OS X Simplification is Dr. Crusher’s Shrinking Warp Bubble

| Hidden Dimensions

“My mind is going, Dave. I can feel it.” -- HAL 9000

The idea that Macs should become simpler, more fun to use, and more like the iPad has its limits. There is a proper place in our technical society for awesome computational power, intelligent agents, and power tools on the desktop. That computational power, so far, hasn't been fully exploited by Apple.

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One of my favorite Star Trek: TNG episodes is "Remember Me." In that episode, an experiment by Dr. Beverly Crusher's son, Wesley, goes wrong, and Dr. Crusher becomes trapped in an ever shrinking warp bubble. Over time, everything she knew, all the crew members, disappear as her known universe shrinks. Eventually, she's all alone.

And that's where we may be headed with the Mac.

All of us grew up with the vision of the empowerment that personal computers give us. When Apple launched the Apple II, the idea was that we could perform computation feats that were never accessible to individuals before. Today, with a modern iMac, we have a Unix operating system sitting on the better part of 100 gigaflops of power. In fact, selling the idea of computational power and potential for exploration and creation has always been in Apple's DNA. The more powerful our tools, the more empowered we are as individuals.

These days, I'm seeing a counter-trend. The PC and the Mac reached technical maturity but in the process of bitter competition, became needlessly complex. Yes, the power was there, but the associated management and security issues created monster headaches for customers. Power and simplicity got out of balance, perhaps because the rise of intelligent agents to help us never happened. A dozen years after the vision of the HAL 9000 (without the downside), there's no one to help us get out of a deep technical hole except ourselves. (And maybe a local Apple genius.)

Then, in 2010, Apple sprung the iPad on us, and everything was simple and wonderful. No more management problems, security issues, and file system snafus. Mostly. Just browse, play, read, watch, write, and have a lot of fun.

As a result, Apple is on track to sell 100 million iPads in about three years from inception.

HAL 9000

The Temptation

For a long time, I've been thinking about the disconnect between those who are concerned about the simplification of OS X and the desire to make things easier for more customers.

The simplification of OS X from the user's perspective and even an outright merger with iOS has been coined iOS-ification. On one side, we have the Snow Leopard die-hards, and on the other side we have Apple's belief that if only they can make Macs as fun and easy as iPads, the company will sell a whole lot more Macs.

There are several problems with that supposed idea of simplifying OS X too much for the user.

First, we really are in a post-PC era. And so the idea that selling more Macs (which is a variation of a PC, a personal computer) that look like and operates like iPads doesn't make sense. Microsoft is finding that out with their Surface tablet.

Second, man does not live by tablet alone. There are scientists, engineers, business users, government users, developers, and those writing educational software and many home users who need all the power they can get. That power is not found in an iPad.

Finally, the idea that if you make something dumber, it will attract a wider audience and make you more money is akin to the despised mentality of TV network executives. Appealing to the lowest common denominator would result in endless Lost in Space instead of Star Trek and Firefly. Endless Psych instead of Sherlock Holmes and Numb3rs.

Simplicity vs. Power

I'm not saying that the undue complexities of a desktop PC or Mac are desirable. No one should have to wrestle with the Windows Registry or rc.d files in Linux. On the other hand, the popularity of certain kinds of consumer apps, shopping and browsing, and the suppression of real innovation thanks to the long Windows hegemony never led to the kinds of high level, intelligent management that we'd always hoped for. For example, here we are at the dawn of 2013, and customers are still exposed to undecipherable error codes on the Mac and the vague mysteries of iCloud that can never be resolved.

In 1996, Steve Jobs noted that stagnation.

The desktop computer industry is dead. Innovation has virtually ceased. Microsoft dominates with very little innovation. That's over. Apple lost. The desktop market has entered the dark ages, and it's going to be in the dark ages for the next 10 years, or certainly for the rest of this decade.

One suspects he was pondering the future iPad even then.

On the Mac side, what we long for is the intelligent management of lots of computation power. To a certain extent, we also want manageable complexity. Elegant complexity affords the intelligent user the opportunity to explore, discover, find new ways of exploiting familiar tools and combine tools in new ways to solve harder problems.

I recall episodes of Star Trek: TOS in which Mr. Spock had to do warp calculations in his head. If you had told him that he was restricted to the use of algebra instead of differential geometry, he couldn't do his job. His working environment would be too sterile, powerless to achieve great things.

Using tools at a high level promotes the building of new tools to solve tougher problems. We don't want to have, as our ultimate goal, the reserving of ultimate tools for developers only so that they can build a faster Webkit so we can shop at Amazon more effectively. Instead, we want a certain amount of flexibility and that oh-so naughty complexity so that inspired users can exploit that ~100 or so gigaflops at their disposal.

Max Headroom

Warp Bubbles

At times, I think that the only end goal for Apple is to create a Mac experience that will make millions more customers more comfortable, happier, and more inclined to buy a Macintosh. And that feels like Beverly Crusher's warp bubble closing in on her as everyone she knew, everything important, ceased to exist.

One would hope that Apple would use its power, vision and R&D budget to move Macs beyond the PC era into the realm of intelligent companions. We don't need merely a larger version of its sibling, the iPad, a, cough, high-tech Etch A Sketch. (I'm being a little snarky there for the sake of an editorial point.)

There is much work to be done. Macs should become smart enough to help us help them. Siri needs to come to the Mac and become deeply embedded into its internal operation, not just external network resources. Meta code that manages executing code and makes judgments about the state of the machine's health and security are long past due.

This is the eve of 2013. I hope Apple is working on a serious, serious Mac Pro, the one that Tim Cook promised. One to die for. One that creates a platform for power and elegant complexity in our next OS X, something that can be used to get us to the next level of our relationship with computers.

Without that dream, what good is a spaceship campus?

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Warp Bubble via sfu.ca

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Comments

geoduck

I agree with what you’re saying however I take exception to this:

Siri needs to come to the Mac and become deeply embedded into its internal operation,

For the love of all you hold dear let’s not bring back up the idiotic idea of a spoken interface for general computing. Someone might be stupid enough to try it.

A spoken interface will not work for content creation. Writing is different than dictation. Writing quality prose or poetry requires you see the words and manipulate them. Freeform rappers are brilliant but they don’t write Shakespeare sonnets. Neither can you edit film or pictures by talking at them.

A spoken interface is not going to work in an office environment. Imagine cube-land where everyone was yacking at their computer. I have worked in a Call Center (as a tech). It’s a mind numbing environment because of the constant din.

A spoken interface is not going to work for the home environment. Junior writing a paper and his kid brother keeps tossing in random dirty words. Someone trying to shop for a present but everyone can hear what they are saying. Someone leaves the computer active and it writes down an hour of Bones dialogue including commercials. For these and a thousand other reasons it’s a bad idea.

Can we please once and for all bury the idea of us talking to our computers like they did in Star Trek? It was done there and in other shows as an expository plot device. It just does not work in the real world. I’ve worked in offices where someone got a copy of Dragon Dictation and with few exceptions they ended up going back to a keyboard.  It’s fine for “Siri, where’s the nearest Greek restaurant?” it won’t work for “Siri take that thing in the background of the picture I took last week, you know the one at Big Sur, that looks kinda like the mole on my mother-in-law’s arm, crop it and change the color balance so it’s more mauveish kinda.”, or “Siri what’s wrong with this system? Siri won’t work right?”

I tried the dictation feature in iOS6 last summer. I’m still laughing at how bad the results were.

geoduck

Correction: I think Dictation came with Lion.

FlipFriddle

Again, preach on brother ‘duck. Great article John but the Siri control was my only beef too. I like the idea of the brother inserting dirty words; you KNOW that will happen. I agree, as a graphic designer I effectively use my Mac the same way I did 15 years ago. Sure it’s faster and I can have more apps and files open at once, but I interact with it the same way. Is this all computers will be?

John Martellaro

What I had in mind was Siri 3.0, not the current beta. I see Siri as the first step in a long process of computer evolution.

webjprgm

Spoken interface like “move that window over there” isn’t going to be very effective.  But StarTrek spoken interface would remove a lot of complexity to the layman user.  The idea is to have an intelligent agent that figures out what the user wants and helps him/her to do it.

So, for examples I’m thinking of tasks where a novice user might hunt around for buttons.  Maybe “Computer, print this email”.  Or more complex situations like:
  User: “Computer, save all the photos from my camera”
  Computer: “There isn’t enough space on your hard disk, should I delete old files or move files to a separate disk?”
  User: “Don’t delete anything!”
  Computer: “OK, I won’t.  Should I move some files to a separate disk to create space?”
  User: “Save the photos from the camera to my external disk”
  Computer: “OK”

Try explaining to mom/grandma how to do what the above conversation just did.  My Mom had me do exactly that when I was home for Thanksgiving.

Also, the user could ask questions about how to accomplish something and get answers (help files, basically).  Like “How do I export this as a PDF?”.

Oh, and it better be able to use layman terms, like “I want this to be a PDF, how can I do that?”, which does not use the term “export” at all.

webjprgm

I personally like the idea of simple on top, complex on the bottom.  So the normal user gets an easy user experience but the power user can get into the internals to do anything s/he wants.  In this regard iOS is bad, because it only gives you the simple interface.  Mac OS X has generally been good at this principle, since there’s the Unix terminal to do anything you want and there’s Apple’s Finder, Dock, etc. for most simple user interaction.  So more simple on top but leaving the Terminal, config files, etc. available is fine with me.

geoduck

That’s not to say that there isn’t room for a revolutionary interface. KVM is so 1980s. I suspect though that whatever replaces the keyboard and mouse will still require physical interaction. Moving a file from this location to that is so much faster if you just pick it up and put it down. Telling the system to “Take the file containing all of my 1997 through 2006 tax records and move it to the usb drive called ‘backups’ as soon as I connect it” is a lot more kludgy than just clicking and dragging.

Maybe an eye motion interface where you look, hit a button, look where you want to go and hit a button.
Maybe a thought driven interface where you think what you want to happen.
Maybe a floor mat where you dance out the commands in binary.
(Or maybe not.)

graxspoo

John, I agree with what you’re saying here. True innovation is more than just “reducing complexity” For example, suppose you had a command line interface. “Reducing complexity” would be reducing the number of commands, or removing features like piping from one process to another. Innovation on the other hand, would be inventing the Finder and drag and drop.
Apple wants to get rid of the file system. They have done this (mostly) successfully in iOS, but this is a much larger challenge on the Mac. Additionally the “one at a time” metaphor for apps is acceptable in iOS, but much less so on the Mac. This is because to really unleash the power of a computing environment, you need to have ways of using multiple applications in ways that were not necessarily envisioned by their designers. Users need to be able to combine applications from different vendors into workflows. iOS has nothing to contribute towards this, nor does removing access to the file system. The file system especially is important to the creation of high-level workflows because it often acts as the common denominator between applications.
The direction Apple is heading with ‘sand-boxing’ and the Mac App Store is also counter to the needs of pros and engineers, because it tries to carefully limit the ways applications can access system resources. Many powerful apps can not be sold in the app store as a result.

So, from my point of view, Apple can either rediscover their pro market, and give us powerful tools, or they can admit they have no interest in us, and continue down the path they’re currently walking.

Imagestealer

John;
I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts.  It seems more and more, the manufacturers of our tools are pushing us to the dumbed down edge of the spectrum.  As much as I enjoy my iPad, it is NOT suitable as a tool in my normal work environment, which consists of creating and writing training materials for high tech Automation control systems.

I have long held the opinion that software and OS development should be moving us in the direction of managing the increasing complexities of our everyday tasks.  We all know the world is a complex place, however the OS should be moving in the direction of masking and managing those complexities and allowing us to work at a higher level.  If that means we need to re-evaluate the use of the file system (which is really just a database anyway), then that is the direction we need to go.

In terms of voice input, well, others have already said it.  Probably won’t work well for day to day tasks, but might be appropriate for involved queries.

That leads me to one other issue that seems to be getting more and more prevalent, and that is the premise of connected computing (cloud stuff).  While this might work well for those that live in highly urbanised or congested environments, it is mostly non-functional for those of us that prefer a more relaxed (read rural) environment.  That is mostly to do with connection and data cap issues, than any perceived problems with the concept (other than paranoia regarding having no control over your off-site data).

Good article.

graxspoo

Another aspect that is working against Apple when it comes to pros:
Pros want to be able to mix and match services. This is especially true when it comes to connected services such as cloud computing. However, Apple’s model is diametrically opposed to this. They want to be your calendar service, your entertainment service, your file sync service, your map service, your contact repository. That’s how they make it all “just work.” What we should be demanding from Apple is much like what we demanded from Microsoft: a Chinese wall between OS and Service departments, with well documented and public APIs bridging them.

furbies

Thanks to John and to all those who’ve posted comments.

This was one of the most engaging reads I’ve had in ages.


This is what I remember TMO being like before the Trolls could post without registering.

vpndev

“...PC, a personal computer) that look like and operates like iPads doesn’t make sense. Microsoft is finding that out with their Surface tablet.”

I’ll add a data point to the Microsoft issue. There are a few Apple stores in the Washington, D.C. metro area and the ones with which I’m familiar (two in Bethesda, MD) are always busy.

By chance, today I was walking through the mall at Pentagon City (seriously upscale) and noticed that there is a Microsoft store there (first one I’ve seen). There was reasonable traffic in the mall (it was 1:30 p.m.) but the Microsoft store had ten salespeople and two customers. I cannot recall having ever seen an Apple store with so few customers - with the obvious exception of when the doors are closed.

This is a very *very* bad scene for Microsoft.

vpndev

Not everyone gets the message, though.

Here’s an alternate view ...

Here’s what ICT should really teach kids: how to do regular expressions
Regexps are part of the fundamental makeup of modern software and can make everyday people’s lives much easier
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/dec/04/ict-teach-kids-regular-expressions>

This could become a *very* interesting thread smile

iJack

Sorry guys, but I’m with John on this one.  I don’t want to have to learn entire new technologies to do my job on my Mac, I would in fact prefer to UNlearn some, and be able to do a better job at the same time.  If Siri could learn to understand and comply with my requests in context – which mean ‘her’ learning my specialized software as well – life would be very, very sweet.

Lee Dronick

I am using Siri more and more and finding pretty accurate, I am also using dictation my Macs more frequently. However, both features seem to be better used in solo environments.

As to voice control of Mac, and PCs, remember that not everyone has full use of their limbs and indeed may not have any at all.

aardman

I’m with webjpgrm.  Simple face, complex mind.  Keep the interface simple for non-techies but make sure all the functions are still accessible for the advanced user.  Could be as simple as a check box in settings to reveal the ‘pro features’ in OS-X.

But please nothing like Win8 where a touch interface is stupidly forced on a desktop use profile.

John Martellaro

aardman: I like that check box for Pro users idea, and I think I may have even written about it.  It seems to me that Apple’s thinking is that if we really need something advanced, we’ll go find it. And/or that newbies might be tempted, then get into trouble.  Even so, there must be a way to do it right so Pro users don’t have to do research to exploit the power of OS X.

bazz

I’ve not read the blog yet but anything with Max Headroom is GREAT!!!

wab95

Very nice piece, John.

I saw this some days ago while travelling on business, but was unable to find time to comment until now. Permit a couple of belated and jet-lagged thoughts.

First, I concur wholeheartedly with your thesis that the post-PC era does not mean the end of the ‘PC’ any more than the end of the ‘steam’ or the ‘atomic’ eras meant the end of machinery so powered. We still use steam driven turbines powered by atomic power - we’ve simply combined, refined and harnessed these technologies in more efficient manifestations for a new era. We will do the same with the venerable PC, even if it is buried, nested if you will, beneath a layering of next generation technology. It is not the package but the function that defines it. What spells the end of the era is a specific technology’s place in the order of things. Today, the PC has been relegated from the dominant position of computer tech to one of many players subservient to a common goal of digital management and information, alongside smartphone and tablets - computers all - but designed to dominate different niches of service.

I also concur, wholeheartedly, that the Mac needs to evolve in such a way as to make harnessing its gigaflop power more accessible to a greater proportion of Apple clients. Regrettably, I must disagree with some of my fellow readers who seem to view Siri integration with the Mac platform as somehow undesirable. I believe that takes too narrow a view of what Siri is or represents. Voice interface is the future as sure as is touch screen technology. Tactile keyboards will be with us for awhile yet, but will be increasingly relegated to minority status, as they both take up space, are not amenable to the level of configuration as a virtual keyboard, and represent the era of ‘big iron’ - fixed furniture computers - that has as much future, in my view, as hard cover encyclopaedias. Siri, or whatever voice interface succeeds it, will become smarter and hardened against the background noise that currently compromises it. I can imagine, in the not-so-distant future, a voice interface that is locked into the individual user’s voice in much the same way that current biometric technology locks into a fingerprint or facial recognition, such that it only responds to the owner’s voice or a given speakers voice at one time for multi-user functionality. This is what one sees on STNG, with all that power and capability in the background, accessed with the ease of simply saying, ‘Computer’.

Finally, I maintain that the harmonisation of iOS and OSX is just that, an attempt at harmonisation of function, rather than an attempt at dumbing down the Mac. Its first forays into that brave new world will see some missteps on the Mac, to be sure, but I don’t see why Apple would believe it in their interest to strip OSX of its power for professional use in science, engineering and the arts. To what end? In my personal experience, when I have provided feedback to Apple as to how I, in my professional use, tap either OSX’s or other Apple software or the hardware, I more often than not, get not only a response, but work-arounds and later see some of that functionality made mainstream (e.g. Pages, and SSD drives for laptops - based on two premature spinning drive deaths in heavy field use) - but I digress.

I think it is a nod to reality that the features to which the majority of Apple clients are accustomed, which are iOS users, should be ported to the Mac in OSX, as many of these users migrate to the latter. It makes for a friendlier user environment in much the same way that skeuomorphism is meant to make software interfaces less threatening or at least more understandable. It is a transitional phase. As we advance, some of this harmonisation will take on a more refined expression on both sets of devices - the goal being user experience served by feature set, and not the dominance of one or another operating system.

I also share the view that Apple bury features in OSX that get users into trouble - like the System folder. Given the tech calls that I personally receive, I am convinced that most users are migrants very new to the Mac and are at the stage of trying to figure out basic features - things most readers here take for granted (if you’re reading these columns, you are probably not a ‘representative’ but advanced OSX user).

Nicely stated, sir.

Bazz

The problem of invention or discovery is one does not know what one has!!
Columbus thought he had found India. Planck invented Quantum as a simple mathematical solution to a problem he still did not believe in. Doctors believed in the “Smell theory” of disease against evidence! Apple does not know what is important or what it has or where to go!!!

The inventor of lasers like IBM’s Watson said there is little need for them.

Apple’s greatest inventions it gave away!!  HTML, LightPeak to name two.
Apple’s greatest year is 2009.
It had “Grandcentral” and “LightPeak” and using ARM (partly invented by Apple) and gave them away.
When I saw Intel’s timeline for LightPeak I knew there was a snow job on Intel’s part. 10 years of electrons before photons. I sent Stevee Jobs an email titled “Vindicated” saying he was a dickhead fool! Why?

Grandcentral software was to control multiple core CPUs —who needs that control? Super computers!

LightPeak at Intel’s initial speed was 1-2 THz.—1000 times faster than CPU clock speeds —who needs that speed? Not mice, keyboards or RAIDs but Super computers! Its to reduce latency to zero between distant multi core CPUs.
I said to several and eventually Stevee Jobs that Intel wanted it because unlike Stevee they knew its value!
I also said at the time that all very fast computers should be in Freon—to keep them cool. Guess what? Intel is testing servers in a bath of oil!

And finally RISC (ARM), high maths is about 0s & 1s not ‘move here open there’ which is Intel’s core architecture. CSIRO gets $200M a year from a chip that does fast Fourier analysis on the fly, it was made for radio astronomy, but its use is now in every cell phone.

In my email I said Apple could have been the greatest computer company FOR EVER! Bigger than IBM bigger than Microsoft bigger than all computer companies combined by selling Ultra Super Computers for I said $5 million. (that’s 1 computer for 10,000 iPads)  But Apple did not know what it had!

My rant is relevant here because all invention is TOP DOWN. The frontier is always exclusive, limited to a few, and expensive. It is only later that the masses have it. When you cater to the masses as Henry Ford found out at some stage the masses bypass your once good product as crap!

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