AppStorm’s Anna Victoria says when she used an iPad for the first time, she couldn’t help thinking that it felt like the future of computing. The iPad not only impressed Ms. Victoria with its interface, but also delighted her with what she describes as an effortless user experience. No matter how much she used the device, she says it never became cluttered or disorganized like her Mac does. Apps launched quickly and she never had to spend time fiddling with window sizes or knowing what apps were running. Everything simply worked.
However, here’s the problem. Ms. Victoria’s observations are correct, but some of us value and even cherish the potential for cluttering our computer desktops. Mine is usually pretty crowded, but there’s order in the chaos that enhances the efficiency of my workflow, and I’m among those who are unwilling to give up flexibility and user control in return for aesthetic neatness.
Ms. Victoria concedes, that increasing iOSification of OS X will impose changes that may eliminate some of the staples of desktop computing that most of us can’t imagine living without.
I certainly can’t. I bought an iPad 2 last June, after holding out more than a year. I’m using it more and more, but while I appreciate the portability and instant-on effortlessness, I consider it to be second-class computing — the functional computing experience the iOS provides to radically inferior to what a real Desktop OS — OS X, Windows, or Linux — offers.
I don’t like touchscreens and gesture interfacing. I miss multitasking, and what’s purported to pass for it in iOS newspeak is a bad joke. I also detest full screen application interfaces, find the incapacity to have multiple document and/or application windows open simultaneously a horribly constipating workflow bottleneck, and loath losing the degree of control one has with document and folder based directory file system interface and all its mess and chaos potential. There’s also Apple’s perverse refusal to equip the iPad with a real USB port, but that’s not an intrinsic tablet shortcoming — some PC tablets have USB and even card reader support.
Some of us are already bridling at the iOS-esque interface changes Apple has incorporated in OS X 10.7 Lion, but Ms. Victoria thinks those are just cautious trial balloons, and that Lion didn’t make bold enough changes to truly revolutionize the Mac experience. She maintains that the iOS is about changing paradigms; in particular about “simplifying the computing experience by taking away choices that the user has to constantly make in order for things to run smoothly.”
Precisely the point, and why Mac veteran power users and content producers like myself are aghast at the prospect. ZNet’s David Morgenstern observed in a column last week that many longtime professional users of the Mac are worried — very worried — by signals coming out of Cupertino, and what appears to be Apple’s wavering commitment to technology that supports its creative professional market. Morgenstern says the “iOSification” of the Mac OS is dumbing things down way too far, and I unreservedly agree. As he observes, not everyone is a consumer market or enterprise customer.
And while doing away with a visible file system, which Ms. Victoria predicts it what’s coming for the Mac OS, may please those latter demographics, it emphatically does not please me, for reasons she acknowledges. With a visible file system, the user can access all of the files and folders contained on a hard drive, move them around, delete them, and so forth, as opposed to the iOS, which eliminated user-access to the file system and made everything app-mediated and oriented. You can’t directly access files, but can only get at them via an app., which removes a massive degree of user-control on the process.
Ms. Victoria thinks this diminution of flexibility is justifiable and even desirable because users typically “make a mess” of their visible files. I maintain that’s a value-judgment. I frequently have as many as 100-200 file icons scattered around my Mac’s desktop, and I like it that way. I really do know where everything is, and can find stuff in an instant when I need it independent of any application.
As I noted above, another traditional OS facility I value is the ability to have multiple windows open on the Desktop simultaneously, often with multiple applications, and thanks to OS X Spaces (Snow Leopard) multiple Desktops that one can switch back and forth among instantaneously. That capability is key to efficient workflow for me, and the nearest analog to it on the iOS — app.-switching — is woefully lame and cumbersome by contrast, and slows things down to a comparative crawl.
Ms. Victoria admits that while Lion already has fullscreen functionality, she I doesn’t find herself, or many people she knows, using it often. I think that observation says something, and I agree with her that In order to make the best use of real estate on the larger screens of Macs, Apple needs to provide an intelligent way to let multiple windows share the screen space at once in any iOS-based future Mac OS. She cites Windows 8′s rethought window management, which rather than letting the user resize and overlap many windows, it instead lets you snap windows side by side, filling up the entire screen, or perhaps a split-screen approach to window management. Either would be better than full-screen only, but I like the flexibility of the current system, which I consider not broken nor in need of fixing.
Ms. Victoria laments the fact that you have to quit apps deliberately in the Mac OS, which she says confounds tech-illiterate consumer users like her parents, whose Macs are typically slowed to a crawl because they don’t know how to properly quit apps. It’s not rocket science, folks. I also dispute the slowed to a crawl bit. I typically have no fewer than a dozen, and more often closer to two-dozen applications open on my Mac, and don’t suffer catastrophic system slowdowns (I do have 4 GB of RAM).
Again, it’s a matter of the advantages of user control and flexibility versus typically sloppy organization and lazy housekeeping on the part of many users.
The iOS, substitutes automatic process management, under which users never have to quit an app or decide which apps need to be running, all of which is handled in the background by the iOSs so-called “multitasking” system, which suspends running apps to free up memory, automatically resuming them when the user needs them (albeit with an inevitable time lag). I’ll concede that this generally keeps the device from running sluggishly, which is inarguably necessary on a device with the modest processor power and RAM capacity of an iPad, but amounts to gratuitous dumbing-down on a Mac with Core i power and adequate RAM.
Ms. Victoria observes that some aspects of OS X, like the visible file system, overlapping windows, and menu bar have been around since the Apple Lisa in 1983 — nearly 30 years. And that is a problem because???? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Those attributes are a big part of what I like about the Mac OS, and I’m not prepared to let go of them gladly.
Another problem with a brave new iOSified OS X world will be backward compatibility for software. The sort of future “OS X” that Ms. Victoria envisions, with no visible file system, no multiple overlapping windows, and no menu bar would mean, ipso facto, no support for any legacy Mac OS software, which would presumably mean that software applications and upgrades would only be available for OS X via the Apple App Store as is currently the case with software for iOS devices, and the day might come when users would need to jailbreak their Macs in order to recover some of the freedoms that would be lost in the transition.
She acknowledges this, conceding that getting Mac apps to live side by side with iOS apps with no visible file system, no menu bar, drastically different window management, etc. would be no easy task, and suggesting the Apple would need to announce the changes far in advance and give developers a transition period to get their Mac apps ready for the “new frontier,” which would also include Mac desktops and laptops with tiltable touchscreen user interfaces that would allow the user to switch between touch and cursor-based interaction.
In a blog entitled, “The iOS-ification Of Apple’s Ecosystem,” MacStories’ Federico Viticci notes that already in Lion the Home user’s Library directory is not visible by default, eliminating an important piece of filesystem from the default configuration of OS X, and that Mac developers will soon be forced to implement sandboxing, which limits the access third-party apps have to the filesystem. Vittici forecasts that “very soon, almost every aspect of ‘ operations will be iOS-inspired or iOS-unified: from hardware design to user interfaces and app distribution, from developer guidelines to marketing and the way people ‘see’ Apple these days.”
Ms. Victoria concludes that while veteran Mac users may fear the drastic paradigm shifts she predicts are coming to the platform that has served us so admirably and reliably for so many years, she contends that the transition is necessary in order for Apples technology to remain modern, and will result in a radically different Mac experience.
Sorry, but having been a consummate Mac OS fan and user for two decades, that will be where I get off, because the OS X (or whatever) of the future she imagines will no longer be the Mac OS I know and love. Microsoft, at least through Windows 8, will continue to accommodate users who need and prefer a traditional desktop interface and visible file system. It will be ironic if it turns put to be Apple that finally drives me into embracing Windows after all these years. And of course there is also Linux, and I would anticipate that the trend into dumbed-down user interfaces for OS X and perhaoperhapsually Windows as well will put some wind beneath the wings of desktop Linux.
In the end, I may not have any choice in the matter. PCMag’s John C. Dvorak, never one to be reticent about setting the proverbial cat among the pigeons, riffed this week on rumors circulating that Apple might kill the Macintosh, and he outlines why and how Apple might do it He notes that considering the magnitude of iPhone and iPad profits, Apple probably could kill the Mac, and the iPod as well, and become a two-product company. He figures that the Mac Pro at minimum is headed for oblivion. Dvorak thinks such a strategy sounds like idiocy to him, but the operative question is does it to Apple? He notes that it appears the Mac Pro workstation is on its way out, although he thinks that for now Apple will keep the more profitable laptops and iMac units flowing from China. The only people who will complain, he suggests, will be high-end Photoshop users who can’t live with an iMac, but they’re a niche market, likely expendible in Apple’s game plan going forward. Dvorak says he doesn’t like the idea of Apple following such a path, and hopes his apprehensions are mistaken.
And no less than the formidable Jean-Louis Gassée, an executive at Apple Computer from 1981 to 1990, and subsequently founder of Be Inc., whose BeOS was once a contender for becoming the basis of OS X, also ponders whether there a future for the Macintosh, noting that with Apple’s smartphones and tablets making so much money and taking up so much media bandwidth, one has to wonder how the Mac will hold up. Mr. Gassée, in this week’s Monday Note column for The Guardian, says that Apple is now the iOS company, and while the Mac first donated its software DNA to iOS, in the latest OS X Lion we witness the iPadification of the elder. He further contends, echoing Ms. Victoria somewhat, that if the iPad and its successor devices free people to focus on what they do best, it will dramatically change people’s perceptions of computing from something to fear to something to engage enthusiastically with. Based on that rationalization, he says he finds it hard to believe that the loss of background processing isn’t a price worth paying to have a computer that isn’t frightening anymore.
Not being frightened by computers and computing, I dispute that a substantial dumbing-down of OS X at the cost of the massive diminishment of efficiency that the iOS way of doing things imposes is a tolerable trade-off, but I apprehend that I’m likely not on the winning side in this battle. The end of an era? Say it isn’t so.