Sunday, October 3, 2010
My Macbook Pro and The Hesitant Future
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.
"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.
[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.]