Free Ebooks by Randolph Lalonde

Free Ebooks by Randolph Lalonde
Free Ebooks by Randolph Lalonde

Sunday, October 3, 2010

My Macbook Pro and The Hesitant Future

The keyboard on my HP Mini started falling apart after about 400,000 words in a really big way. Half the spacebar didn't work, a ctrl key would no longer stay on, and most of the commonly used keys were well, wonky.

While the laptop I'd used to write two Spinward Fringe novels, most of The Sons Of Brightwill and other things was dying a slow death, Windows continued to grate on me. Updates were shutting the OS down while I wrote, pop up bubbles erupted from the lower right and other idiotic tics kept trashing my workflow.

Fixes were installed to stop the bubbles (provided by Microsoft), and only a couple types of notification bubbles were removed. Other fixes were put in place, but no matter how much work was done on XP (on its third revision with Service Pack 3), it was still an antique operating system that seemed more interested in getting in its own way than being a fully functional platform. Not only does Windows XP remind me of Windows 95, it provides little more in the way of effective computing and many of the so called improvements become problems. Evolution is slow in nature, and if Microsoft were the only people developing Operating Systems, they would prove, beyond a doubt, that it's no faster in software.

While I have absolutely no respect for Windows XP, I understand that hundreds if not thousands of people worked on it. I tip my hat to their hard work and hope that they all have a chance to work on something that provides a better user experience in the future.

Having said that, it's also important to mention that this blog post isn't a love letter to Apple.

After six months of saving, I was able to purchase a Macbook Pro 13" to replace my ailing HP Mini. Every reader who has purchased one of my books is a little responsible for me having this machine. A few people have asked me why I didn't go with a less expensive machine, especially since it took so long to save up for it.

I have tried several Operating Systems over the years, including Red Hat, Ubuntu, Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 and others. All of them require a greater amount of maintenance and compromise than OS-X if you are using it for my purposes. This isn't an arguable point, it is fact. People who try to argue that another OS is adequate are wrong in my case, the debate is moot and I'm not interested in hearing people discuss which operating system is superior on this blog, I'll tell you why later.

I use my Macbook Pro for writing (primarily), browsing, email, photo editing, a little 3D rendering and video editing. Never have I seen a machine that can do all of those things more efficiently. The interface is clean, the operating system doesn't interrupt my work flow - ever - and I find myself less distracted. The laptop itself is durable, easy to keep clean, the keyboard is set up so I can type at a blazing 86 wpm - my personal record average - and it is simple. Windows and the machines it dominates feel like dysfunctional toys in comparison. This Mac OS equipped aluminum laptop is like a real professional tool. The Macbook Pro hasn't crashed once since I turned it on in July. Other people have had different experiences, but my Macbook has performed exceptionally well.

Having said that, what makes OS X special is the absence of complications and distractions. It has what an operating system should, and doesn't get in its own way. This shouldn't be difficult to accomplish. Every operating system should be able to provide this kind of experience as a baseline. While I'm pleased with the cleaner, more efficient experience I'm having with Mac OS X, I'm not actually impressed. More than anything, what the operating system doesn't do is helping me get my work done every day. It doesn't crash, it doesn't reset my system whether I like it or not, it doesn't require a virus checker that flashes update alerts randomly, and it doesn't stand out like a sore thumb.

I know the Macbook Pro and OS X are capable of much more than I'm using it for, but my Macbook is a tool, not a toy.

Moving on to the point in general:

I believe that Apple has provided a better computer all around than anyone else for the price range. That's an overall opinion. For the money I could have gotten a more generic computer with more power, more software, more storage space, and with more customizability. What I think Apple has done better than anyone else is provide a better user experience in general by following a specific vision of what that experience should be. One of the reasons why this computer cost more than similar machines from other companies is because more time is spent on research and development.

So, why am I absolutely opposed to hearing yet another debate about what operating system is best? The answer is simple: They're all providing the bare minimum experience we should expect or less. The argument is pointless, there isn't an operating system out there worth fighting for.

Computer and console operating systems are over ten years behind where they should be in terms of evolution, and that's not even using the time scale operating system development is based on. At this pace, we won't see a truly impressive operating system for another twenty years.

I'm not talking about including a holographic interface, or a real artificial intelligence. There are people working on those things, but they're not core to the user experience.

An operating system should either be small, simple and agile like Mac OS X, some implementations of Linux Ubuntu and other customized experiences or it should be modular and robust. That complex software is the second part of what will make the operating system of the future impressive to most users.

I hope a future OS would communicate with the user until they have finished selecting the applications and activities they want to engage in. If the user wants to continue interacting with the computer, they can, that communication could even continue as a part of their desired activity, but the computer should never interrupt the user while they're doing what they chose to do. An assumptive component is also important so a user doesn't have to jump through the same hoops over and over again. The system would pay attention to how many times the user makes the same decisions and tailor the experience according to their behaviour. Audio communication with your computer could be part of the experience, and it should be refined so a user can choose how active the computer is in asking questions and making requests for more information, but more importantly, the computer should have to be a good listener. It wouldn't be like talking to an automated operator that asks questions and waits for you to press a button or clearly enunciate yes or no answers, it would be more interested in hearing your requests and responding appropriately.

Example:

"I want to edit that picture of my uncle from last week," he said as he walked into the room.
"This one?" Asked the computer as a picture of his uncle appeared on screen. "I assume you'll be using Photoshop?" It verified as the software finished loading.
"No, the other picture, the one with the party hat."
The computer closed the initial picture and opened the one with his uncle in a party hat that he'd spent the most time editing during the previous week.
"Fantastic," he muttered as he began selecting the outline of his uncle's face by tracing it with his fingertip. "Now bring up that documentary about great apes I was watching last night. I'm going to be grabbing a still shot from the scene where they start throwing things at tourists."


There are a lot of other ideas that can be applied universally, but the ones above are of great significance because they would improve accessibility and efficiency in a significant way for everyone, even the disabled. The idea that our computers should be practically invisible is coming as well, but that's something for another blog post as the implications are as much psychological as they are practical. The point behind all this advancement is to get computers and communication to work for us, instead of extending our working day, adding extra stress and getting in our way. All of this can be accomplished in the operating system.

It doesn't take an artificial intelligence to take a user's habits into account. Voice recognition, camera cue interactivity and people who design systems that focus on efficiency have existed for many years. The systems required to run software designed for home use has existed for over a decade. The desire to design said systems has existed as well, and while they've done wonders for security and other highly financed applications, software companies like Microsoft, Apple, Sun Microsystems and many more should have already offered these innovations to the general public.

The current attitude of some of the largest software producers in the world don't support making that a priority, however, since Microsoft can sell tens of millions of copies of Windows 7 before it has even arrived on shelves. It doesn't offer anything that I couldn't do five to ten years ago using software that was programmed in basements and in the offices of smaller companies with more ambition, but it's prettier, and it almost performs as well as Windows XP under ideal conditions.

Where do I think OS-X stands in comparison? It works well in concert with specially designed hardware that is made to provide a simple experience with a couple frills. It's a basic tool, and I'm enjoying it because it is dependable and doesn't interrupt my work flow. If I had the funds, I'd replace everything I own with Windows installed with Apple equipment, because they have managed to provide a better user experience by accomplishing the minimum requirements for a computer system, as far as I'm concerned.

I suppose the saying holds true: You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you can get what you need.


RL

[As an added note, I'd like to thank all the readers who buy my books. Every single one of you have had a part in putting a roof over my head, food in my bowl and in giving me the tools I need to keep working. I can honestly say that, thanks to this little Macbook Pro, work on Broadcast 7 is going faster than expected.]

6 comments:

Allan B. said...

While I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment towards the clean and practical functionality of Mac OS X (I too have a MacBook Pro 13" and will not go back to windows anytime soon), I disagree on the somewhat ideal and novel idea of a computer adapting to our behavior. I believe this for the simple reason that we become routine, and in becoming so, limit ourselves by relying on a machine to "figure us out".
Now, I really enjoy the idea of an A.I. like Alice (would be a huge wet dream of mine to have one like that), I'm not sure that non A.I. machines should try to recognize our behavior, or we limit ourselves to believing that they are working within parameters we're comfortable with. We become complacent.
For example:
What if I wanted to edit that picture of my uncle in a party hat on New Years Eve?
Well, as things are now, I would search through all the photos I have tagged or labeled and in folders related to what I'm looking for, and I might come across a photo I forgot about, that might suit the moment better. This doesn't happen if my machine just pops up with three photos that include my uncle with a party hat. We miss the gems this way.
Alice would have considered this and brought it to our attention (in my opinion, she's sharp as a tack like that). Behavioral routines are limiting.

However, I do believe that the iOS is the new OS of the future... It's simple, clean, and even less distractions. I think the concept of a "Desktop" is a waste at this point.
I like that on my iPhone I don't have wasted space. Just icons for the apps I want, need, and use. I can group them, and go straight to the one I want quickly. The web browser is still a web browser, picture editors are still picture editors, and office suites are still office suites I can do all my work on.
Put that into a desktop/laptop scenario with the expose type multitasking ability, and we have a winner.
Get rid of the trackpad, make the screen a touch screen, and we have more room for keys, extra functionality.
As voice capability advances, we can order the computer to do mundane things (works ok for now, not well enough for m liking) like open applications, go straight to a particular website, perform a specific search, tweet a message, write an email or take dictation for a paper, etc...

Glad you made the move to a smart and reliable machine though. Maybe this means a new episode sooner ;)

Randolph said...

I have to admit, you're right about being limited by a non-AI adaptive system. I think there's a balance worth striving for between what a system like that would do for us, and what it would encourage us to do for ourselves.

If future developers are smart enough, they'll find a way for the system to find out where that balance is for each individual. How a system would do that is beyond me at the moment, but we can hope there's someone in a basement somewhere with the answer.

As a side note, there was a tiling Icon system for the Amiga that was much like the presentation in iOS in functionality. I think the idea will persist more aggressively now that Apple's market share is growing.

Calvin said...

Glad to hear you're liking your new laptop. (though personally I'd rather a desktop over a laptop if I don't have one already. easier to upgrade) And personally glad that you're tired of windows as well. I got fed up with XP last winter, saved a few files to an external HDD I have, and just wiped the thing. Stuck Ubuntu 09.10 on it and haven't looked back. Though am a bit sad that you didn't find what you needed in a linux OS. I'm sure there's one out there that could, but given the choice between a windows computer and an mac OS computer I'd take the mac. It's at least UNIX based now. I just hate all the DRM Apple has. Sorry if this came off as what you didn't want to see, that wasn't my intention. I'm honestly glad you like OSX.

I think I need a few paragraph breaks in there...

On to another point. Have you ever considered switching to a Dvorak keyboard? All it is is a different key layout and you can switch your current keyboard to a Dvorak layout from within the operating system. Though the letters on the keys won't change unless you move them yourself either by physically moving them or with stickers. The advantage aside from reportedly speeding up your typing is that you don't have to move your fingers near as much to type the same amount of text as on a regular QWERTY keyboard. With the amount of writing you do I'm sure this would be a good thing. As an example, here's the QWERTY's 10 home row keys:

ASDFG HJKL;

Tell me, how often do you use the semicolon?

Compare to the Dvorak home row:

AOEUI DHTNS

All the vowels on one hand, most used consonants on the other. Something like 3000 words that you can make from the QWERTY's home row and 30,000 from Dvorak's. (I may have the numbers wrong but you get the idea)

Just an idea.

Randolph said...

I've heard of that layout before Calvin, but I learned how to type using my current home row when I was six, so really, it would take me a long time to get used to a new keyboard layout.

With everyone waiting for Broadcast 7, I'd rather not take on a new style of typing, even though a Dvorak keyboard layout sounds exceptionally cool. Maybe I'll give it a try sometime, but not while I'm mid-novel.

Calvin said...

I can understand not wanting to switch mid-novel. Would really throw off your work flow. But if you already know how to touch type it doesn't really take that long to learn as long as you're not switching back and forth. You just have to use it. A printout with a picture of the layout next to you helps too.

leanne said...

I think you made a good investment with your readers' dollars. Apple's machines have a long life and hold their value longer than other PCs. OS upgrades don't generally require a new machine or other hardware upgrades (such as memory) and cost much less than Windows upgrades.

While Linux can be free, other than whatever you pay for the underlying PC it's run on, there's little personal support if you encounter issues (unless you have a "friend" who's an expert and/or feel like searching for everything online). If you live near an Apple Store, their geniuses are free to use (and could be considered part of the cost of the Apple PC).

As a reader avidly awaiting Broadcast 7, I appreciate your thought process and the investment that resulted. Thanks for using my purchases so wisely! :)