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Musing About Ease of Use

I have an interesting and puzzling feeling about being a Mac owner that I want to share and about which I would value your opinions. I believe I am a happy and productive Mac person – a convert from the world of the Apple II – because I was able to leave behind almost all of my knowledge of computers and computing with my Apple II and concentrate on getting real, creative work done with my very first Mac. The early Apple IIgs operating system, which was quirky, had given me all the taste I needed, and the transition to the Mac, once made, was a delight. My productivity, my creativity, and my mood were all enhanced almost from the first day. For years I kept up with Macintosh technology, though I have never needed to own the latest machine with the most RAM or the biggest hard drive. Today, for instance, I am writing on a Power Mac 7100/66AV with 40 MB of RAM and a 1 GB hard drive: hardly on the cutting edge, not to mention the fact that I work on a 21" gray scale monitor, rather than on a color monitor.

Over this time I have acquired an undeserved reputation as a local Mac expert, though I have constantly maintained that I know little about computers. Most local professional consultants refuse to touch a Mac because if they sell a business a Macintosh system, they’ll receive few, if any, repeat service or support calls, and that’s how consultants make their livings. Some of my friends in that business are quite open with me about their complete unwillingness to install Macs for that very reason. (Small businesses rely almost entirely on such consulting firms, which is one reason why there is so little Mac software for small businesses. But that’s another story.)

Two things seem to be happening. First, we now seem to be under external pressure to become computer experts or to leave behind the ease and power which computers can bring to life and work. In part, this pressure stems from the increased interest in the Internet. Connecting to the Internet and maintaining a collection of functional Internet software tools requires that even Mac people have at least a bit of arcane knowledge – knowledge that was common in the Apple II world and that is taken for granted among DOS folks. In my opinion, the Macintosh world isn’t even ten percent as bad, yet, but I have a sinking feeling the operative word in that sentence is "yet."

I also wonder if this level of increased complexity becoming a trend. The sad fact is that the 85 to 90 percent of computer users who use Windows see no problem with this complexity, perhaps because things could only get better in that world. Windows users who lack computer knowledge (the majority) simply pay someone else for help. This extends even to tasks like hooking up a new, basic home system, for which resellers regularly charge $50 and up in my area. Can a Mac person imagine paying a store $50 to get their first system up and running?

But if almost no one, percentage-wise, sees any problem here, I fear we are on the way to losing our ability to concentrate on working with rather than on a computer.

Secondly, on the internal end of things, I am worried Apple may be infected with the prevailing mentality that flawed operation is acceptable without extensive knowledge. One does not have to read TidBITS or Ric Ford’s MacInTouch for long to figure out the Mac is no longer really a "plug-and-work" machine. It’s seemingly always something: this system update will not work with that hard disk driver. That hard disk driver will not work with this menu utility. This PPP extension won’t work with that memory enhancement utility. This update to the system update does not contain the new version of Open Transport. And so on.


The chaos that prevails in the Windows world and that enriches so many small consulting businesses – look in your yellow pages and marvel at the number of local computer service storefronts – is encroaching on us from within. Apple’s decision to release future enhancements to the operating system in bits and pieces is, indeed, an ominous sign. How is the average Joe who wants to work (and work hard) with his computer going to keep up with all the changes and updates? Even I, the "local expert," can no longer expect to have my computer work well all the time without undertaking some remedial research. Why, without warning, did inserting a SyQuest cartridge cause 18 copies of its icon to appear on my desktop? I guessed I should update the driver on the cartridge or, alternatively, reboot my system. I was right, but why should I have needed to know that? And why should I have had to go online and try to find drivers or a tech note about what I was seeing?

Let me be perfectly clear. I am a Macintosh fan because the Mac is the best computer we have currently – not the most elitist, but the best workhorse. The day the Windows world can offer me a better, easier alternative at a competitive price is the day I switch platforms. Today that is clearly not the case, at least to me. My fear is that my present level of comfort will continue to deteriorate as the world forces me from excellence into increasingly complex mediocrity, both from without because the majority of the computing world neither knows, expects, nor demands anything better, and from within because Apple may be forcing this man to become a computer expert against his will.

In the end, the world will have the computing technology the world deserves. That is not a comforting thought. You and I deserve better!

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