Washington Apple Pi

A Community of Apple iPad, iPhone and Mac Users

Walls: Mac OS X and Freedom

© 2001 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, March/April 2001, reprint information

Mac OS X brings with it many things, and over the coming months you will hear about these in detail. But it also brings with it something you may not hear about: it brings walls. There will be controversies about "barriers to acceptance" and the "high hurdles" to bring computers up to the requirements of Mac OS X, but there are other walls. For most users, these other walls may prove the most important.

Walls are good. Our ancestors built walls to keep wild beasts from carrying off loved ones, and keep dinner from running away. Walls successfully defended the ancient city of Troy until that nasty Greek gift showed up. Walls in restrooms offer privacy; walls in offices offer status. Walls in a grain silo contain the grain and keep it from spilling out. On a submarine, walls keep the air inside and the sea from spilling in.

Walls divide things. While the most famous such division may be the Berlin Wall, there are more common reminders. Walls keep the general public out of exclusive country clubs, and keep visitors away from the aliens in Area 51.

Walls do both good and harm. While expressways may be good, allowing travelers to move from Point A to Point B with greater speed, they bring with them increased vehicular noise. So residents complain to government officials, who complain to transportation officials, and transportation officials erect tall "noise barriers" alongside expressways. What was once a pleasant drive with pleasant scenery is transformed into a frantic dash between two walls, with only a narrow ribbon of sky for a view.

But what does this have to do with computers?

Prior to the Mac, the world was a highly disciplined place. To use a computer, you had to know how to type, and type accurately. It helped if you were not only good with numbers, but also good with mathematics. If your mathematical skills extended to binary numbers and base 16, all the better. You also needed to understand how computers functioned if you wanted a computer to do anything useful, and know where to put data if you wanted the computer to recognize it and act on it.

The Mac changed that. You didn't have to type the name of a program to run it; you could just click on an icon. While the Mac was very good with numbers, users didn't have to be; millions of Mac users successfully perform all manner of tasks on Macs without ever learning anything at all about binary and hexadecimal numbers. You could put data almost anywhere; the Mac didn't care where you placed a word processing document, a spreadsheet document, or a drawing. Wherever you placed these files, clicking on the file would magically find and launch whatever program was required to manipulate it, no matter where it was stored.

Mac users are notoriously undisciplined. They leave files on the desktop by the score. They create folders on the fly, and place bizarre collections of files within those folders. The names of the folders, and the reasons why they are arranged -- assuming the user troubles to impose arrangement -- are under the control of the user. The user gives the files and folders structure -- if they want to. The user imposes order and discipline -- if they remember. The Mac, meanwhile, doesn't care: toss a game, 300 graphics files, a score of WordPerfect files, thirty Microsoft Word files, and a dozen MP3 audio files in a common folder, complete with an icon of Dan Quayle and, if it makes sense to you, it makes sense to the Mac.

The Mac was the first apathetic computer: it just didn't care. With some notable exceptions, it didn't care how you organized programs on your hard drive. It didn't care if you failed to organize files on your hard drive. If you wanted to color-code the items in your System Folder, you could. If you wanted to give all your folders and files a Star Wars motif, you could. If you wanted to line up aliases of all your commonly used programs at the bottom edge of your screen, you could. Or you could place aliases of these programs in the drop-down Apple menu. Or you could do all these things at once, simultaneously trying out several methods of organization, and failing to fully follow any of them. The Mac didn't care; it would still launch AppleWorks if you clicked on an AppleWorks file, even if it was buried with a collection of games in a folder called "Trip to Boston."

Microsoft Windows, UNIX, and UNIX-like derivatives such as Linux, are far more rigid. Programs must be installed in specific locations, and moving a program somewhere else may render it inoperable. Files created by the user are similarly constrained, and there are rules on how documents must be named. While it is possible to "customize" the look of Windows and some versions of UNIX, it isn't as easy as it is on a Mac. Such customizations don't permit the same degree of arbitrary whimsy, and the user is still constrained by restrictions on naming files and moving files and directories.

While the release version of Mac OS X hasn't been seen as of this writing, the Mac OS X Public Beta is far closer to UNIX -- and Linux and Windows -- than to the traditional, laid back, apathetic Mac OS. One of the most common complaints about the Public Beta was its rigidity: applications are rigidly segregated into their own directory, documents into their own directory, and so on. While the user is free to make their own directories (folders), Mac OS X doesn't allow you to freely scatter them wherever you want. It also doesn't allow you to rename folders in an arbitrary fashion. Instead of agents of a user's sense of order (or disorder), folders are walled cities in Mac OS X. The walls "protect" the contents of one folder from other folders, but they also discourage tourism. Users complain that they "don't know where things are anymore." What they really mean to say is "things aren't where I want them anymore."

At MacWorld San Francisco in January 2001, Steve Jobs demonstrated a somewhat revised version of Mac OS X. The big news: you could now "litter" your desktop with Finder windows, making it look more like the traditional Mac OS. He promised that, before the scheduled March 24 release, more work would be done to make it look and act Mac-like, rather than Windows or UNIX-like. Yet, for all the changes, Mac OS X still seems very constrained, very disciplined, and very rigid.

The "technical elite" has praised Mac OS X for its power, robustness and security. Or at least the power, robustness and security they think the shipping version will offer. But to the Average Jane, "power, robustness, and security" are marketing terms for the walls within Mac OS X that remove much of the flexibility that allows her to be productively undisciplined.

This same "elite" has condemned the skeptics who complain that Mac OS X is pretty, but it "just doesn't work like a Mac." The response seems to be "grow up; you'll get used to it." In fact, that seems to be a semi-official Apple response, too: grow up. Leave the chaotic mess of your desktop behind and join our nice, exclusive, walled and gated community of Mac OS X. Join now, while we're still building.

It is a remarkable marketing line: users asked for an improved, more spacious artist's loft. Apple delivered an office park with lots of tastefully colored cubicles, an elegant perimeter wall (with guard kiosks), and now, by fiat, declares the office park to be an artist's loft.

Have you ever noticed that the Washington Beltway acts as a castle moat around Washington, DC? The walled expressway may be a marvel of regional transportation efficiency, but it slashes through neighborhoods and communities, and makes local travel much harder. Both regionally and nationally, the world is divided between "inside the Beltway" and "outside the Beltway."

Will Mac OS X act as an expressway, cutting the Macintosh community in two? Will the freedom-loving anarchists of the traditional Mac OS world atrophy and slowly fade away? Will the technical elite thrive and grow inside the new, high-tech, ever so much more efficient walls of Mac OS X? Will Apple pull off a major miracle, and make a maze of office cubicles seem like a big, open artist's studio?

Will you be inside the Beltway, or out?

Lawrence Charters, by the way, ordered the Mac OS X Public Beta as soon as it was available, and ordered the release version of Mac OS X as soon as Apple announced it on their Web site. As a "consumer-level" package, he harbors some doubts and fears about Mac OS X, but strictly on technical merits, he didn't hesitate: he spent money.