The Vision Thing: Test Cases

We in the computer industry like to plan for the future by consulting the history books -- not only because history is destined to repeat itself, but also because it will undoubtedly do so with clockwork precision.

For example, we all agree that this year's transition to Mac OS X will be as big a change as Apple has ever seen. But which previous transition will the conversion to Mac OS X most resemble? Some liken it to Apple's move from Motorola's 680X0 processor family to the PowerPC chip, because there will be software inside OS X that will allow your old software to continue to run (albeit at significantly lower performance levels than new "native" applications). Others compare the change to the one that happened between the Apple II and the Mac, because in fact we're talking about a fundamental change in both the operating system and user experience (although in this case, the hardware isn't changing, just the software).

I agree with the adage that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet when it comes to Mac OS X, I find all of these historical examples lacking. I believe firmly that this transition will not be driven initially by the professionals, the experts, or even necessarily by hard-core Mac users. No, I believe that novices will initially drive the adoption of a modern Mac OS.

The Meek Shall Inherit the Mac

Since I'm discussing different classes of users, I should probably get my definitions straight up front. When I say "novices," I refer to users who are likely struggling with the idiosyncrasies of an antiquated OS. Mac OS, for all its vaunted ease of use, is hard for first-time computer users to understand. It's also hard to diagnose and repair when it crashes, which it does an inordinate amount of the time.

I spend an enormous amount of time on the phone helping friends through their Mac travails. For example, there's the one who has been using a Mac since the mid-1980s but doesn't have time to stay current on the latest ways to get his PowerBook off its knees. And there's the one who had never touched a computer before I put an iMac in her living room: she still has trouble getting her head around the idea that computing is not a linear experience.

I once spent two hours on the phone helping the latter friend click and drag. The conversation went like this:
Me: Jenny, put the pointer so it's over the icon. OK?
Jenny: OK.
Me: Now, click and hold the mouse button down.
Jenny: OK.
Me: Did the icon turn black?
Jenny: Yes.
Me: OK. Now, don't let up on the mouse button, and move the mouse.
Jenny: OK.
Me: Did the icon move?
Jenny: No.

Ah, the joys of phone support. To this day, I don't know if the problem was with her Mac or our communication. She's a smart person, so I'm leaning toward the Mac. Certainly, this wouldn't be the first time I've seen a Mac do something bizarre at the hands of a novice.

Expert users don't experience these kinds of problems. Why? Because, by definition, expert users have invested a tremendous amount of time figuring out how to get around (or even take advantage of) Mac OS's more neurotic behavior.

Expert users are going to be the last people to risk the unexplored wilderness of a new OS. They've got too big an investment in processes, workflows, troubleshooting, scripts, applications, and that special intuition that comes only from a decade of being in their studies at 3:00 a.m. and getting a cascading Type 3 error message that brings their entire project down. It's moments like these that make very clear how truly alone we Mac users are in the world, and that truly test our ingenuity and fortitude.

Yes, experts will go to Mac OS X -- but only when they judge that leaving behind the frustrations of the devil they know is worth the risks of the devil they don't know. And those who do try out Mac OS X will probably do it on a second hard drive so that they can always return to Mac OS 9.1 when the going gets rough.

Three Easy Pieces

You can distill it down to this: Novice users have nothing to lose. They also generally stick with whatever operating system comes on their hard drive -- and pretty soon Mac OS X will be on the hard drives of all new Mac systems. You can easily see how new users will be the first large section of the Mac community to deal with Mac OS X on a large scale.

This will be a good thing for three reasons.

First, as I said previously, novice users are the least-equipped to deal with a computer that crashes a lot. Therefore, they are the ones likeliest to benefit from a more stable, modern operating system. Mac OS X doesn't crash as much, and in the rare event that an application does crash, it doesn't go tearing through the rest of the OS like a crazed weasel locked in a china cabinet. That means fewer crashes and fewer two-hour conversations on the Zen of Clicking and Dragging.

Second, the whole Finder-desktop metaphor is baffling to new users. An interface that they seem to understand almost immediately is the browser. Mac OS X's file browser should be a boon to beginners, and it's certainly better thought-out than the Windows Web-browser interface.

Third, there's Cocoa, Mac OS X's framework-based development environment. Cocoa shaves hundreds of hours off of the effort required to take applications from one platform to another. Case in point: Developing the Mac OS X version of Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force took weeks, versus months for the Mac OS 9 version. The only difference was the use of Cocoa on Mac OS X. Cocoa looks to be a major boon for game developers wanting to offer their PC games on Mac OS X. And a slew of Mac OS X-only games, combined with other advantages of a modern OS for gaming, should drive enthusiasts and home users over to OS X rather quickly.

In the end, we're all going to be using OS X, unless we're planning on abandoning the Mac platform altogether. But whether the transition to the OS X goes quickly and relatively painlessly will depend on how easy Apple and the rest of the Mac community make it for novices and enthusiasts to jump aboard. A protracted transition will be good for no one.

There's no way to tell just how everything will turn out, but one way or another, the Mac OS X transition is definitely history in the making.

ANDREW GORE is Macworld 's editor in chief. To comment on this column and interact with Gore, visit The Vision Thing forum.

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