by Rodney O. Lain
September 22nd, 2000
|The substances of what we think, though born in thought, must live in ink.
a publisher once said this
Writing really is a dying art. Ask Apple. Rather, ask the members of Apple's technical-documentation group -- if such a group still exists.
Mac-book author Gene Steinberg: '93 percent of users never crack open a manual'
A Mac-head since 1984, Gene Steinberg has written 19 books on computers and the Internet, plus hundreds of articles for such industry publications as Mac Addict, Mac Home Journal, MacUser and Macworld. A publisher, entrepreneur, and science-fiction writer, he also writes a weekly column, "Mac Reality Check" for The Arizona Republic's web site, and is regular contributor to CNET.com. His computer news and support Web site, The Mac Night Owl (http://www.macnightowl.com) receives thousands of regular visitors each day. A list of his books is at the end of this interview. Gene was gracious enough to pause from his busy schedule and talk with Mac Observer's Rodney O. Lain about the plight of the printed user manual.
Within the last few years or so, Apple has moved away from providing printed manuals with their products. Is this a new phenomenon? When did the trend actually begin? The shrinking of manuals is a gradual erosion. Years ago, a new Mac came with several large books. Then it became two shorter books, one for installation and setup, the other for troubleshooting. The original iMac had nothing more than a pull out card; that was going too far in the other direction. The latest iMacs have a more sensibly designed booklet with lots of pictures, and clear text. But Apple expects most Mac users will rely on the help menus to get their information (or Apple's web site).
What led to this? A Microsoft user survey of Macintosh Office users showed that 93percent never cracked open a manual. Aside from saving production expenses, why produce a manual if it is not going to be read?
Answer the following question: Has the decrease in printed manuals been a positive/negative thing for a) Mac users b) Mac book writers? A negative thing for Mac users, because they no longer have printed material to which to refer for basic setup information or to help deal with a problem. While I would hope book writers are helped, if potential readers forget the habit of reading manuals, everyone suffers.
Make sure you read the rest of thte interview.
Here's the deal. At one time, Apple's documentation set the standard for the way a technical document should be written -- just as much as the company's hardware and software did. If you read Apple's historical accounts like Steven Levy's excellent Insanely Great, or if you read my sidebar interview with Mac author extraordinaire Gene Steinberg, you will find that fact attested to.
But, alas and alack, good, solid documentation is no longer the case, but hope does appear on the horizon: OS X Public Beta ships with a certain amount of documentation, or so I'm told -- my copy isn't here yet, dammit.
I don't know where and how this dearth of written manuals started, but I have my theories. Vis-á-vis Apple, I'm thinking it involves dollar signs, budget slashing, and the years 1996-1998.
Like the quintessential Mac user, I proudly eschew ReadMe files with the best of them. But there are times when you need some printed reassurance, right? Here's a "f'rinstance" for you: how many of you figured out iMovie's finer points sans manual? And don't even get me started with Final Cut Pro -- I won't go there. I have Lisa Brenneis's how-to book and still catch hell every time I crack open that app (to be fair, she warns you at the outset about the 90-degree learning curve if you aren't a cinematography buff).
That is nothing but penny pinching, Apple. Plain and simple.
I'm sure that someone will point to the on-line Help system, the PDF files, and other forms of Cliff-Note-like docs, but in response I'll point to the store shelves that literally groan under the sheer number of the books explaining Mac OS, AppleScript, system troubleshooting, etc. Supply implies a demand, knowhutImean, Vern?
Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I work better with an 80-page hardcopy instead of an 80-page Acrobat Reader doc.
But I shouldn't be too curmudgeonly about it. Apple's lack of written material has created a cottage industry for Mac book writers. Hell, David Pogue is printing money over there with his sweet-deal "Missing Manuals" imprint. Man's gotta eat... but does it have to be caviar every night?
Furthermore, the need for manuals and instruction increases with the Unix entrée to the Mac. I'm currently working my way through Teach Yourself Unix in 24 Hours, and if you'll excuse the grammar, it ain't gon' happen in no 24 hours.
There's something manichean about forcing customers to pay extra for something they used to get with the product: 1) on one hand, it's good for third-party book publishers and writers, but 2) the user is screwed out of several more dollars than before. Let's hear it one more time for capitalism.
This is reminiscent of the recent saga of the hockey puck mouse. Cute, but not functional for everyone, so off to Kensington we go as a necessity, not as an option. At least the precursor beige mouse was unanimously usable. Apple could have released the optical mouse long ago -- if "worker bee" is to be believed :-)
Uh-oh. I'm doing a Doc Hillman here...
Come on, Apple. You know I love you, but you really make it hard at times. Over the next year, many of us will be scrambling to gain a measure of comfort and expertise with Aqua and Unix. How about a manual to go along with it -- even more substantive than the one shipping with the Public Beta. A real manual. It's your product; you tell us how to use it.
Literacy is one of the biggest problems facing the western world; I don't know about the rest of world. It's truly ironic: we Americans are unabashedly more illiterate than past generations, if the popular culture (esp. television) is any indication. But the general populace is saturated with a flow of information. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but the computer is arguably the premier "paddle" to help consumer's raft their way through this growing "info flood," if I may coin a phrase.
Some of us could still use some boating lessons as result. I really hope that Apple's Powers That Be will Think Different and not follow the corporate crowd's tendency to toss out the instruction books -- at least not while the process of midwifing OS X. Many of us would really appreciate some instruction here. Or at least a Unix and OS X for Dummies.
Come on, Apple. Help a brotha out.
Your comments are welcomed.
Rodney O. Lain is a junior manager at a major corporation. He enjoys public speaking, mentoring minority college students, and helping community multicultural-awareness efforts. He also "preaches the Gospel" at a Minneapolis Micro Center -- he's the bald black guy. Rodney "drives" a G4 Cube and a PowerBook G3. After enjoying a popular run at Mac Addict.com, "iBrotha" was axed, to readers' dismay. Back by popular demand, it now runs exclusively at Mac Observer every other Friday, replacing "Rodney's Soapbox."
[Editor's Note: Rodney O.Lain passed away in June, 2002.]
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