The Inversion

August 9, 2011

So Matt Neuberg over at the outstanding Apple news site TidBITS, has written an article about the new OSX Lion application management regime called “Lion is a Quitter.” His basic complaint is that Lion can (with the support of an app) shut an app down, preserving it’s state for a fast relaunch, if that app has no visible windows and isn’t used for a certain period of time. This takes an element of control that he used to have over applications out of his hands and gives it to the operating system to do, in line with what he terms the new “nanny state” attitude of Lion generally.

To the extent to which I can also be an anal control freak, I sympathize with his argument. He’s missing the big picture however, when he says that Apple has enacted this change in order to make OSX more like iOS. The reason for changes like this runs much deeper than that.

Those of us who have put substantial investments into learning all the nitty gritty of how computers work on the inside are quite accustomed to a world where the users are strangers in a specialists’ world. The thing that makes Apple the most radical and successful company in the technology industry is that they think that paradigm should be inverted.

Apple thinks that power users should be the ones who have to work uphill and that regular users should have clear sailing, rather than the other way around. This is the attitude which subconsciously turns engineers and technology geeks and journalists against them. Apple isn’t trying to make life easier for people who do things from the Terminal, they’re trying to make life easier for people who wouldn’t know how to use the terminal.

In the drooling infancy of GUI multitasking operating systems, a set of invisible lists was made. In one column was the list of things the user interacted with directly, and in another column the things that were handled transparently by the operating system. The organization of the file system, process management, versioning, installation, uninstallation and updating of applications were in. Memory management, interrupt locations (and hardware matters generally) were typically out. This mix was largely determined by the computing resources available to the operating system and by extension, it’s capacity to make informed decisions in the matters at hand. Despite an almost embarrassing multiplication of hardware resources however, that mix hasn’t changed substantially in decades. Oh yes, here and there have seen tiny improvements, but overall, the sort  of things you had to explain to somebody who’d never used a computer before haven’t really changed much.

Apple’s list of things a regular user should be interacting with is much shorter. The reason for this is simple; users aren’t using computers to interact with the file system, launch and close applications, keep track of file revisions, or update applications. Normal users are at a computer to get things done, either for enjoyment or for work. Nobody gets paid to manipulate the file system or launch and close applications and nobody does it for love. We do these things because they are the complications and obstacles between us and the actual task we are attempting to complete. Apple thinks they can take most of those intermediate steps away, or replace them with something which is more intuitive and faster to use.

This is precisely as it should be. Performing easy tasks with a computer should be easy, and performing complex tasks should be difficult. The typical users outnumber the power users thousands to one, why would you optimize an operating system for a minority use case? The answer to that question is that operating systems are built entirely by the minority in question. Because power users build operating systems, they tend to be built more for those kinds of users than the more common kind.

I think that Apple’s version of The List is the biggest gamble in the history of desktop computing. Apple intends to entirely re-invent what happens when you sit at a computer, to a level where you spend almost no time operating the machine, and almost all the time performing the task you need the machine for.

Apple sees a world where computers are transparent enough to need virtually no training, and where only the people who need to do complex work should have to grok complex concepts. This is an inherently disruptive exercise, and the people most disrupted will be those who have an investment in understanding the underpinnings of computing. That mastery will never be valued in the same way again. The days when geeks imagined that the world would sort itself into a neat technocracy with the most knowledgeable at the top are long gone. If Apple gets their way, this odd technical specialization will be no more or less important than any other specialization.

In short, Mr. Neuberg, get used to it – This is just the beginning.

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