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The High Cost of Tyrants and Irresponsible Consumerism
Our Very Human Condition is at Stake

By Mitchell Parks
Copyright 1999
CompuThing Consulting

The Initial iMac Effect is Great

This past Christmas I bought my nephew (10) and niece (8) each their own iMac. The most fabulous part of entire event was seeing my nephew jump up and down for a good five minutes and hearing my niece loudly exclaim, "Thanks Uncle Mitch!"...which was indeed quite an accomplishment because she usually suffers from a severe case of "cat's got her tongue". My nephew continued to tell me thank-you probably 20 times over the next two days. Yes, they were both ecstatic to have received such an uncharacteristically cool and extravagant gift from Uncle Mitch.

And let me say this...the iMac is even more impressive at home than in the store. Though I had seen one at a local retailer, it was definitely more stunning freshly removed from its box and sitting on our kitchen table. It garnered several wows, gasps, oohs, and aahs (by the way, no one has even missed the floppy disk). My parents, who have never really "wanted" a computer before, are already saying they are going to buy one when prices are lowered.

Novice Struggle with MacOS

With the "main event" over and the task of helping my siblings set up each iMac for their children began, I became painfully aware of just how awful and daunting that task can be to a novice user. I, for the first time, became ashamed of the Macintosh operating this case version 8.5. Though there is little question among objective people that the Macintosh operating system is substantially easier-to-use and less trouble-prone than the Windows operating system, that comparison is much like asking, "Would you rather be hit in the face or kicked in the testes?" (or ovaries, as the case may be).

Having worked as a PC/Mac support technician for nearly four years and fielding literally thousands of support calls, I realized that both Mac and PC systems have substantive user-interface failings. While setting up each iMac, I began to see the MacOS through the eyes of my novice brother and somewhat novice sister (both elder). I repeatedly found myself having to back up and explain things that are simple to me, like folders, filenames, menus, desktop, etc. Things that I thought were intuitive, really weren't to those that have had little or no exposure to computing.

This new perspective made me realize that the MacOS I defended so vehemently for years, isn't user-friendly at all. In fact, it is quite obtuse and difficult. One might argue, "Well, that's just the way computers are...there's a learning curve that we all must surpass." You know, that's a cop-out and I don't buy it. It's even akin to scoffing at the thought of a machine that carries people in the air or men landing on the moon. Rather, I believe it is more likely that the computer industry has simply not "Thought Different" for a long time.

Consider this...when you first turn on your Mac, what do you see? File, Edit, View, Special, Help, and various icons including Hard Drive and Trash Can. The tutorial in the Help menu explains simple tasks, but is extremely incomplete...for good reason. The population of choices on the desktop (including menus and submenus) is far too large and nondescript. Though the goal of the MacOS interface has long been to protect the user from the inner-workings of the computer, it is evident that it fails miserably at this if you take a simple tour of the Apple Menu. Admittedly, the MacOS does better than its competitors when it comes to protecting the user, but it still has far to go.

For instance, consider some of the questions I fielded, "What is a Hard Drive?", "How do I get on the internet?", and "What do I do next?". My first brazen response was to say (though I didn't do so aloud), "Well, think!". That's when I realized that the MacOS wasn't as intuitive as I thought it was. I realized though that users should not have to figure out what a Hard Drive or Trash Can is, how to get on the internet, or what to do next. But rather, the user's very next question should (optimally) be answered before the user has even mentally formed it.

So, how can the interface be improved? Well, the interface, to be truly intuitive, needs to eliminate objects on the desktop that are not IMMEDIATELY understandable by the novice user, such as "hard drive". In addition, the user's next action needs to be "obvious". It is clear that making the interface more intuitive is going to take substantial rethinking. I didn't say it was going to be easy. It may even take a new computing paradigm...not unlike the MacOS was in 1984.

With the goal being so intuitive that the next action is "obvious", it would help if it were modular based upon the experience of the user, and educational in a non-obtrusive manner that increases the depth of instruction as user experience increases. In addition, it will likely require reinventing how one connects to the internet and uses applications. Users should not have to know what DNS, POP and SMTPs are. In addition, applications should play by the same more accessible, intuitive, and grow as user experience grows. Though I had little exposure to OpenDoc, it certainly seems to me that it was heading in the right direction.

The company or company of persons that lead us to this next level in user experience, will indeed change the world...again.

The High Cost of Bill Gates

Part of what prevented the industry from "Thinking Different" was forced upon us by Bill Gates. Until the loosely knit group of Microsoft competitors and concerned consumers recently gained the strength to slow Gates' ambition of putting a Windows interface on everything with a microchip, consumers and competitors were forced to play the hand they were dealt:

  • Lack of operating system choice at our local retailer (actually, there were very few alternatives to choose from...OS/2, Be, Unix, and perhaps one or two others, but what other alternatives could have been, and what innovations could these choices have yielded had there not been Microsoft induced barriers to entry).
  • Coercive tactics that prevented manufacturers from offering operating system choice.
  • Platform DEpendence.
  • Coercive marketing tactics that restricted business and home consumers from purchasing products that compete with Microsoft.
  • New product introduction dates that were repetitively and grossly understated with the design of garnering "mindshare" and "resource allocations". The effect is that once consumer mindshare was won and business information system funds were allotted for these new products, competitors have little chance of reversing consumer and business purchase plans. There is a word that defines this tactic that Gates has deployed so frequently and successfully..."Vaporware".
  • Threats of discontinuing support if competitors would not leave markets or kill their product altogether.
  • Applications that do not "make nice" with competing programs by enabling users to easily transfer files. Many users reported losing their files altogether when trying to switch from a Microsoft product to a competing one. Microsoft went as far as to present misleading information to the user that suggests switching to the competing Microsoft product is an "error".
  • Microsoft applications that do not "make nice" with previous releases of the same Microsoft application, often compelling users to upgrade.
  • Untimely deaths of products that were substantially better than the competing Microsoft product, but failed in the market as an indirect result of Microsoft's coercive and manipulative practices. Can anyone say OpenDoc vs. OLE?
  • Bloated applications that require substantial investments and resource commitments, shrewdly ensuring that users will be resistant to switching to a competitor.

The High Cost of Irresponsible Consumerism

Another reason the industry has chosen not to "Think Different" is that, given the opportunity, consumers will choose to be ignorant. I've heard for a long time that consumers are smart, blah, blah, blah. From what I've seen occur in the personal computer industry, consumers choose the path of least resistance and generally "do what everyone else is doing". That's not smart for a teenager succumbing to the peer pressure of smoking, and it's not smart when choosing a personal computer.

There was (and is) a cost to this irresponsible consumerism. Consumers, and businesses for that matter, bought up cheap, trouble-prone PCs by the millions creating a huge industry of "Windows" support books, "certified" technicians, and costly layers of administrators and support techs, which ultimately accelerated Gates' arrogant dictatorial position he is in today. Worse, technicians and even techno-saavy consumers take pride in their knowledge of how to troubleshoot their computers. Yet, their knowledge is vain and near worthless.

Why is their knowledge near worthless? Computers are designed to further humankind's productiveness. When a substantial number of humans are occupied with "troubleshooting and repairing" they are adding little of nothing to advance the human condition...they are only working to keep others productive. Humankind would accomplish and advance more if these individuals were being productive as well.

What could more productivity mean? Well, it could mean a vaccine for AIDS or cancer, it could mean better brakes for cars, it could mean a more economical way to feed children, it could mean a new energy source which eliminates energy concerns forever or that made teleportation a reality. Of course, I'm fantasizing here, but we must not slight the important fact that we humans have a somewhat moral obligation to occupy our "working" time with only those matters that add to productivity, and thus, the human condition, not matters that vainly occupy our time with troubleshooting and repairing. A major breakthrough in our human condition and quality of life could truly be at stake.

Ultimately, consumers and businesses ended up paying billions of dollars purchasing technical books, courses, training employees, etc., and losing untold hours troubleshooting their computers and forfeiting free time that could have been spent with children, loved-ones, or just simply fishing. All for the sake of "doing what everyone else is doing" and choosing a cheap PC. We must train ourselves to think more responsibly when choosing a computer as consumers. Computers are unlike other consumer products, like the shoe, for example. The shoe, enables the foot. The computer, enables the mind. We can choose to strive to maximize its potential and improve life on this planet, or we can regard it irresponsibly and pay the price by working longer for more subtle, less momentous achievements. Though, should we choose rightly, we are assured that our achievements will beget achievements and our momentum will beget momentum.

We have become slothful and desensitized to illegal business practices that manipulate us and trample the competitive market system. We have only a vague memory of why our forefathers fought wrenching legal battles to prevent monopolies and other illegal business practices. We must now remember. We must now repay our forefathers with the diligence to defend what they fought for and to punish those who abuse these laws and principles with arrogant disdain. Let all men be called to action and remember...remember that competition spurs innovation and when innovation occurs, progress is achieved. Conversely, if competition is inhibited, all of mankind suffers for it. Indeed, we may never have landed on the moon, had our fierce competitor, Russia, not challenged us in the space race.

Surely we have foregone advancement by our shortsighted consumer choices and ambivalence towards unfair business practices. Yet we will continue to forego advancement, if we are satisfied with a personal computing alternative that is only moderately superior to that which Bill Gates offers us...namely, the MacOS. The same is true for UNIX in enterprise computing. We as consumers must continually call into question that which industry offers us and challenge them by being smarter shoppers and look less to quick fixes and more to long-term value. More than not, that will mean to shun "doing what everyone else is doing".

Apple's Greatest Wound

Was Apple, the personal computer innovation leader that set the pace for so long, asleep and innovatively dead prior the iMac revolution? Actually, no, they were not, but it sure seemed that way to the average consumer. What the average consumer did not know was that Apple had more desperate and pressing issues at hand.

For years, pundits blamed Apple's downward spiral on charging prices that were too high, not licensing the MacOS, offering a cluttered product mix, etc. Yet, there is a very good argument that had Microsoft been engaged in appropriate business practices instead of the manipulative practices on both consumer and competitor they were, Apple would have continued to innovate its operating system and continued to prosper.

Consider this...what happens when you cut your foot badly? Your complete attention turns towards stopping the bleeding and remedying the wound. What was the Apple wound that caused their marketshare spiral? Part of it was their prices and the shortsightedness of consumers, but certainly not all of it. Apple's most serious wound was Microsoft's manipulative and coercive business practices. How can ANY organization compete against Microsoft when they are doing everything in their power to prevent a level playing field, i.e.., any number of the bulleted items above? The answer is, they cannot. When Apple's marketshare started falling, they started trying to fight a nebulous enemy...illegal business practices. Their corporate strategic response had the effect of a shotgun blast to a stop sign...many dents, but not much success. There were several good ideas, such as OpenDoc, but these responses could not compete with an illegally manipulated competitive market. Repeated failure to stop the blood loss drove a corporate disarray which promulgated questionable strategies, interdepartmental rivals, and general employee dissatisfaction. The result was that their most important asset...the MacOS...was left behind and lost its focus on innovation.

It makes sense that it took a design "fashion statement"--iMac, to markedly turn the tide of Apple's fortunes during this desperate time. The only area that Microsoft has little power over--the design of the computer hardware itself--was possibly the one innovation that Apple could use to combat the resounding suck of the Microsoft monopolistic vacuum. Existing consumer Macintoshes of the time may even by some standards be judged better than the iMac. Afterall, they did use the same version of operating system...8.0 (which means they had same functionality), and the iMac did not come with a floppy disk. However, hardware-wise, the iMac launched a design revolution that consumers have been yearning for.

Apple is not the only one to have suffered during this period. All consumers suffered because any competitor that tried to or even thought about competing against Microsoft met with a "barrier to entry" brick wall or even flagrant threats. Major and minor software developers found that the only way to make money was to stay away from any market that was opposed to Microsoft and only develop for Microsoft products or Microsoft-friendly solutions. But was this industry gravitation towards Microsoft harmful to consumers?

Consider all the software developers that could have chosen to develop software that made computing easier rather than being forced to develop for the only profitable game in the industry. Consider if Apple had been able to provide substantive innovations for the MacOS instead of spending its time and resources fighting an enemy that they could not see or touch. If Microsoft had been restrained, the most profitable game in the software development business could possibly have been improving the user-experience, rather than developing another "me too" program for a lousy operating system.

Just think about it...from the late eighties to the present, if there had been no competitive barriers to entry, we could possibly be deeply immersed in a new computing paradigm, enjoying a user-friendliness experience that dwarfs even the MacOS. Who can say what startup company or forward-thinking software developer could have REALLY changed things. But now, we will never know.

Recently, I have seen every evidence that Apple is working to design hardware with user-friendliness in mind...beautiful, fruit-colored, all-in-one computers; Firewire, USB, the new G3's door, cable reduction, etc. I'm just eager for them, or someone else, to step up and make those same kinds of dramatic ameliorations to software.

Updated: 11/09/02

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