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By Nic Lindh | Thursday, 18 August 2011 | FacebookTwitter

Lion and the angst of the greybeards

Nic is bemused by the sturm und drang surrounding the iOS-ification of Mac OS X.

The post-PC era is upon us, with the iPad and iPhone the poster children for the new generation of devices.

Since the release of the iPad there’s been a relentless spew of angst and doom from the greybeards of the computing world. I’m not going to link to any examples here—you’ve already read them. And if you haven’t, pat yourself on the back for your excellent choice of Internet reading material and your wise use of your time.

The doom-and-gloom argument boils down to iOS—the operating system that powers iPads and iPhones—being “closed.” The word “draconian” also gets bandied about a lot, cheapening a very strong word. Seriously, look up the etymology. What Apple is doing can only be called draconian if they start chopping off heads. Damn nerd hysteria.

Draconian or not, iOS is indeed closed in many ways—you find and install applications from the App Store, and those applications have to be cleared by Apple. Developers can only use approved APIs (Application Programming Interfaces—the ways an application calls on the operating system to perform tasks like drawing on the screen and opening files).

According to the biggest hysterics this will lead to a future of McDonalds computing, where everybody drools as they stroke their devices while their spines are crushed under the cruel boot heel of Apple. In short, the argument goes, if you can’t take apart the computer and study how it works, you’ll never learn how to properly use it or how to create new computers.

Oooh, the future is scary. We will all wallow in ignorance.

Two things about this line of reasoning drive me bonkers:

First, we still have “real” computers for those interested in the machines for their own sake. As a matter of fact, you must use a “real” computer to create software for the iPad and iPhone. That’s where that particular learning and experimentation happens.

Second, and please read this slowly: the vast majority of people are not nerds. Most people do not give two bits about gadgets and technology.

I know, I know, sit down and fan your face for a bit. What the vast majority of human beings on the planet care about when it comes to gadgetry is what they can do with it. If it solves a problem or makes a task easier, they care. If it has a double-entropic flux capacitor, they could not give less of a crap.

The canonical example of nerd thinking is the original Slashdot take on the iPod when it was first released: “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.”

Single-entropic flux capacitor. What idiot could possibly want this?

This is why Apple are selling devices hand over fist: they enable people to accomplish something they care about. And they let people do what they want with less fear.

Why is fear so important? Simple. Here’s what a lot of nerds don’t want to understand: Normal people live in fear of their computers. They do not enjoy using them. What happened to that file I worked so hard on? Why won’t it print? Did I get a virus? Can I trust this website? Why did my computer just crash?

This is the prime reason the iPad is such a hot ticket. Want an application? You don’t have to google around to find it. Just go to the App Store. Boom. It’s been vetted. It won’t steal your credit card number. It will work. Did some work on a document? Launch the app again, and there’s your document. It does what you think it will.

(I’m not saying the App Store is perfect and that it doesn’t get gamed, but compared to the alternatives, it’s a joy to use. Fear-free app purchasing. The importance of that can’t be overstated.)

Lots of nerds refuse to accept this fact: Normal human beings don’t understand things like file systems. No matter how many times you explain them, the concept is weird and alien. This is not because those people are stupid, it’s because they don’t care about how the computer works. Which of course is completely alien to nerds. How could you not want to learn all there is to know about this beautiful, complex system? Here’s the newsflash: Normal people look at this beautiful, complex system and shiver in fear and confusion.

If you’re a nerd, one of the best things you can do for yourself to gain some understanding of this is to volunteer at your favorite charity. Do some tech support there. Learn how people who don’t read slashdot see computers. After you have a couple of stiff drinks, uncurl from fetal position and wipe the tears from your eyes, congratulations, you now understand why Apple is selling a gazillion iPads.

The reason I’m writing this now is that the same tired thinking is causing a furor about the release of Mac OS X Lion. Apple is—gasp—bringing the most successful pieces of its most successful product ever back to the desktop? My word! That’s crazy! My Mac won’t be a “real” computer anymore! Draconian control! Argle!

Let it be said: I’d be the first to ditch the Mac if I couldn’t use it the way I want to anymore. But that’s not what Apple is doing, and the histrionics are really grating and hard to understand. (Well, apart from page views. You do get lots of juicy page views from writing smack about Apple. You lose your soul, but you get page views. For some people that seems to be a fair trade.)

If I were to venture into some pop psychology—hey, I minored in psych so I’m qualified—I’d say there are two things happening: First, it’s a sense of betrayal about Apple’s success. If you were into Macs in the ’90s, you were part of the Rebel Alliance. You were Thinking Different(-ly, dammit, differently). You were a free thinker.

(When I toiled at the Apple Store back in 2001, I encountered some of the scariest fanatics I’ve ever seen—people who had wrapped their whole sense of self in with their usage of Apple products. Interestingly, the most fanatical also tended to be the least technical. I could never figure it out.)

And now Apple is the Empire, releasing products the masses want and making money hand over fist.

There’s this charming delusion common to people who got into Apple before the return of Steve Jobs that Apple was purity and light, not at all interested in making money or selling to anybody but the faithful. That’s revisionist hogwash, of course: Apple’s always been a controlling and paranoid company.

The second thing is that Apple is—again, gasp—changing the fundamentals of human-computer interaction. I can’t control where the files are saved? It saves them for me whenever it wants? I’m supposed to gesture at the damn thing?

The knee-jerk reaction to this is that Apple are “dumbing things down.” Which they are, in the same sense that using a GUI instead of a terminal is “dumbing things down.” You know, just like how the UNIX and DOS greybeards detested the Mac when it first came out. Remember the scorn about “MacInToy” and “MacInTrash”?

I even met a guy way back in the day who considered that you could install a SCSI card without having to toggle DIP switches to get it to work a design defect. He needed his control over the DIP switches. He also probably needed meds. But he was part of the nerd Weltanshauung at the time.

(For the young-uns out there, be happy you don’t know from SCSI and DIP switches. The time out of my life I’ll never get back figuring out how to properly set up my SCSI chains… This scanner must be first on the chain; this hard drive needs an external terminator if you want it last on the chain. And, hell, system extension conflict troubleshooting. It’s like a bad joke now. Seriously, it was uphill to and from school back then. Sure, it built character, but it was a pretty poor excuse for technology.)

Technology got more abstracted until these very same greybeards (who were still blackbeards back then) got comfortable with it. This was called “improvement.” And then those greybeards spent a ton of time mastering the machine at that level of abstraction. (Oooh, I can drag a window.) And now the very same company that made computers understandable for them is widening the reach of computers by increasing the abstractions so they become useful for more people, which is greeted with “draconian control dumbing things down argle I hate getting old.”

It’s all right. We’re all getting older and change is hard. Just don’t assume there’s some nefarious scheme and personal betrayal behind Apple trying to make technology more useful for people who aren’t nerds.

Enjoy being on this ride. Relax. We’re heading to a good place.

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