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Rodney Interviews Mac Author Gene Steinberg

Rodney Interviews Mac Author Gene Steinberg

by , 2:00 PM EDT, September 22nd, 2000

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 His computer news and support Web site, The Mac Night Owl ( 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.

Rodney: 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?

Gene: 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).

Rodney: What led to this?

Gene: A Microsoft user survey of Macintosh Office users showed that 93 percent never cracked open a manual. Aside from saving production expenses, why produce a manual if it is not going to be read?

Rodney: Answer the following question: Has the decrease in printed manuals been a positive/negative thing for a) Mac users b) Mac book writers?

Gene: 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.

Rodney: I've been studying Unix, in preparation to OS X. It isn't easy (to me, anyway). What are your thoughts about OS X possibly not coming with a manual?

Gene: It's Apple's intention is to deliver Mac OS X for novice users, too, so Unix knowledge is not essential, unless you want to visit the command line and get deep and dirty into the core. For most Mac users, Apple hopes they will never need to see what lies beneath the Aqua interface.

This reminds me of an anecdote: Back at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco last January, it seemed everyone was talking about Mac OS X after the Steve Jobs keynote where Aqua was first unleashed. One long time Mac user kept lamenting that he was afraid that he'd run Mac OS X, and one day, a Unix command line would suddenly appear in the middle of his application.

He just went on and on, and wouldn't listen to our assurances that this was absolutely against what Apple intended. So far I've been giving the Mac OS X Public Beta a heavy workout. No command lines in sight -- unless you open the Terminal application, of course.

Rodney: I've heard that OS X beta will come with a manual. Is this true?

Gene: Yes it is a very nicely designed setup manual that will get users through basic setups in good order.

Microsoft, on the other hand, in light of their user survey, will not offer a printed or electronic manual for Office 2001 for the Mac. This is a mistake, I feel, but on the other hand maybe it'll bring more readers to my forthcoming book, Office 2001 for the Macintosh: The Complete Reference.

Rodney: (I think that's what you'd call "Shameless Self -Promotion™" You're a man after my own heart :-) Which effect has the lack of Apple-produced manuals had on your writing chores: a) increased b) decreased c) no effect?

Gene: Hard to tell. I've had plenty of work in the last two years, but I think the consumer focus, with more novice users buying Macs, has helped too.

Rodney: You have a web site dedicated to helping Mac users with their software/hardware questions/issues/problems. Is this kind of cyber-aid a natural outgrowth of the dearth of printed material from Apple?

Gene: The growing use of the Web has encouraged folks to seek out information there. There's also immediacy, the ability to seek out the latest information, unfiltered.

Rodney: Are you working on an OS X type book?

Gene: Sure, it's The Mac OS X Little Black Book from The Coriolis Group. It'll be out as close to the final release as we can make it. It's a guide with essential information for beginners and intermediate users, from basic installation strategies to configuration and troubleshooting.

Rodney: Most of your books deal with the Mac. What goes into writing such a Mac book? Do you have direct contact with Apple?

Gene: Apple doesn't cooperate with the media as they used to in providing pre-release copies, so it makes it more difficult. However, Mac OS X is especially significant to them, so I did go to San Francisco to receive a product briefing at CNET headquarters a week before the Public Beta was released. We had to agree to Apple's embargo, not to publish a story until the official announcement. But that worked fine. I had a few days to try out Mac OS X before I had to complete my story. The actual review appeared at CNET's Web site shortly after the release was announced in Paris.

Actually, my first published books were about AOL (except for some chapters I did for other authors), and I always had the pre-release software to use. For Office 2001 for the Mac, I also had the beta versions, so it has made the process of starting the book much easier. Microsoft has been especially helpful in getting the right material to me.

Sad to say, Apple no longer has a special program to deliver pre-release products to the media. The experience with the Public Beta appears to be the exception.

Rodney: How long does it take to write a Mac book?

Gene: The publisher sets a deadline and sometimes it's stringent. Let me say in general that it can be between 3 weeks and 3 1/2 months. But the latter is the exception.

Rodney: What are your thoughts about OS X Public Beta, versus when you first saw it and when you actually got to play with it?

Gene: I find I can agree to a large extent with MacWeek's "iGeek," David K. Every: The Aqua user interface as we see it is the result of compromises and there's probably no way to make everyone happy. One of my editors says the Dock is "cool," other folks tell you with equal vigor how they hate it.

Mac OS X works best at a higher screen resolution, so the oversized text doesn't intrude as much. I tend to make the Dock smaller, and find hiding it to be an annoying alternative. I would also not be surprised if Apple sprung further changes upon us during the beta cycle or in the final release.

Rodney: What are your thoughts about the Mac/PC holy war? Are PCs really "just as good as a Mac" now?

Gene: For many users, the difference isn't vast overall. The fit and finish of the Mac OS is far better, but folks can manage to get things done with a PC, anyway. But when things go wrong, they can go very wrong.

A couple of years ago, I set up a new system at a local advertising agency. All the Macs on the network managed the usual feat of connecting to the big office laser printer, an HP, in a matter of seconds. I put the proper PPD file on the Macs, so they could work with the printer's custom paper trays and other add-ons.

Not so with the bookkeeping PCs. Even though HP is one of the larger PC manufacturers, it took two hours of struggle, with workarounds supplied by HP technical support, before the typical PC in that office would network with that very same printer.

When you go through that, and read about people spending days or weeks doing simple setup chores, you can see that the various flavors of Windows don't always work as advertised.

Rodney: People claim that the Mac OS is "old." Is it really as archaic that people make it out to be? Why or why not?

Gene: Well, for one thing, it crashes too much.

It is getting ungainly. Having several ways to perform a task might appeal to the experienced user, but novices are still confused by things that we take for granted. What application are they in? How do they check for other open applications? How do they use an Open dialog box? Where did they put that file?

Did I also say it crashes too much?

Mac OS X may be, as some people say, NeXTStep with a Mac-like interface, but [you can see that] a lot of thought went into finding simpler ways to do things, too. Maybe too simple. I can't imagine what one would put in a one-thousand-page manual on Mac OS X, unless they devoted two thirds of the book to Unix.


Steinberg bibliography (the following, and others, are listed and linked at

The Mac OS X Little Black Book (coming January 2001)

Office 2001 for the Macintosh: The Complete Reference (coming 2001)

The Windows 2000 Mac Support Little Black Book (with Pieter Paulson) (2000)

Upgrading and Troubleshooting Your Mac (2000)

How to Use Your Mac (2000)

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