboxing experience is often enough of a plus to put someone in a positive frame of mind for the setup procedure, which itself is often smooth enough to get things off on the right foot. But there will be people like Bodine who insist on straying from the beaten path, clicking on the wrong things, applying their preconceived notions of how a computer should work, and establishing what other people would consider unreasonable criteria for how Apple should receive a passing or failing grade. I've known people who won't touch Apple software today, or even voluntarily visit apple.com, because QuickTime once grabbed hold of their media file types on Windows ten years ago. Bodine, similarly, won't go near Mail or iCal because they look like they might require you to sign up for .Mac. They don't, but the fact that they don't isn't made clear enough, I guess—or just the fact that it's possible is enough to make a bad enough impression on him as a yearly-service-grubbing revenue-stream-seeking leech company that he stops giving them the benefit of the doubt.
It's times like this that I feel an unaccountable sort of sympathy for countries like North Korea, that have to assign "handlers" to the tourists who come to see them, to steer them around and show them all the good stuff, and prevent them from clicking on the wrong building or torture camp.
Now, no company should have to do that sort of thing, just like no country should have to. But Apple's in a position where they have to constantly make the case that their model of computer and software development, with despotic visionary control and in-house app development that gives the user out-of-the-box capabilities that nonetheless depend to a certain degree on service subscriptions like .Mac and iTunes, is not just a worthwhile challenger to the established free-for-all of the Windows world—it's got to live up to the hype too. Unfortunately, that's never going to be the case for someone who's too dense to open himself up to new ideas, or someone who's determined to look hard enough to see the realities underneath them.
UPDATE: Wanna reminder of how far we've come? Try this on for size.
The haircuts and the quality of the projection slides are almost as painful as the content. How come 1997 looks so much like the 80s?
UPDATE: In response to Aziz's (understandable) confusion over an aspect of this and how it meshes/clashes with how the Mac is supposed to be a platform for creative types:
There's a schism between two different types of "creativity". A lot of people assume that the creativity that Apple fosters is the kind of "creativity" that leads people to mod their cases and skin their OS, or choose a colored faceplate (supplied by the company) to put on the front of their computer to reflect their "personal taste". It's really not the same thing.
What Apple's design ethos is is that the interface fades away into the background, because what you're creating is the media that comes out of apps like iMovie and iPhoto, not the tweaks of the environment around it. Anyone can apply a skin someone created; but what comes out of the iLife apps, by definition, can't be done by anybody but the individual running them. To borrow the "car" metaphor, many people sink hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into adding spoilers and decals and stereo equipment to their cars, whereas I would prefer to spend that time and money driving to Alaska.
With that in mind, it ought to make more sense that the customization options of Mac OS X are more limited than in Windows—because you're supposed to not have to think about the interface. It gets out of your way. People who fixate on the twiddly details of the interface and spend hours trying to make it behave like Windows does, like this article's author apparently did, are bound to be stymied and then they'll complain about things like Word not having a "File > Delete" menu option. If he were a Mac user, and used to the idea that file operations are supposed to take place in the Finder and not in random applications, he wouldn't have been so surprised by this.
"Lots of shortcuts" is not a good solution for a complicated system. Simple and obvious interface design is. Unfortunately, that's a hard sell to someone who's used to his trusty collection of shortcuts.
A Python-programming friend of mine often chants "TIMTOWTDI Must Die!" (There Is More Than One Way To Do It.) Yeah, it makes things less flexible to give you fewer ways into some action. But it also means you spend less time thinking about it and more time thinking about getting work done.