Think Retro: When Apple's User Guides explained it all

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In the box my iPhone 6 came in, there’s a small slip of paper. On one side it tells you what each of the iPhone’s five buttons are, and on the reverse it tells you how to switch it on; after that, you’re on your own. Sure, there’s an electronic manual available in PDF, HTML and iBooks formats for you to download, but that’s a far cry from the hefty instructional tomes you used to get when you bought an Apple product.

I have one for desktop Macs from 1991, a fantastic, beautiful, ring-bound thing filled with elegant, simple line drawings, crisp, smart text, and best of all, clear and unpatronizing information on how to get started with your Mac. Here’s an example:

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And then on the next page, what to do when you run out of space on your desktop when using a mouse, something I remember being flummoxed by when I first used one:

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There’s even information on just simply how to hold the mouse, with such rudimentary advice as to make sure the mouse cable is pointing away from you:

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It’s easy to think that such drawn-out, plodding explanations—of a computer technique so basic most of us wouldn’t even think it needed explaining—are quaint. That they’re a relic. And you could make the case that an iPhone is so much more intuitive than a Mac that you can get away with telling a new owner only how to switch it on because they’ll figure the rest out themselves. But why should they?

To be sure, many people these days don’t need tuition on how to hold a mouse, and of course, in the 80s and 90s—when personal computers and the Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointers paradigm was completely new to everyone who encountered it—it was more necessary to hold users’ hands as they took their first steps in this unfamiliar territory. I still encounter plenty of people, though—some complete novices, and some who’ve been using computers for years—who would benefit from Apple’s quiet, measured guidance on concepts that, let’s face it, just are a bit abstract. Here, for example, is a clear explanation of the difference between Save and Save As—clearer, to my ear at least, than the explanation in Yosemite’s Help system, even if a user was motivated to look it up.

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Even the idea of “saving” is explained, and I know from helping people get started with computers that this concept is actually quite a tricky one—and that this explanation is perfectly pitched:

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Some of the other guidance, while antiquated in the specifics, is nevertheless good and valuable. Those of us who’ve been interested in—not merely users of—computers for years have a pretty good grasp of what “a megabyte” or “a gigabyte” represents, but many, probably most, computer users don’t really have a clear idea of “how much” either is. Apple was on-hand to help explain back in 1991:

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It also took the time to explain why a floppy disk isn’t floppy!

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The whole thing is packed with concise, well-articulated information. Here’s Apple’s friendly, human explanation of an alias, something I bet a good percentage of even modern computer users would find valuable:

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There’s also a terrific tutorial taking you through the basics of editing text using a mouse and keyboard, and introducing the concepts of cut, copy and paste. What’s wonderful about it is that it doesn’t just baldly tell you how to select a word, for example, but actually steps you through the process bit at time using some real example text, ensuring you learn by doing. (Here, Apple is channeling a Chinese proverb, most often remembered as a line from Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”)

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That attention to detail, that focus on the reader and on doing things differently according to context the better to communicate with him, is evident elsewhere too. Here, for example, is the section on using the nascent accessibility features, and though it might not be readily apparent from this photo, the text is set in a larger point size so it’s easier to read for those with visual impairments.

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A calmness pervades, and an understanding that even a Mac is a complex bit of technology that some will find intimidating. I love how the section on troubleshooting starts with ‘Take your time’; if you’ve ever helped someone troubleshoot a problem with their computer, you’ll know that panic is a common reaction—and that in that panic many folks will fail to note down error messages that you can actually use to diagnose the problem.

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Most of the troubleshooting advice is as applicable today as it was then; here, for example, is the timeless “have you tried turning it off and on again”, but note too that even the specific guidance to force-quit an app with Command-Option-Escape is still true over two decades later.

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There’s loads more I could show you, but part of the joy of this beautiful old manual is discovering things for yourself—things you recognize, things you might never have understood, things that you forgot all about (SCSI terminators!)—so go and track one down, and remind yourself of the days when Apple took the time to explain not just how to use software’s features, but to explain some underlying concepts too. (And if you remember its audio tapes, videos and tutorial software, share your recollections in the comments below!)

I’ll leave you with the “colophon” on the back flap of the book—a flap, incidentally, that was designed to be used as a bookmark as you worked your way through the guide. I always found this kind of stuff fascinating, and now I come to rationalize it, that might be because it demystified the process of producing this perfect, finished thing I was holding in my hands, and made it seem like I might just be able to make it too. And after all, that’s what a Mac is all about.

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