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The Dirty Little Secret About Macs: They're Hard to Use

Rodney O. Lain - 1999.05.27

This article was originally published on The, a site which no longer exists. It is copyright 1999 by RAC Enterprises, which also seems to no longer exist. It is thus reprinted here without permission (which we would gladly obtain if possible). Links have been retained when possible, but many go to the Internet Wayback Machine.

If you teach me, I will forget; if you show me, I will remember; if you involve me, I will understand.
 - Anonymous

Nothing is real.
 - John Lennon

Anyone who brags about Macs being easy to use should try teaching the newbie Mac user how to use that shiny, new iMac. That will humble the most boastful among us.

Now, I should preface this column, first of all, with an apology to Christine (which is her real name, BTW). Not that I am going to insult her; far from it. Actually, I want to give her 15 minutes of fame while using her as an example of how hard using the Mac really is, contrary to all of our hype and hyperbole. I want to do this by detailing my recent experience with her, especially how it brought to the fore some brutal truth about our favorite OS.

Try This, PC salesmen . . . if You Dare

When I sell iMacs to customers, I make a deal with them: if they agree to purchase one of our extended-service plans, I give them what I call an "offer they can't refuse" (imagine me doing a passable "Godfather" imitation). I give them my home phone number as part of their tech support. I guarantee them that I will field their questions - even visit their homes - on the following conditions:

  1. First they try to solve their dilemma themselves (for those who are in the know, it's best described as RTFM!!).
  2. My "escape clause": if the problem ranks as an I-don't-know, they must fall back on the tech support that is included in their extended-service plan.

I must warn you that this is not for the faint of heart: Do not offer your services if you don't know what you are doing. Also, do not offer your services if they don't buy an extended-service plan (the idea is to sell Macs, but also to stay in CompUSA's and Apple's good graces).

On the above conditions, I'm glad to offer my humble services. Not many take me up on that offer (even if they buy a service plan), but those who do aren't let down. There are a few times when I've gone to a person's home to help solve a problem. But to be honest, it's been more for me than for them: you see, I get to play with a new iMac (I'm saving up for a Xmas iMac). I get to see what works on them and what doesn't. I get to see what are some of the common problems that customers have with them (note to Apple: put all of the USB drivers on the installation CD's if you haven't already! The iMac is advertised as "easy to use," capice?)

But the most important thing I've learned is that many people who buy the Mac expect a toaster-like experience. In other words, they expect everything to go effortlessly.

It doesn't always work as advertised; Christine, is a case in point.

Walking the Talk

Christine and I had been playing e-mail tag for several weeks now. I think I'd tried talking her into buying an iMac when she came in looking for a SCSI cable. She'd mentioned that her Performa wouldn't recognize her new scanner that I'd sold to her. I went through a game of 20 questions, trying to divine her problem. Seeing I was getting nowhere, I offered to make a house call and see if I could resolve her dilemma on-site. She accepted the offer.

A couple of weeks later, I arrived, armed with a CD case loaded with Norton Utilities, OS installation disks, etc. Christine and her roomie poured a glass of my "payment," a beer of their choice. After accepting my payment two or three times, we went upstairs to see what the problem was. While waiting for her to find the manual to her scanner, I played with her Performa, cleaning up the desktop, rearranging folders, etc. I showed her how far more efficient it was to have her desktop in a more presentable appearance. She agreed and allowed me to continue. I created a few folders in her Apple Menu, showing her how to do handy things like create aliases. Within minutes, I had her set up with "Applications-" and "Documents" folders. After running Norton Disk Doctor and defragmenting her hard drive (using Norton Speed Disk), I jokingly told her that what I just did often costs newbies $60 an hour by a PC tech. I also told her to update her OS 7.5.1 to 8.5 - or at least to download the free version of 7.5.5 from Apple's website.

As I talked with Christine, I noticed that she was asking common questions about Mac OS basics: for example, how to set up a shortcut to access the internet (to get on-line, she often went through a convoluted series of steps). I showed her a simpler way. She asked the common questions about Apple's financial health and whether or not Apple was still a player and innovator in the PC game. I assured her that it was, creating for her Netscape bookmarks to several Mac-positive sites, like MacCentral, Macsurfer's News, and of course,

We finally got her Mac to recognize her scanner (point and click on the icon in the Chooser . . . real difficult stuff ;-). We continued to talk about her Mac and how productive she is with it. She continued to ask questions about things like navigating through folders, setting up more than one Internet account. How to do things like have more than one dialup configuration set up (I told her that I don't think her version of Mac OS supports Location Manager).

We went on like that for another hour or so. At the end of my stay, Christine admitted that she didn't know much about her computer (duh!) and was surprised at the possible productivity that she could achieve. I reminded her that even with her limited grasp of things Macintosh that she was light years ahead of her PC-using counterparts. I asked her if she knew what was an IRQ, a dll, an autoexec.bat, or a system registry. She said that she didn't know. I said "neither do most PC users; be thankful you have a Mac."

I also pointed out to her that a PC salesman wouldn't dare do what I'm doing.

I left her home with mucho warm fuzzies, in my head and in my belly. I think it was the beer.

Jobs' Job: 1984, Redux

Apple still has the advantage, in terms of ease of use and GUI. But it is nowhere near as intuitive as we'd like to believe. Sure, it's great, but it's no longer insanely great.

What the Mac needs is a massive leap forward in user interface, akin to the leap that the original Mac made when it leaped past the DOS command-line in 1984. Sure, OS X will be buzzword compliant. Sure, it will leap past Windows NT. But will it make Christine's life easier? It surely won't make mine easier. Hell, I will probably have to attend one of those training workshops that I laugh at Windows users for attending. On one hand, that is great, because Apple is creating the cottage industry that Microsoft has perfected. (Next, we'll see an upswell in the amount uninstaller- and crash-recovery applications hitting the Mac market.

I offer no solutions. I have no wisdom to impart. That's the job of the genies in Cupertino. I'm sure they're working on it. I'm sure that someone is aware of the ignorance of the masses and their need for a more idiot-proof OS.

Alas, alas poor, poor Christine. Until the advent of the super Mac OS, she will have to continue to rely on the good graces of Mac lovers like me to offer aid and support when she can't remember in which folder she installed her OCR program.

- Rodney O. Lain

Rodney O. Lain, a former university English and journalism instructor, works full-time as a software developer and works part-time at a local CompUSA Apple Store Within A Store. A card-carrying member of the local Macintosh User Group Mini'app'les, Rodney writes this column exclusively for His greatest desire is to become an African-American Guy Kawasaki. A self-professed "workaholic writer," he waxes prolifically about race, religion, and the "right OS" at "Free Your Mind & Your Behind Will Follow", his unabashedly pro-Mac website. When he's not cranking out his column, he collects John Byrne comic books, jogs, and attempts to complete his first novel. He lives in Eagan, Minnesota, a southern suburb of St. Paul.

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