The Usability Month
You might remember that February was abuzz with talk about the HP iPod and a headless iMac. In March, Mac bloggers wrote extensively about usability: the Mac Portable versus laptops, CUPS and adding printers, AppleCare, and, in a blast from the past, all about Mac Word 5 and 6. That’s our theme for the month.
But first, no one bothered writing last month. I was, I will admit freely, a little disappointed. So this month, I’m giving you an incentive to make it all the way to the end of the column. Then, you can scroll down just another tap or two and leave me a comment, or click on my e-mail address.
Probably the single biggest discussion of the past month was that last bit I mentioned, all the talk about Mac Word 5 and 6 and what it means to be “Mac-like.” Rick Schaut starts with an important premise, Mac Word 6 sucked, and builds from there into something a little more elegant, a discussion of what made Mac Word 5 so much better and what constituted “Mac-like” to users who disliked Word 6. He also explains a lot of the trade-offs in building a modern word processor like, yes, Word 6 for an architecture with significant CPU and RAM limitations (the Motorola 68K Mac). Microsoft wanted to integrate the Windows and Mac codebases for Word, and was considering a rewrite, only to can it and port over the Windows codebase. Mac users hated it.
I have two disclaimers here before we discuss any more: (1) I had only just recently learned to touch-type when Mac Word 5 was released and was in second grade, so my analysis is purely secondhand; (2) Rick Schaut is not just some guy expounding on Mac Word, he’s with Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit, and his opinion counts for something at least.
What ensued from Rick’s commentary was nothing less than a desert sandstorm of interest in what he had to say. The comments on the essay itself suggest two different threads: people who thought that Word 6 was a disaster because it was basically a Windows program that happened to run on the Mac, and people who thought that the added features like inline spell checking which couldn’t be done with Mac Word 5 made it well worth the while and the money. Later, Rick clarified his definition of “Mac-like” to explain what the Mac BU encountered, which was, in essence, “how Mac Word 5 worked.”
Others got in on the commentary thing, too, and it may serve you well to read them. Derek Miller insists that every version of Word from version 6 up has been bloated beyond what he needs: “Word 5.1a, from 1992, with the addition of inline spell checking (the squiggly red underlines) would cover almost everything I really need to do.” Pierre Igot thumps hard on Rick and the Mac BU for paying too much attention to additional features and not enough to things that would genuinely improve the user experience, like integrating the Word and OS X spellcheckers. This leads to, yes, 61 comments, many of them dialogue between Pierre and Rick about the points in the article. Michael Hanscom insists that although Word is usable now, Word 5 was perfect and Word 6 the perfect word processor—for a Windows user. Jay Shao excuses the grotesqueness of Word 6 on some level, saying that the steps backwards involved in completely rewriting Word’s codebase might have been a tradeoff MS couldn’t have afforded at the time. (Imagine that: something Microsoft couldn’t afford!) And, I should observe, Kirk McPike named Word 5 “[t]he best word processor any platform, ever,” and yes, he used the “Mac-like” moniker, too.
Now, moving on to what else happened in the Mac blogosphere this month, on that same usability theme:
- Charles Moore at MacOpinion wants Apple to bring back the Mac Portable. He thinks that, although the PowerBook is great if you want to be consistently mobile, a computer that you could take to work with you, sit on your desk and then take home with you would be nice for people who don’t need the features compromises of an inch-thin aluminum beauty. After all, the thicker G3 PowerBooks could take swappable bays and the like, which would be more than a little challenging in the titanium or aluminum models, and some people don’t want to be road warriors. There are some PC laptops that do this, mammoth beasts weighing in the same 15-pound range as the old Portable. Why not Apple? (Part of me asks, “What about the Xserve?” I’d think you could fit that in a briefcase pretty well and take that home with you, if you had a monitor in both places. Like in the olden days, with laptops and docking stations. But I digress.)
- Eric S. Raymond (yes, that ESR, for you FSF fans) tried out CUPS and its GNOME GUI to connect to a shared printer, and found it rather lacking in ease of use even for a Linux geek. He says that it’s just too complex to make sense, and in order to use it as its instructions indicate, one has to first hack the CUPS config file—rather the opposite of “Aunt Tillie could handle this just fine,” as he put it. But, lest we Mac users become too smug about our own CUPS handling, Jon Udell of InfoWorld tried out OS X’s Printer Setup Utility for the same task and finds it, too, to be more difficult than necessary, although not making mistakes quite as egregious.
- PJ Doland complains of AppleCare being much too user-disoriented for anyone to bother using and not worth the money anyway. Doland says, “All you get with AppleCare is free phone support and three years of sub-standard wait-and-see mail-in repair service.” Not quite the ease of use we’ve come to expect from Apple.
In case you found all of that boring and still want your Easter egg, I’ve got lots of fun news on the iPod front this month! Yes, if you thought last month was strange, then try three unusual iPod stories in one month: an iPod homicide (apparently a hoax, gratefully); from UC-Berkeley’s The Daily Californian, the iPod tribe, of sorts; and, from Engadget (original link not available), a Craig’s List posting an iPod in exchange for pretend love (yes, you read that right; she was to be there just to show off to his parents). To boot, Wired (via As the Apple Turns) claims that these iPods-in-exchange-for-something ads are unique to New York City, something I’d buy, and that there, you can get an iPod in exchange for all kinds of things, and, bizarrely, some people will exchange sex acts for an iPod. Apparently an NYC thing.
I’m going to take a cue from radio shows here and say: if you have any interest in being mentioned in next month’s Bloggable, think my idea from last month of a companion blog for this column is great/stupid/terrible, or want to praise me or pillory me for something I wrote, please contact me and let me know. Because I’m tired of just getting spam at breakfast.