Last week, Apple announced that it had sold its five millionth iMac, making the translucent machine Apple's best-selling Macintosh model of all time. Its unique design attracted many who had never before purchased computers, and its ubiquitous shape and colors have made it almost standard fare in mainstream magazine photo spreads, television shows, and movies - when you need to show a computer, you might as well present one that looks good.
Many TidBITS readers undoubtedly own iMacs, as I do, and many of you may also have family members who own one. Although it is easy for an experienced Mac user to get an iMac up and running, many new users find the task more difficult, not so much because it's inherently hard, but because nearly half of iMac purchasers are first-time Macintosh users.
Unfortunately, the iMac has fallen prey to the industry trend of eliminating documentation, in part to reduce development, production, and distribution costs, but also undoubtedly in part to support Apple's claim that it's so easy you won't need much documentation. [For more on this topic, see our seminal article, "The Death of Documentation" in TidBITS-428 and the many TidBITS Talk discussions it has spawned. -Adam] The iMac has a couple slim manuals to get you started, but, other than online documentation, there is nothing to which novice computer users can refer, or even use as an introduction. I think this is a shame, not only because the Mac OS is complex, but also because the applications bundled with the iMac, such as AppleWorks, are powerful and have a wide array of features a new user is unlikely to discover or use fully without assistance.
Many publishers have released books on the iMac, an unusual move given that single computer model is seldom sufficiently popular to warrant an entire book. Their levels differ greatly - some are designed for beginning users, others for those more familiar with computers. They all have one thing in common, though: they present the basic features of the iMac, its operating system, and its applications.
Yet, none of these books are all that specific to the iMac. Although they all present the computer, show how to set it up and connect it, they then continue with a more general presentation of the Mac OS and the different applications bundled with the iMac. Any of these books could be used as a general book on the Mac OS, with the exception of a few pages that deal with the iMac.
Perhaps this makes sense. Would a beginning computer user be more attracted by a book talking about the Mac OS (many iMac users might not even know their iMac is running the Mac OS, in spite of the splash screen displayed at startup), or by a book presenting the iMac, their computer? One of the successes of the iMac is that its "personality" sets it apart from other computers, making it a more attractive device for many novice users. iMac users don't own computers; they own iMacs.
In this article I look at three different iMac books. Each adopts a different strategy and tone to give iMac users the knowledge they need.
A Tried and True Formula -- A long time ago, in a world far, far away, computers came with manuals: huge tomes that were big enough to be used as doorstops. Some of you may remember that time. Since then, manuals have all but disappeared.
Sometime between then and now, IDG Books (now known, oddly enough, as Hungry Minds) came up with a way to attract all those computer users who didn't understand how these machines worked, didn't understand those bulky manuals, and were almost too ashamed to ask. The popular Dummies series has seen both wildly successful titles and total flops, both on computers and other diverse subjects (business, cooking, gardening, sex, etc.). Through a mixture of humor and lightheartedness, the Dummies books have the merit of demystifying computers. The Dummies series also has an online complement, where you can subscribe to daily tips by email. This can be a good way for new users to start receiving email messages.
David Pogue's The iMac for Dummies (Hungry Minds, $20) uses the irreverent tone, humor and cartoons that are the hallmark of this series to lead users from setup to competence. Written in a friendly style that's light years away from the stereotypical computer manual that many new users fear, this book provides a complete overview of what you can do with your iMac. From the absolute basics (pointing and clicking, moving files around, handling folders) to chapters on the Internet, applications, an overview of the System Folder, and even a well-presented chapter on troubleshooting, this book is a thorough collection of what new users need to know to get the most common tasks done.
Relatively little of the content is specific to the iMac, which leads me to believe that The iMac for Dummies is probably extremely similar to Pogue's Macs for Dummies (I don't have a copy for comparison). But it is certainly sufficiently copious (at over 400 pages) for the demanding iMac user, while maintaining the right tone to make it all sound easy.
Taking Your Time -- One of the biggest worries of new computer users is the amount of time needed to learn about their machine before getting anything out of it. It can't hurt to reassure iMac owners, showing them that they can learn the basics in a short amount of time.
Teach Yourself the iMac in 24 Hours (Second Edition), by Gene Steinberg (Sams, $20) takes this approach, giving 24 one-hour chapters, or lessons, presenting the main features of the iMac. Like The iMac for Dummies, this 400-page book actually is more about the Mac OS in general - Steinberg even mentions this in the introduction, saying that this book "is not just for iMac users," but also for iBook, PowerBook or Power Mac users as well. Only the first few pages of the book are specific to the physical setup of the iMac.
But Teach Yourself the iMac in 24 Hours presents the Mac OS in a much different way than Pogue's Dummies book. It starts at a higher level - while The iMac for Dummies is for real beginners who have never held a mouse, Steinberg instead assumes that readers are more or less familiar with the basics of using a computer. He then presents step-by-step lessons, each of which deals with a specific aspect of using a Mac.
Does this approach work? Each chapter is about the same as a chapter in any other computer book, so the lesson concept doesn't come through all that well. Perhaps there is a psychological advantage to seeing the learning process as a series of separate units. In any case, the book is well-written, and many users may feel more comfortable with its serious tone over the flippancy of The iMac for Dummies.
iMac in a Jiffy -- These first two books are relatively large, which may be daunting for some users. Other, smaller books manage to give a sufficient overview to users who don't want as much detail.
Martin C. Brown's iMac FYI (Muska & Lipman, $15) is a small, almost pocket-sized book that approaches the iMac in question-and-answer format. Its seven chapters present a total of 99 questions, each of which explains one aspect of using an iMac in a few pages. Again, there is little here that is specific to the iMac itself. But the tone of this book is that of answering the reader's questions, rather than telling the reader what to do.
iMac FYI is a much smaller book than the previous two, both in size and number of pages (277 pages), and it lacks the depth of the others. But it provides a simple introduction to the Mac OS in a relaxed, yet efficient tone. Its structure and size also make iMac FYI a good candidate for a quick-reference book, for when you don't want to read through narrative to get an answer (no matter how entertaining the narrative may be). This might be the ideal book for someone who has just gotten an iMac, but who still has someone they can call for the big questions. Think of your parents or grandparents, for whom you just bought an iMac, and who will undoubtedly be calling you no matter what. iMac FYI might give them the background to keep their phone bill down a bit and protect you from too many questions.
Nevertheless, iMac FYI isn't for total beginners. Take question 6, for example, "How do I open a file or application?" The answer begins, "Just double-click!" Well, the author does not explain what a double-click is, nor does he go into the basics, such as selecting menu items or moving the cursor. Although The iMac for Dummies may seem patronizing to some, it has the merit of explaining everything.
Looking It Up -- All three books contain one essential feature: a complete and detailed index. I consider the index one of the most important parts of a computer book, since, while a reader may read such a book from cover to cover once, it is mostly used as a reference.
iMac FYI's index is shorter, because the book itself covers less, and has the drawback of being in very small type (think of those elderly iMac users!). The other two books each have indexes of around 40 pages, with enough detail to cover most queries. Teach Yourself the iMac in 24 Hours comes out ahead in the index user-friendliness comparison test, and its layout makes it the most readable. Its indexers carefully considered what beginning readers will look up.
Take, for example, the Command key on the keyboard. Beginning users may call it the Apple key, because of the small apple on it, but Teach Yourself the iMac in 24 Hours provides index entries for both "Apple key" and "Command key." iMac FYI's index calls it the "Apple logo key," which might be confusing. The iMac for Dummies lacks any entry for the Command key, but it does have entries for terms such as pointing, double-clicking, etc.
Conclusion -- Each of these three books is written for a specific type of person. The iMac for Dummies is for those who don't want to get too involved with their computers, and its relaxed tone is ideal for people who are a bit anxious about using them. It has the merits of being a book for true beginners - Pogue takes the time to explain everything you need to do, from pointing and clicking to using menus and moving icons.
These basic techniques are missing from Teach Yourself the iMac in 24 Hours, which, nevertheless, provides a solid grounding in using an iMac with a more serious tone. Those coming to the iMac with Windows experience might appreciate the way Teach Yourself the iMac in 24 Hours goes right to the nitty-gritty.
iMac FYI, while covering less ground, is less of a textbook and more of a conversation with the reader. It's not designed for total beginners, but its question-and-answer format might be perfect for those who don't want to read a whole book.
You won't go wrong with any of these books, so your best approach would be to look at each and read a couple of pages. Especially given the overlap in material between these three books and their focus on different types of users, choosing the book with the right the tone and presentation may make the difference between a tool for learning and just another book on the shelf.
[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance translator and technical writer living in a village in the French Alps.]