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In the World of Mac User Follies

So I was visiting a long-time client the other day, restoring his data onto a new hard drive. Once I completed my tasks, he wanted to try out a few things for himself.

First, he opened Mail, launched Address Book and brought up a contact entry with a load of names. After looking them over for a moment, he started selecting and copying a few to paste into the To column on a new email message.

Well, I stopped him there, and tried, gently I assure you, to explain how contacts are supposed to be entered into Address Book how the Group feature works, and how his contact list can be accessed directly from Mail’s Address Panel, in the Window menu. He protested that he’s done it that way for years, and he’s not about to change now. So I let him be.

Next on the agenda was his method of closing applications, which involves manually closing each open window first, followed by choosing Quit from the application menu. This time I sold him the correct method as a time saver, replacing one command with several. “It may not make a difference for one application, but if you do that all day long, every single day, think of all the wasted effort.”

This time, he was willing to acknowledge my suggestion, saying he never heard of it being done that way before. However, he has been using Macs as a critical part of his home-based business since the early 1990s. So this seemed peculiar, and, in fact, I had not seen him to that before. Well, live and learn.

Of course this particular veteran Mac user isn’t the only person who developed a few wasteful habits over the years and refuses to change. While there are certainly different ways to reach the same goal, some of these behaviors can seem downright strange. Part of the problem is that a surprising number of people simply aren’t well informed about standard Mac conventions, such as the Finder, Open/Save dialogs and so on, even though they may have read a few books on the subject.

So I’m often put into the position of saying “Finder,” and hearing someone answer, “What’s that?”

Open/save dialogs are particularly confusing. It’s common for folks to double click on a document to open it, even if the application is already running. The concept of choosing Open from the File menu, or simply dragging the document icon to the application’s icon on the Dock is alien to them.

As with the concept of the Finder, they seem amazed when I try to demonstrate to them that there are methods that might be more efficient.

Speaking of the Dock: Some Mac users do not realize that, just because an application is no longer present in the Dock doesn’t mean it has somehow disappeared. The very client who inspired me to write this column is notorious for downloading applications over and over again because they vanished from the Dock once the application was quit.

After clearing a dozen Firefox icons from the client’s desktop on one occasion, I tried to show him how to make an application “stick” in the Dock, a tip that he followed for all of two weeks. I might also mention the fact that he had been using a mouse with his iBook G4 because he didn’t understand the purpose of the trackpad.

This is not to say that people who make mistakes of this sort are necessarily stupid. More than likely, they have other priorities in their lives, and they only mastered enough of the Mac user interface to help them become reasonably productive. They may not even have read an instruction manual or book on the subject. Perhaps someone demonstrated a few things to them, and they improvised the rest.

But it’s not just the individual user who is apt to make foolish mistakes. For regular people, you can forgive their technical shortcomings. I know there are lots of things I cannot do that you, perhaps, would accomplish easily and quickly.

Unfortunately, when the missteps are made by a tech support person, you have reason to be extremely concerned. When I visited that client to help him set up that new hard drive, he had just spent a frustrating 90 minutes on the phone with Cox, the local cable provider.

His face was turning red, but managed to spit out the details of the sad encounter. You see, that morning, upon his return from a trip to his country home in the northern part of Arizona, he found that he could not send or receive email on his Mac. He restarted the computer, with no change, so he contacted Cox’s support people. In turn, they passed him along to three different support people with no resolution.

After checking his Mac briefly, I asked him if anyone had him restart the cable modem. When he said no, I realized things had gotten pretty screwy. So that was my first plan of attack. The second was to recheck the settings on his single email account in Mail. It seems that Cox evidently asked him, during the diagnostic process, to change the port number for incoming messages on his POP account from the default 110 to 25 (a standard setting for outgoing mail).

I reverted the setting to the correct value, saved it, and the unread mail quickly came through.

I’d go on, but this article is not about tech support follies. I don’t want to go there, because I could fill a book with those war stories.