2016-06-18

The bitter taste of Apple

I'm old enough to remember entirely command-prompt computing on DOS and UNIX systems. Then along came the XEROX/PARC work on GUIs. I remember seeing "GEM" running on an old BBC and could instantly see the enormous potential.

When our lab got its first Macintosh 128K, I was blown away. As things worked out, I next got a new job in an entirely UNIX workstation environment. Powerful machines (at the time) but the SUN GUI was primitive compared with what the Mac had to offer & we had shelves of manuals 5m long whereas the Mac offered an intuitive interface that required no manuals.

We then moved to PCs running Windows 95 (or "Mac 89" as people joked).

Thereafter, PCs (usually at least) got better and better and easier to use with each new O/S and I always naively assumed the same was happening at Apple. Certainly the Apple hardware got better and better.

Then last Christmas my wife needed a new phone and laptop and decided to go for a 4s and a MacBook Air. I assumed – as a computer programmer with nearly 30 years’ experience and fond memories of how easy to use Apple Macs used to be – I’d find it child’s play to help her. How wrong I was. I quickly discovered that Apple had apparently spent the past 27 years making their interfaces as counter-intuitive as possible and hiding as much basic functionality away from the user as possible.

Whereas, in the old days, a UNIX or DOS user required all sorts of arcane knowledge to perform basic computing functions, it is now the Mac user who has to learn all the secret tricks.

It begins when you full-size your first window and the resize, minimize, and close buttons disappear from the screen (one of many situations where the user is led into a cul-de-sac from which there is no obvious escape or way back). You try to scroll, and again you need to know a secret trick. You try in vain to accept predictive text suggestion on the phone until, once again, you are let in on the secret – using the space key (why didn’t I think of that?). Right clicking, deleting forwards – things which are entirely obvious on the PC – require esoteric actions on the Mac which have to be discovered and learned.

I could go on and on …. but let me jump to the very worst aspect of the Mac …..

The DOS and UNIX operating systems were built on the idea of a file tree. A highly intuitive metaphor for what actually goes on on a computer disc – which isn’t really organized at all like a tree. Because the idea of a file/folder tree is so intuitive, it was (conceptually at least) easy to navigate files and folders - even in the days when all we had was a command prompt.

Then we got GUIs with icons for different computers and their drives and for the flies and folders on those drives and with drag and drop so you could see exactly where your stuff was and where you were putting it or moving it to.

Why oh why oh why did Apple abandon a paradigm so intuitive and easy to use in favour of vague notions like “libraries” and “synching” and “sharing” and “streaming” and try to “flatten” trees into lists, and different locations into textual descriptions of actions? Most of the time, the user has not the foggiest idea of where his/her stuff is, or where it is going, or which copy of his/her stuff is having a particular action performed on it.

Trying to set up and use iCloud or iTunes is a nightmare. I need to know exactly what file (versions) are in which place and what’s going to happen on my various devices or on the central repository when I click “OK” in a dialogue box. It is impossible to find out except by trial and error, and an error might result in the loss of all my data.

The worst application, by a million miles, on the Apple desktop is “Finder”. OK this works as a search tool – something that has never worked well on the PC (though many 3rd party tools did and do) – but is utterly utterly hopeless for browsing and reorganizing your files. How on earth did Apple's GUI designers take something as intuitive as a UNIX file-tree and come up with something as opaque as Finder? It defies belief.

Please can Apple go back to the days when they tried to make life as easy as possible for the end-user rather than as difficult as possible?

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't really disagree more, I'm afraid.

    I regularly switch between Mac OS X, Linux & Windows. Compared to genuinely different OSes -- RISC OS, Plan 9, Bluebottle -- they're almost identical. There's no such thing as "intuitive" computing (yet) -- it's just what you're most familiar with.

    IMHO the problem is that Windows has been so dominant for 25Y+ that its ways are the only ones for which most people have "muscle memory".

    There is nothing intuitive about hierarchical filing systems. It's not how real life works. People don't have folders full of folders full of folders. They have 1 level, maybe 2. E.g. a drawer or set of drawers containing folders with documents in. No more levels that that.

    The deep hierarchies of 1970s to 1990s computers were a techie thing. They're conceptually abstract for normal folk. Tablets and Android phones show that: people have 1 level of folders and that's enough. The success of MS Office 2007 et seq (which I cordially loathe) shows that hunting through 1 level of tabs on a ribbon is easier for non-techies than layers of menus. Me, I like the menus.

    You get used to Windows-isms and if they're taken away or altered, suddenly, it's all weird. But it's not harder, it's just different. The Mac way, even today, is somewhat simpler, and once you learn the new grammar, it's less hassle. Windows has the edge in some things, but surprisingly few, and with the accumulation of cruft like ribbons everywhere, it's losing that, too.

    You say Apple's spent 27y hiding stuff. No. That's obviously silly. OS X is only 16y old, for a start. But it's spent 27y doing things differently and you didn't keep up, so when you switched, aaaargh, it's all weird!

    OS X *is Unix!* Trademarked, POSIX certified, the lot. You know Unix? Pop open a terminal, all the usual stuff is there. But it's too much for non-techies, so it's simplified for them. Result, a trillion-dollar company and what PC types call "Mac fanbois". There's a _reason_ – because it really is easier for them. No window management: full-screen apps. No need to remember the meaning of multiple
    mouse buttons. They're there if you need them, but you can do it with gestures instead.

    I learned Macs in 1988 and have used them alongside Windows and Linux for as long as all 3 existed. I use a 29Y old Apple keyboard and a 5-button Dell mouse on my Mac. I use it in a legacy way, with deep folder trees, a few symlinks to find things, and no Apple apps at all. When I borrowed the Mac of a student, set up with everything full-screen on multiple desktops switched between with gestures, all synched with his iPad and iPhone, I was totally lost. He uses it in a totally different way to the way I use mine -- with the same FOSS apps as on my Linux laptops and my dusty unused Windows partitions.

    But that flexibility is _good_. And the fact that they have sold hundreds of millions of iOS devices and Macs indicates that it really is good for people, and they love it. It's not slavish fashion-following: to account for a company surviving and thriving for 40 years based on that is arrant foolishness.

    Perhaps you're a car driver. Most of them think that car controls are intuitive. They aren't. They're entirely arbitrary. I mostly switched from motorcycles to cars in 2005 at nearly 40 years old. Motorbike controls -- a hand throttle, because it needs great precision, but a foot gearchange because that doesn't -- still feel far more natural to me, a decade later.

    But billions drive cars and find car controls natural and easy.

    It's just what you're used to.

    It's not Apple's fault, I'm afraid. It's yours. Sorry.

    I urge you to exercise your brain and learn new muscle memories. It's worth it. The additional flexibility feels great.

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