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  • Is There a Way to Simplify the Personal Computer?

    January 27th, 2009

    As I’ve said on many occasions, most of what you and I do these days on our Macs harkens back to 1984, when the first all-in-one Apple Macintosh appeared. As a matter of fact, this reminds me of the time I wrote a book about Mac OS X, back in 2001, where I presented screen shots of that first Mac’s desktop, compared to the cool, liquid Aqua desktop.

    Sure, the newer version was prettier, with a shaded dimensionality that has been softened over the years, but the fundamentals were the same. Point and click and drag and drop, and there you go. It was so familiar that Microsoft was able to crib the Mac’s interface and convince lots of people there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference.

    But I’m not about to replay the operating system wars right now. I think Microsoft’s poor decisions in recent years have caused serious problems for the company that the state of the economy has only compounded. Let’s leave it at that.

    What most concerns me, though, is the fact that many Mac users still have a whale of a time getting accustomed to some of the basics. A typical example might be an Open or Save dialog. Rather than using the former to open a document within an application, I realize some of you still go to the desktop and double click on the file.

    Indeed, when I try to help people navigate through the file system on the phone, I’ll utter those fateful words, “Choose Open from the File menu,” and have it fall on deaf ears. Even though some of these people may have been using Macs for years, they haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, and that has nothing to do with their intelligence. It’s all about the fact that not everything about the graphical interface of a personal computer is as intuitive as Apple would have us believe.

    More recently, I was helping a client move to a new email system. He wanted a way to easily synchronize his messages at home and the office without going through hoops. So I transitioned him from a POP account to an IMAP account. The latter, of course, is an email protocol that stores all your messages on the server so that you can retrieve them from a desktop email application, or a Web-based one, and be able to see the very same messages, in all of your mailbox folders.

    When I first set up the account for him, I moved all of his stored messages to the new server, a simple matter of drag and drop, followed by a long wait while thousands of messages were transferred. I mistakenly thought this to be a simple process, although I explained it to him several times, along with the process of creating new mailbox folders in Apple Mail and how they’d synchronize with his online mailboxes.

    A few weeks later, as the result of a server change, I sent him detailed instructions on switching the incoming and outgoing mail servers in his Account preferences in Mail. This is a process that should take all of a minute or so to accomplish. Once you OK the Save function, the contents of the mailbox are regenerated upon hookup to the new server (where I had previously migrated all his messages online).

    There was one further change, and again I presumed this to be a matter of little consequence, and went on with my business, until I got a frantic call from the client that he couldn’t find some of his email.

    Well, after a little back and forth conversation, it appeared that, rather than just change the settings for his email account, he just created new ones. At the end of the day, he had three separate accounts, and because of his fiddling around with the contents of his various mailboxes, none of them truly reflected his current repertoire of messages.

    I will, of course, be going to his office this week to sort out this mess.

    Now maybe it was all my fault. Perhaps I just didn’t sufficiently explain what should have been a fairly easy process, but, no, I reviewed the steps, compared them to some of the online instruction pages covering similar topics, and I couldn’t find any serious lapses.

    The client is a college graduate, and a gifted designer. You just know from talking with him for a while that he is quite an intelligent fellow, yet it’s also true that he has long been confounded by many of the common conventions of the Mac OS’s user interface.

    I expect he’s not alone, and that he copes with the situation because there is simply no better, more efficient method for him to do his work.

    His problems aren’t unusual either, so I often wonder if Apple or some other company might take stock of the situation, find out what confuses the typical Mac or PC user, and fix the problems. This may require a total rethinking of the present state of the art in graphical user interfaces, and I wouldn’t begin to know how best to accomplish that task. If I did, I’d be raking in millions selling the technology, rather than just hoping someone might produce it.

    What do you think, gentle reader? Is the Mac sufficiently simple for you to use as it is, or does Apple need to make some serious changes? Would a better, more proactive Help system do the trick? Or should we be tossing out the baby with the bath water and starting anew?

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