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

“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.


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?


Warp Bubble via sfu.ca