I sometimes wonder what computers are supposed to be for; I’m not sure if I’m using them correctly. If they’re labour-saving devices designed to take the thinking out of working, then it’s just not happening for me. Neither do they appear to be time-saving devices: I spend more time staring at a screen than sleeping, so I’m pretty sure I haven’t saved any time. I suppose they’re simply tools, though I’m hard-pushed to think of a tool which is so demanding that I must spend hours attending to its upgrade needs. If I was using a typewriter, it might be a lot easier.
When I was a kid, I thought the future would be full of talking computers that would do my homework for me. Because computers weren’t real – home computers seemed pretty far-fetched, at least – you may as well imagine they could do anything. Even the computers that did exist didn’t really have operating systems to speak of: you had to program them to do anything but blink a green light at you.
When people began to buy home computers like the Commodore PET, the ZX81 and the Acorn, they had to program them pretty much from scratch.
As I grew up, I saw 14-year-old kids writing games for the ZX81 and buying sports cars that they wouldn’t be able to drive for years. That was more like it – computers as a get rich quick scheme. Unfortunately, my programming career was limited to typing out code from Your ZX81 Magazine that would let me bounce a square ball around a screen while making muffled blips. The wobbly power supply and impossibly unreliable audio-tape backup put pay to my plan of taking the programming world by storm as a child genius.
My next experience of computers was the venerable Chyron IV. For those of you (possibly all of you) that don’t remember the Chyron IV, it was a television-character generator. Chyron predates even the first Apple computer. All it did was display letters on a TV screen, titles, credits, football scores and not much else. It had no hard drive, but enormous floppy drives back when floppy disks were actually floppy. This was a replacement for the previous practice of using Letraset rubdown lettering to do television titles. Surely this was a labour saving device; surely this is what computers were for.
Nope – at least not for me. Being 16 years old, I was at the bottom of the food chain at the TV company: the jobs I worked at were the ones nobody else wanted to do. The luxury of being able to type characters onto the screen rather than rub them down on paper was a luxury only to the person typing. To get those letters in the computer took some considerable effort.
Being a pre-PostScript era, all fonts were bitmapped, and these were captured in each size (from the Letraset catalogue) by pointing a monochrome camera at each letter. The resulting fuzzy images then required a lot of touching up to get them looking usable. This was before almost anything computery that we now take for granted was invented – so it was done sans-mouse. Just using the arrow keys and the Shift key, I imported dozens of fonts in every possible size. So my first job using computers was hardly enhanced by computer technology; it was more like I was indentured to them.
My next encounter with a computer was a Mac Plus, in a strip-a-gram company in Wisconsin. It’s a long story, but the short version is I learned a lot about Macs there; enough to make a living out of them. My next job was running the tech-support department (which was just me) at MacWarehouse back in the UK. Finally, I could make a living from these bleeping machines.
The worse they worked, the more work I got. At the time, Macs worked so badly that I decided to go freelance and fix people’s Macs full time – but that still didn’t help me figure out what computers are for. It seemed at times that they were there to frustrate and confound the poor hapless users.
It was an easy transition to this job. Writing about Macs is another computer job that exists because computers are useless at telling people what they’re for. My career so far has been very much a result of me being the person that reads the manual. So long as other people don’t catch on and copy my methods, I’ve got a job for life.
My entire career can be characterized by the fact that I’m a computer groupie. I like computers, and I’ve become an expert at using them. I’m not an expert artist or musician that has learnt to use a Mac as a tool. I’m just a hanger on, making sure the real pros can be creative without having to know what makes things tick.
I suspect there are three types of Macworld reader: there are creative people who use the Mac because it’s the tool of their trade, the home users that use Macs because well, they’re just great computers, and the rest are the techie people like me, for whom the Mac is their trade.
I hope Macworld caters for all types of reader, either helping the non-techies get more out of their machines, or helping the techies help the non-techies. Our aim is to serve all our readers, whether you’re building a supercomputer, designing an advert, making a movie or just playing Halo.
At Macworld we have an amazing team of people, both techie and creative. We’re probably a lot like you, but it’s hard for us to know.
I’d like to ask a favour. I’d like to know what you do, what you know, and what you want to know. I want to know why you buy Macworld, or why sometimes you don’t. I want to know what you like, and what you don’t, and I want to hear your ideas.
Now this might be a bit reckless, we’ll see. I want you to tell me what you think so much that I’m going to give you my direct line, not a fake answering service – the real thing. I’m not always going to be here, and I’m not always going to have time to speak, so email might be better. But I want you to have my number so you can tell me how to do my job better. Be gentle.