The launch of Apple’s Mac App Store is a great opportunity to revisit an issue previously brought to light by the launch of the iPad: The simplification of general-purpose computing. It’s true that computers have been used for a few decades now, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find many users who have not been, at some point or another, thoroughly frustrated by the things. Computers have never quite managed to shed their academic pedigree.

While computers have become mainstream, their usage has remained largely enjoyment-free. Many still see them exclusively as tools for work, a love-hate relationship made possible by the episodes of anger and the outbursts of rage that pepper typical usage. Blue Screens of Death, viruses, phishing scams, and crashing hard-drives taking away days or months of work in a second. And while many know, intimately, what the antidote for each of these ailments is, they shouldn’t need to in order to use the damn computers. Yet such measures have become prerequisite for modern computing.

And that’s no fun.

Simplification

I wouldn’t dare reduce Cory Doctorow’s argument against buying an iPad as reactionary, but the piece has many hallmarks typical of snobbish geeks. Doctorow sees Apple determined to ‘infantilize’ hardware and software by taking away users’ ability to tinker, in exchange for making computing more accessible to (stereotypical) technophobic mothers. And while the stereotype may be stupid, the goal isn’t. I don’t see the drive to make computing simpler as a negative sum game, where all we get are dumber devices and spoon-fed content via ‘iApps’.

The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

I don’t believe this. Kids that end up hackers don’t have much care for authority, in any shape they encounter it. The parent that tells the child to stop taking apart all the toys is rarely met with acceptance; if anything, the child learns to be more careful and secretive about her exploits. But she doesn’t give up just because there are some hardships along the way. Doctorow reminds of the original Apple ][+ which came with schematics for the circuit boards as if this was the reason for why people were tinkering with the machine. They were not. Rather more like icing than the cake itself.

Alex Payne raised similar concerns regarding device openness in his initial reaction to the iPad, though not as effervescently as Doctorow. He called this the Tinkerer’s Sunset, bemoaning future generations that will not be raised with any sort of hacker mentality because the devices don’t encourage it. Which to me seems counter to what a hacker really is (from The Jargon File):

A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.

Without quibbling over definitions, I strongly believe that the truest of hacker mindsets is brought to light by the harshest of conditions. If openness as prescribed by Doctorow or the Free Software Foundation is the only desired outcome, then indeed Apple’s particular flavour of simplified computing is ‘evil’, defective by design.

Snobbery

Why fight against this simplification? I think it’s because many geeks can be complete snobs when it comes to technology and gadgets. Spending most of one’s time understanding the innards of a system has the odd side-effect of making an individual believe everyone else should dedicate a commensurate amount of time. But this doesn’t scale considering how many people’s jobs have nothing to do with computers. Requiring my mother to learn about compiling software so that she can handle her work-related emails is asinine. Regular people don’t care about codecs, licenses, platform squabbles or various file system idiosyncrasies; they care about photos, music, friends and work.

Rafe Colburn talks about a third kind of freedom that Apple’s ecosystem provides, the freedom to install and use software without worrying about it breaking your system. And this is the crux of the matter. For once, people feel like they are in control of their devices because they can install whatever they want, without requiring some complicated mental flowchart to help navigate the decisions: Where’s this app from? Would my (tech-savvy) child let me install it? Can it steal my employer’s documents or crack their network if I install it on my work device?.

Hackers and power users see this as a bad tradeoff, but I would imagine that for many users, this tradeoff is completely worth it. Ask any of the people who pay Geek Squad hundreds of dollars to disinfect their PCs whether they’d give up some of the freedom to do what they like to their PC in exchange for never having to deal with those sorts of problems again.

Hackers and power users see this as a bad tradeoff because the benefits don’t apply to them. They wouldn’t be as vocal if Apple had decided to let everyone buy the components and the IKEA-style assembly manual and put together their iPads at home, because hackers and power users could do it. But the iPad wouldn’t sell as well as it had, wouldn’t attract as many people as it had, and wouldn’t be good for the general use case. Geeks are a niche in every market, and while I don’t think any company should shun them voluntarily (as Apple sometimes does) they aren’t the core demographic either.

The Old World

The truth is that computing is changing in a big way, for the first time in decades. I would put the previous such shift around the time the Graphical User Interface was introduced, and just like then, the goal now is to commodify computers and turn them into appliances. And this move is bound to upset a few from the Old World, because change is always a big deal. But the worst part of it, I fear, is that there are those who enjoy feeling special because they ‘get’ computers, and want to deny others the privilege. Narrow-minded and selfish, there are those who feel that in order to use a computer, one should obtain a permit after a long and painful trial of fire, just as they did.

It may sound like an exaggeration, and I hope that’s true.

New Directions

Shawn Blanc writes:

Apple is simplifying and refining OS X with primarily one user group in mind: the decidedly non-nerdy.

The Mac App Store is the current epitome of where Apple wants to take OS X and the Mac user experience. This is the first of some significant steps towards the next evolution of Apple’s desktop software.

Let’s get back to the Mac App Store, even though this article wasn’t about that (nor was it about the iPad). The decidedly non-nerdy don’t want to become nerdy. They’re not the kinds of people that take apart their toaster to overclock it so they can char their toast .3 of a second faster. No, they’re the people who do Other Work, and I assure you their work is pretty damn important. They don’t have time to learn somebody else’s job as well. And there is no need they should.

Apple is trying to make computing easier by simplifying the installation process, abstracting away the file system, and encouraging a certain kind of workflow. Their approach is far from perfect, and even if it improves it will never make everyone happy. But its success will be measured in a few years, when users will become so accustomed to this level of simplicity that anything less will not do.

That’s an exciting direction to be heading.

(Thanks to Joanna Schilling for providing feedback on a draft of this essay.)