The Personal Computing Paradigm
The More Things Change...
As we close out the 90s, I can’t help thinking how different the Mac world is from what it once was—and yet how similar in other respects. Five or ten years ago, one might have predicted grand changes for Mac users before the end of 1999. Sure enough, the rise of the Internet counts as such a change. Hardware and software changes, on the other hand, were evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
Processor speeds continued to increase while drive prices plummeted. I’m writing this article on a super computer. It has more RAM than the hard disk size of my first Mac and checks a thousand times as many RC5 keys per second. Instead of spending an afternoon backing up to floppy disks, each night the G4 backs itself up on tape. Another tape of the same capacity holds ShrinkWrap images of the installer disks for all the Mac software I own. It is simply amazing how much storage is now commonplace—and how quickly we find ways to exhaust it.
But other aspects of my Mac setup have barely changed. Thanks to Griffin Technology’s iMate, I still use an Apple Extended Keyboard II and ADB Mouse from the early 90s—the best duo of input devices Apple has made, in my opinion. For no reason other than it was handy at the time, the ADB cable that connects the input devices to the iMate dates back to 1986. The microphone sitting atop my monitor is the original PlainTalk one, since Apple no longer includes mics with tower Macs. Thus, my hardware setup is a mixture of the modern and the ancient (in computer years).
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Like the advances in hardware, today’s software has many more features than earlier software, and is correspondingly more complex. On many Macs, old programs like Emailer and MORE mix in with newer software. But the way we work with software, old or new, has not fundamentally changed for the better. Like Apple, I had high hopes for OpenDoc and the promises of document-centered computing. Looking out at a software landscape containing Office 4.2, I bought into the OpenDoc hype because I wanted to believe. I couldn’t imagine a future dominated by bloatware. Sadly, as I wrote in Whither Competition, we’re further from this goal than on the day OpenDoc was released. Software continues to become more complex and less flexible because major applications are becoming platforms of their own.
About the only category in which software has become simpler is disk utilities. My current repertoire of Disk First Aid, DiskWarrior, and PlusOptimizer replaces the Norton Utilities suite that I’d used for nearly a decade. This trio is easy-to-use and efficient, and my Mac is faster and more stable than ever.
We still need better software interoperability, but lacking that, I find myself choosing monolithic environments based on their feature sets. Adobe FrameMaker is a mediocre environment for writing, but it excels at formatting and managing long documents. As much as I prefer writing in MORE and Nisus Writer, writing and formatting in FrameMaker is the path of least resistance when I know that I will need long-document tools or an integrated equation editor. But I still believe that there should be a better way. There is no technical reason why I can’t bring my favorite specialized tools to bear on a large project. But doing so should be far easier, and should be the norm, not the exception. UserLand software’s Manila is a great way for many people scattered across the globe to collaborate on essentially plain text projects. Mac OS 9’s AppleScript over IP lets software on my Mac talk to software on any other Internet-connected Mac. Yet, most programs that reside on my own computer can’t work together on rich data.
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Earlier in the decade, some predicted that Mac users would soon have fully document-centered computing, pre-emptive multi-tasking, protected memory, and multi-processor machines. A state-of-the-art Mac today has none of these. Instead, we have the Internet, which no one had really predicted, and bigger and faster computers on which to run the same kinds of software.
The more I think about it, the less things seem to have changed. Apple’s promised next generation operating system is still just around the corner. Adobe and Microsoft are still too powerful for most people’s tastes, and the best Apple menus and open/save dialog boxes are still shareware.
When the Mac was born, the hot language for non-professional programmers was BASIC on the Apple II (implemented by Microsoft). Now the environment everyone is talking about is a graphical version of said language, called REALbasic. It’s not written by Microsoft, but it’s derived from Visual Basic. When the Mac was first released, people who understood its spirit realized that BASIC was not a Mac kind of thing. Bill Atkinson wrote HyperCard, and ordinary people began using it to program without “programming.” Apple still doesn’t know what it had with HyperCard; but as before, its fans are doing what they can in spite of that fact. These days, Dan Gelder is working on Serf, a modern environment in the HyperCard spirit that, like HyperCard, turns programming into English and makes interface design interactive.
Early on, Apple had no Internet strategy. But seemingly by accident, Mac TCP gave Mac users a head start with Internet computing. Then the company claimed to know what it was doing with eWorld and Cyberdog (which was originally just a demonstration of OpenDoc), and floundered. Now, when Apple has its least clearly articulated Internet strategy, it seems to be doing the best. It has integrated Internet ideas into the operating system where they make sense: Sherlock, URL clippings, Software Update, the Network Browser, QuickTime Streaming, and HelpViewer. But it has wisely shied away from “view as Web Page” windows, and a full-fledged Web browser.
Apple is still here and still on the verge of going out of business—just like it has been for more than twenty years. Mac displays still have rounded corners (except PowerBooks), mice still have one button, and the Chooser is still the place to pick a printer. Handles are back, system fans are gone again, and keyboards are once again missing important keys. In a few months, Apple will be back to bundling a home-grown mail client with its operating system.
Perhaps in a year we’ll again be using hard drives connected by serial interfaces instead of parallel ones—although this time the interface will be FireWire instead of Mac serial. Video input is back in the “third party opportunity” domain—Apple no longer sells “AV” cards with Macs. Apple is once again out of the hand-held computer business. Macs are still more expensive than PCs, but they still offer more for the money. Apple is back to using Motorola’s chips in its fastest machines. It is still a hardware company at heart, but software is still the chief reason people buy its boxes.
After years of product names filled with confusing numbers ( Performa 6115CD, anyone?), we’re back to confusing product names without letters—three models and seven flavors of iMacs; various advertised G4 configurations, many of which never shipped; and PowerBook models identified by keyboard color. And for the first time since the Apple II days, Apple is shipping a product called AppleWorks.
How long can this last? I have no idea. But if Apple continues to deliver solid improvements to its software and hardware lines, I won’t complain that it hasn’t brought us a revolution.
Also in This Series
- How Cool Is Your Mac? · May 2012
- Mac OS X’s Increasing Stability · August 2006
- Coping With Mac OS X’s Font Rendering · January 2006
- E-Mail Archiving with Eudora and Mail.app · January 2003
- Grab Bag · October 2002
- Mac OS X 10.2—First Impressions · September 2002
- Mac OS X 10.1—First Impressions · October 2001
- Mac OS X Tips · June 2001
- Mac OS X—Finally · May 2001
- Complete Archive
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