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The User Over Your Shoulder: Apple vs. The Little Guy

You may recall my article "The User Over Your Shoulder: The New Technologies Treadmill" in TidBITS-207 pointed out that Apple has recently been churning out new hardware and software technologies at a great rate, and trying to whip developers into a frenzy to adopt them. I mused as to whether this was necessarily altogether a good thing for the end user.

The article provoked quite a bit of response. Only a few letters disagreed, but they were mostly long, vehement diatribes, lecturing me on my narrowness of vision and unfitness to opine in such a matter. Several dozen notes came in that agreed with and supported my opinion, but those negative letters rocked me. I had touched a nerve, and received a reactive drubbing in return.

I did admit at the time that Apple’s strategy might, economically, be absolutely necessary. My question was, and remains, whether excessive novelty might be frustrating a need for consolidation. Suppose, as one correspondent helpfully did, we compare computers to motorcycles, with new models emerging each year. My question then would be (and this is what those negative letters have not shown me): what terrible thing would happen if Apple were more like BMW, continually improving the same models? With so much revolutionary stuff coming down the pipeline (PowerPC, QuickDraw GX, OpenDoc, PowerShare, Drag and Drop, Apple Help, System 8 and beyond), its more like each year BMW put out a new bike running on a fuel that hasn’t even been invented yet.

Readers agreeing with me focussed on four different issues. First, there’s compatibility across Mac models. This isn’t trivial. An Apple employee admits in print (Apple Directions 2/94, 16) that "whenever we do a new Macintosh, there are things that cause old software to break." And with new system software, even old programs present moving targets (without laying blame, plenty of current applications choke on LaserWriter 8.1.1).

Second, there’s the effect on the programs that users can buy. What with the compatibility issues and the constantly emerging technologies, previously solved programming problems don’t stay solved, so what’s "new" in a new version of a program is often just compatibility along with the incorporation of a few new features – not improvement in what the program does. Readers tended to focus on Microsoft Word as an example. As one respondent put it, we need an atmosphere where developers can fix basics rather than feeling compelled to add bells and whistles: "I would love to see a version of Word that had more basic writing aids (such as non-contiguous selection a la Nisus) rather than crappy memory-hungry drawing layers or QuickTime video support."

Third, there’s the quandary of what to buy when. It’s rough enough for individuals, but when you have to make the calls for a department with a limited budget it’s a real headache. I know this all too well, and so does a respondent who complained of the "relentless need to invest capital in machines and software just to keep up."

Finally, there’s the effect on smaller developers. Many readers lamented that it’s getting too hard, and costing too much, for ordinary individuals to write programs. One spoke of "the financial and logistical difficulties involved in obtaining essential development information," adding that policies that make it cost $200 to program interactively with AppleScript seem heinous.

Another agreed: "I lament the death of the small-time developers and hobbyists, who make significant contributions to the Mac’s software library. It’s simply becoming increasingly impossible to justify the expense of developing if one is not writing a full-blown commercial application that will be sold on computer store shelves."

Changing technologies and multiple platforms can be the bane of small developers. Someone wrote that "Technology’s steady march tramples us poor developers… It’s just about everything I can do keeping our products compatible with the existing applications, printers, system software, and so on," adding that you never know when Apple will abandon a technology you’ve put time and money into (such as XTND). Apple, the writer said, should choose carefully the technologies they promote. System upgrades should be smaller, faster, more reliable; the present situation promotes proliferation of bugs which developers have to keep kludging to get around.

Coincidentally, just as my article appeared, so did an editorial by Neil Ticktin in the Dec-93 MacTech saying much the same, and evoking much the same response in the Mar-94 issue.

Voices such as these deserve Apple’s attention. Better compatibility and cheaper development aids might help; why must Apple be money-grubbing about developer technical support? Individuals and what they can make computers do are the reason there are personal computers at all. If it becomes passe to feel that a computer is (at least partly) to program, what we’ve got on our desks are nothing but tiny mainframes. The Big Brother that got smashed in Apple’s "1984" ad will have won in 1994 after all.

Apple itself admits (Apple Directions 1/94, 8) that "many DOS programs support vertical markets – scheduling and billing packages for dentists, for example – and, because of the small market size, will probably never be translated to either the Macintosh or Windows environments." That’s a pity; would it really mean nothing to sales if every dentist’s office had reason to choose a Mac? The PowerPC might help Apple (with microkernel technology and super-fast processors, every computer can run every platform); but can it be that the age of individual programmers, the Two Guys In A Garage ethos that created Apple and that Apple initially fostered, is gone with the wind?

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