Mac OS is the Jesus, Allah, Nirvana, and Buddha of Operating Systems

A man is flying a small airplane and is lost in the clouds. He descends until he spots an office building and yells to a man in an open window, “Where am I?” The man replies, “You are in an airplane about 100 feet above the ground.” The pilot immediately turns to the proper course, spots the airport and lands. His astonished passenger asks how the pilot figured out which way to go. The pilot replies, “The answer the man gave me was completely correct and factual, yet it was no help whatsoever, so I knew immediately he was a software engineer who worked for Microsoft and I know where Microsoft’s building is in relation to the airport.” – A widely told joke in the computer industry.

Things Macintosh

Several years ago, in the late 1980s, I took a few college courses in computer programming: Assembly Language, Pascal, Fortran, and, of course, BASIC.

I’m no geek by any means, but I do remember feeling a clear measure of excitement from compiling and then running that first piece of “software” crafted by my hands, by my mind.

I remember eventually writing more complex code – complex by my standards, anyway. I remember learning about loops, conditionals, procedures, recursion, arrays, stacks, heaps, ad nauseum.

I’d forgotten about that brief stint at living the geek’s life until recently. Because, you see, not too long after making those exploratory forays into the wild and woolly world of programming, I fell in love with the Macintosh.

Thus began my journey away from command-line interfaces, as well as my lifelong journey towards disdain for counterintuitiveness in computer hardware and software – not that one journey was taken in tandem with the other.

Both journeys came full circle a few months ago, when I wrote a column for a local newspaper, “Why are computers still hard to use?” [no longer online], in which I bashed both the Windows PC and the Mac for not advancing human-machine interaction much in the last 15-or-so years.

Many people wrote me in response, thanking me for saying what they’ve felt all along: It’s not that users are idiots, but rather that programmers are too pretentious in their programming to make their applications truly easy to use.

Keep in mind that these people weren’t the lower-IQ-equipped people. These were intelligent and savvy individuals ranging from PhDs to homemakers. I also received email saying that computers aren’t hard to use; users are just idiots. I knew I’d touched a nerve when a local TV reporter called, asking me to appear on her morning news show to discuss the topic.

I declined, but I didn’t stop mulling over this thought. I wanted to write about this topic but didn’t feel anyone would listen to me, since I wasn’t “qualified” – after all, I am not a professional programmer. How can I know whereof I speak?

I finally found the courage to write this column, in the form of Alan Cooper.

Death to the GUI! Long live the GUI!

A wise man once said that the definition of a classic work of art (be it a song, a poem, or a novel) is that it puts into words something that you have been struggling to articulate yourself.

For the longest time, I’ve been wanting to comment on the fact that computers are still hard to use, regardless of what we Mac advocates say. On the “eve” of Mac OS X’s launch, I think this needs to be said: The Mac isn’t easy to use in the truest sense, and OS X isn’t taking us that much closer to this form of human-computer-interface beatitude. Cognitive friction makes a person feel either “frustrated and stupid for failing [to understand the software] or giddy with power at overcoming the extreme difficulty. These powerful emotions force people into being either an ‘apologist’ or a ‘survivor.’ They either adopt cognitive friction as a lifestyle, or they go underground and accept it as a necessary evil.” I suggest you read Alan Cooper’s book; I resist turning this into a book review.

A good example is this: How much training does it take to use a Mac?

Before you hasten to reply, answer me this: Have you ever spent time teaching a person how to use the Mac? I mean a computer neophyte, a computing virgin. At that point, you will discover that the Mac’s file hierarchy isn’t as intuitive as we think.

In college, I took a class in technical writing. Our first assignment on the first day of class was to take three sheets of paper. We were to take the first sheet of paper and make an airplane out of it. We were then to take the second sheet of paper and write instructions for how we made that airplane. We were then to pass the second sheet to our neighbor, who was to use the instructions and their third sheet to make an airplane, per the instructions written for them, so that their plane came out like the plan made out of the first sheet of paper.

Not one person in that class could duplicate the plane.

Now change the class content. You are a teacher instructing newbies in things Macintosh.

This is my contention with the Mac (yes, even OS X) and the PC.

How many of us have complained about an application because of what it doesn’t do? I don’t mean its lack of some wish list feature, but some functionality that is necessary for workaday tasks? For example, Microsoft Word. That damned thing has more features than a megamall movie theater, but how many of them do you really need?

I’m sure that some of you have already formed your attack against my argument by this point.

Every Programmer Should Read This Book

Enter Alan Cooper, author of The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. Cooper is considered the “father” of this little programming environment that you may have never heard of: VisualBasic.

Methinks that gives him credibility, no?

Anyway, he divides computer users into two camps: survivors and apologists. You are classified into the respective camp based on how you handle your frustration with the average software, which is written generally by programmers for programmers more than it is written for us mere mortals. Mr. Cooper calls this frustration with today’s software “cognitive friction.”

Cognitive friction makes an people feel either “frustrated and stupid for failing [to understand the software] or giddy with power at overcoming the extreme difficulty. These powerful emotions force people into being either an ‘apologist’ or a ‘survivor.’ They either adopt cognitive friction as a lifestyle, or they go underground and accept it as a necessary evil. I suggest you read his book; I resist turning this into a book review.

I like these two comments he makes about apologists:

  • Apologists remind me of the victims of the “Stockholm Syndrome.” These are hostages who fall in love with their captors.
  • “Power user” is a code name for an apologist.

“What does this have to do with Macs?” you are probably asking at this point. It should be obvious.

Macs are hard to use. The personal computer has a way to go. Heck, Steve Jobs has said this himself, on occasion. I don’t know what he meant, but I believe that more evolution is needed in the Graphical User Interface (GUI). Maybe we even need to go beyond the GUI. Who’s to say that this is the end-all and be-all?

Nor is it fad-like solutions, like voice-recognition and .Net, regardless of what Bill Gates says.

But I’m not here to prescribe the cure. I just want to describe the malady. It is software that isn’t as intuitive as we think. We keep worshipping at the altar of GUI. We preach ease of use, yet we put up with software that has puts us through more contortions than a marathon game of Twister.

One day, I hope we will have an easier-to-use computer – that is, a computer with an interface that makes even the Mac OS look like Windows 1.0 or Windows 95 :-)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.


Works Cited and Consulted

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