Mac OS X is a testament to the power of idiocy, the permanency of idiocy, and idiocy’s status as the ultimate durable commodity, If my experience with Mac OS X 10.0, 10.1, Jaguar and now Panther has served to underscore anything, it’s that a million years from now there will be only three things left on Earth: cockroaches, Starbucks franchises, and idiocy. Lacking human hosts, the idiocy will exist as free-roaming clouds of purplish dust that twist along the ground and occasionally convince the roaches that £2.70 is a perfectly reasonable price for a medium-sized cup of coffee.
I’ve been a Mac user since 1985. Somewhere in The Ihnatko Archives I have single-sided, single-density 3.5-inch MFS-formatted disks containing documents created with MacWrite one-point-something, bearing labels designed on MacPaint, and printed on an ImageWriter. Go ahead: ask me why your Mac Plus can’t see the megabyte of RAM you just installed. I’ll tell you to open 'er up again and clip a resistor on the motherboard.
Suffice to say that I am a man with a certain amount of smug expertise where Macs are concerned. And then Mac OS X 10.0 was released, and it turned out that I’d wasted the previous 13 years of my life.
Practically nothing I’d learned about the Mac counted any more. Find a guy who’d spent every day of his life scorning, mocking, belittling, dillying and otherwise making it clear that a Macintosh might as well have a hand-crank on the side of it and that he was going to continue using a real computer, thank you very much. I, who had been using Macs since I was a kid; I, who published his first piece of Mac software in 1988; I, who while never actually getting a Mac tattoo once fell asleep on top of my Newton MessagePad and left an Apple-shaped welt on my cheek that lasted well into breakfast; I, who has flown the flag, drunk the Kool-Aid, who bleeds in all the colours of the original Apple logo and in their correct order from top to bottom; I now knew as little about the Mac operating system as that boorish, ill-mannered, stinky, people-only-pretend-to-love-him-just-so-they-can-exploit-him, lout.
I think he was also the dude who first came up with the idea of running commercials ahead of the feature attraction in cinemas. I mean, that really stings, doesn’t it?
Apple revolutionized the OS by throwing the whole thing out and building a new one from the ground up. But they minted a new generation of idiots, myself included. And it didn’t end there. 10.1 added new networking features that I hadn’t a clue how to use. 10.2 added new apps that I’d never used before, and with Panther, we were all confronted with a completely revamped Finder interface that, like a college roommate you despise the moment you meet, you just have to learn how to live with.
All this is especially troubling because at the moment, I’ve got iCal flipped to November of 2004. It doesn’t look good. (I swear to God that I wrote that sentence without being consciously aware that I and my countrymen will be electing a President the first week of the month.)
I was actually thinking about all the commitments I’ve made that utterly rely on my still being a Macintosh expert in early winter. I’m speaking during a Mac-themed cruise around the Caribbean, I’m travelling to New Jersey to talk to a user group, and I’ve got a whole book about Panther that’ll be in its fourth or fifth month of its published life by then.
I’m worried. It’s entirely possible that Mac OS X 10.4 will have been released just a week earlier and that I’ll have only a few days to master a revolutionary new OS that does away with the keyboard and the mouse in favour of a totally new interface built around a Bluetooth device that responds to varying flavours of Good Vibes emanating from the aura of the user.
I always dive into new releases with great gusto, but on the whole, I think it’s vitally important that I buy a ukulele and spend the next several months learning how to play a batch of George Formby tunes. I’ve got to be prepared to be an authority on something when that boat leaves the dock, and the great thing about people who’ve been dead for 40 years is that they can’t stab you in the back by coming up with new and contradictory ideas.
It’s a big mess, but hey, that’s just the price of innovation. Just today, I spent two hours in a hotel suite being given a secret briefing on everything that a major PDA maker would be shipping for the entire rest of the year. It was all good stuff, but this OS has been out for ten years now and it hasn’t really changed one jot. PDA screens are now in colour and have much higher resolution than they did in 1994. So the OS looks a lot nicer. The text and the menus are much easier to read. These new PDAs can play MP3s, they can connect wirelessly to the Internet, they can take pictures. But did the company ever wonder what would happen if they started off with a blank slate and built a brand-new palmtop OS? Did they ever stop and objectively evaluate what they had, thinking very hard about what bits about the old GUI still made sense, which bits were still there out of simple intertia, and if there were any brand-new opportunities to make this OS simpler, faster, more flexible, and more functional?
So when you sign up to become a Mac user you’re also signing up to be fitted for a brand-new Dunce cap every couple of years. But that’s OK. New versions of Mac OS X are disorienting and occasionally even frustrating… but the alternative would be to remain the world’s leading expert on an operating system that’s perfectly attuned to the technologies and infrastructure available in 1987.