Welcome to 1984, Apple

I think I first heard the phrase “The network is the computer” in the late 1990s. It was Sun Microsystems who wanted to convince us of this. I worked at a creative agency at the time, where we had pretty powerful Macs on every desk. We thought, sure, a dumb terminal or “network computer” was fine for office drones doing their menial tasks, but creatives needed more power than that… we needed to connect scanners, and color calibration devices, and weird disk drives, and work on ginormous Photoshop files, and things that required more than the VAX terminals we also used at the time.

Fast forward 15 years and what Apple has effectively given us is… a computer that looks like it’s nearly useless without a network. Hello MacBook Air. Don’t get me wrong… it’s a well designed piece of computer. The fact that it weight almost the same as an Eee PC I bought 3 years ago is not lost on me… nor is the fact that the user experience is probably 10 times better. But I still worry about where we are headed…

The MacBook Air has it’s place. But I just can’t help but feel like while hacker/maker culture is moving in one direction, Apple sometimes seems to be moving in the other… creating these sealed boxes that are definitely easy to use, but harder to open. Steve Wozniak must be turning in his grave. The Apple ][ was like the ultimate hacking machine when it came out… and now you can’t even connect a FireWire video camera to the MacBook Air.

In all this I hope Apple doesn’t forget it’s core creative audience. The ones who need Mac Pros, and need to install dedicated cards, and more drives, and tons of memory… The content creators. While the iLife suite gets these great improvements, many of us worry that the Pro Apps are being neglected. Does Apple take us for granted? Knowing that we’ll upgrade Final Cut Studio no matter what?

In the old days you could actually upgrade your computer instead of just getting rid of it and getting a new one. (You could even upgrade the processor!) I’ve been a fan/customer of Other World Computing for many years, and upon reading their write-up of Apple’s “Back to the Mac” event, it saddened me a bit:

Apple seems to be making things easier and more intuitive as well, but seems to be more enabling rather than empowering lately. We want to email our photos, Apple makes it drag and drop easy to put together one of four pre-made collages from our photos and pick an address to send them to. We ask for better tools to make videos, they hand us pre-built effects rather than tools to adjust them ourselves. We want to share our photos with our friends on Facebook, Apple automates and organizes it all for us. Are we as consumers going to gradually lose our ability to do traditional computing (using and upgrading) for ourselves as we conform our computing lifestyles to Apple’s one size fits all templates … and, as a result, is 1984 coming full circle?

5 replies on “Welcome to 1984, Apple”

You make some good points here. It IS disappointing that “advances” in technology lately often seem like features that actually take away our ability to get creative. I don’t want Apple giving my presets on how to do everything. “I” want to do it. It’s kinda like buying Photoshop actions–great, now I can create an effect with one click, but do I actually know how to achieve the effect on my own? Nope.
With all the recent discussions on remixes and mashups too, it seems kinda funny, that those “artists” are recognized for their ability to get creative with other people’s creativity. Can the remixers actually create something original? I wonder where our culture is headed with the “remix culture” and easy “drag and drop” features—making things too easy takes away our ability to have to work things out on our own.
Heck, there’s tons of ways this thread could go….I’ll stop here for now!

I don’t really care about being able to upgrade my processor or attach external devices. Hardware is just a means to the end of software for me. That’s all atoms, and I think everything interesting is in the bits.

For me, the line is at the file system. As long as I can directly edit files, I have all the hackability I want. So the Mac App Store concerns me more than anything else, as that points to a future in which the file system is hidden from me, and I can only edit files via an abstracted layer of approved apps. I’m fine with that on my phone, but not my computer.

You know Steve Wozniak isn’t dead, right?

Scott, From an environmental standpoint, I can see it two ways… you used to be able to prolong the life of your hardware by doing upgrades, so that should have meant less atoms in the landfill. Of course now you’re starting with more environmental friendly parts to begin with. When I paid $2,000 for a Power
Mac years ago and it got to the point where it still did everything I wanted to do, just a little slower than I would have liked, it was very appealing to know that for under $600 I could upgrade the processor and not start over with a whole damn new computer.

As for the file system… I’m only partially OK with it being hidden from me on my phone. I’d prefer it was not hidden from me, but I can deal with it. I still wonder if it’s a dumbing down of the systems we use though. My iPhone is really a computer, and I wish I could access it the same way I access my other computers… via a file system, SSH, a command line, etc. The Mac App Store? Yeah, that scares me…

As for the hardware/software part, I’m becoming more of a hardware fan than a software fan in some respects, and seeing Apple’s hardware become more and more closed (from appearances anyway) concerns me.

And yes, I know Woz isn’t dead. :)

I agree that the Air is rather useless, but you talk as if Apple is the only maker of computers. There will always be other choices if hackability is a primary concern.

I might not personally agree with the closed nature of their products, but they are doing a good job of opening electronics up to a wider range of people than ever before. My one- and four-year-old daughters love the iPad, and it’s amazing to see how they learn to use it precisely because Apple manages most of it for them (I’m sure the touch interface helps too). Apple is filling a niche that should have been filled long ago, but it’s just a niche.

Chris, I spent many years trying to use software that ran on OS X, Windows, and Linux (when possible) and in past times I’ve had a Windows box on my desk next to my Mac, but in more recent years I’ve become more reliant on specific applications that are OS X only, so I’ve got a vested interest in seeing that the platform remains (somewhat) open and relevant to what I want in an operating system.

I do want Apple to keep pushing forward and making things better for everyone, but not at the expense of “dumbing down” everything and making what used to be simple things harder for the uber-technical crowd.

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