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How Mac OS X and Windows XP are like the tailfins of a ’57 Caddy

By Eliot Hochberg (eliot@high-mountain.com), July 4, 2002

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John Dvorak has said a lot of inflammatory, and sometimes downright stupid, things over the years. But in the case of his recent PC Magazine column “E-Mac I-Mac No Mac”, I think he’s dead on.

In the article, John discusses the state of Apple’s Macintosh, and how it is, essentially, the same computer that came out in 1984. In addition, he notes that Microsoft and the PC manufacturers copy Apple, so if Apple is stagnating, these other companies must be even worse off. I agree, and believe that if Apple needs to learn this lesson, then so should the PC market in general.

The fact is that although Apple has created many memorable products and technologies over the years, there hasn’t been a fundamental shift in the way computers work over the course of almost two decades. From the perspective of history, the original Mac and the newest iMac are essentially the same.

The worst part is, when it comes down to it, all computers really suck. I don’t care if it’s Deep Blue or your alarm clock, computers today are anything but accessible. Take the computer that controls a VCR. Finally, someone figured out a way to get most VCRs to figure out what time it is from TV signals. But really, should it be that difficult for the average person to set the time? I say no, and yet apparently we need to have the machine do it for us because no one can come up with an easy-to-use VCR clock-programming GUI. It’s almost a cop-out.

So don’t even get me started on PC OSes. These horrible misanthropes are a cornucopia of unintelligible crap. Take Mac OS X for example. Sure, it’s pretty, and when the system is working well, even a novice can manage to get things done. But there are still so many layers of jargon and obscure technical references that when things break (and don’t be fooled, as long as you need to use OS 9, they do break, and often), it’s still difficult for an experienced user to solve the problem. I shudder to think what a poor sap who just wants to write a report would do if they encountered a glitch.

I’ll give you an example. I have MS Office X – a fine program, and it has been very stable in OS X. However, the other day, for no apparent reason, whenever I would try to launch any of the apps (except for Entourage and Internet Explorer) they would immediately crash. I tried for about 30 minutes to figure out an answer, then I dutifully went to the Mactopia site. Fortunately, under the FAQs in support, there was an answer to this problem. It turns out that a font I had installed days before was the culprit. However, there was no indication from the program (which probably could determine that the error was font-related) or the OS (which apparently didn’t analyze the font I had installed) that fonts were to blame. Fonts are a fundamental part of an OS’ management tasks. And yet, there was no help. I wasted a half hour of my life trying to figure it out. I wonder what a less experienced user would do in the same situation.

It seems to me that in an effort to stay afloat, all of these companies, including Apple, have lost sight of the fact that PCs are inherently difficult to use. I can hear the response: “Anything worth doing is difficult. Just buckle down and learn it.” Well, that may be okay for those of us who already are interested in computers. But what about people who aren’t fascinated by computers themselves, but just want a tool to get things done? As long as computers are as difficult out-of-the-box as they are now, there will never be, as Apple and Microsoft hope, a PC in every living room. Not only are things difficult when PCs stop working, but they are often difficult when the system is supposedly working correctly, too. Obscure interfaces, inconsistencies both within and among programs – these issues all contribute to an overall disgust with computers by people in general.

I’ll make an analogy to the auto industry. When the automobile first came out, you needed to bring a mechanic along with you in order to make sure the thing ran long enough to get you back from wherever you were going. It took about twenty years before cars were reliable enough for anyone to drive. Fixing them wasn’t such a big deal, but still had to be done often. Forty years after that, after many improvements, the industry stagnated, with the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) controlling the American market. The looks and sheer horsepower of a car became more important than reliability or driveability. It took foreign competition and about forty more years to get the U.S. auto industry to the point where we are now, where most cars have significantly higher reliability, performance, style and efficiency than in the ’50s. There is still a long way to go to get to the ideal of a car that runs on water and never breaks down, but we’re not in a bad place with autos today.

For all of Moore’s Law, and the speed of technological change, the personal computer industry is in much the same boat as cars were in the ’50s. As Mr. Dvorak says, just as with cars then, we are now at a point in the history of computers where horsepower and looks are more important than ease of use and reliability. It took half as long (around thirty years instead of sixty years), but the issues are the same. All PCs are dogs right now, and something has to be done. The question is, where will the OS and platform come from that will take us out of our bloated “Happy Days” and move us into at least the next “Me Decade,” where computers will start really getting more reliable? I hate to say it, but I think we’re about twenty years away from finding out.

If I had to put my money on where this innovation would come from, who would I bet on? Apple? Probably not (after all, they did essentially steal many of the core ideas for the Mac interface from Xerox). No, I would look to the folks like the ones who designed the interface for TiVo. Man, is that beautiful! Granted, it’s a purpose-built OS, but it does run on a Linux core, and boy does it work. Most novice users seem to pick it up right away, even the set-up. My only complaints are that it is sometimes slow, the set-up takes a long time, and it does crash occasionally. But overall, it is very easy to figure out and is very reliable, more so than either my Mac or my PC.

Of course, maybe I have high standards. But, as in the automotive industry, where internal combustion is the king of the day, for computers, an OS is what it’s all about. If companies like Apple and Microsoft are truly serious about expanding their customers to include everyone in the world, they had better get with the program and create truly reliable, consistent, easy-to-use OSes for the masses. The tailfins are nice, guys, but we have real work that we’d like to do. Let’s talk in twenty years; I guarantee that if current computer OS manufacturers deal with these issues, they’ll be making more money than ever. If not, they may go the way of tailfins.

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