The Power and the Glory

MacDigest
Volume 6 no. 9 (September 1988), page 15

When I was in high school, the most powerful personal computer you could buy was really nothing more than an overgrown desk calculator that could be programmed to perform a couple hundred steps automatically. A couple of years later, Hewlett-Packard came out with the first wrist-watch calculator for only $700.

The central processing chips that would eventually make the personal computer revolution happen were in their nascent stages then. Now, of course, wrist-watch calculators more powerful than the original H-P calculator sell for $34.95 all day long.

The transition from then to now did not occur overnight, it just seems as if it did. Thinking back, though, the next step after the H-P wrist-watch was microcomputers you could build yourself. My friend Paul and I would read the articles in his electronics magazines and wonder; both at the implied miracle and at what in the world one would do with such a contraption. Neither of us bought a computer then.

Personal computing wasn’t standing still but neither was I, and in the process I got spoiled. Working the swing shift at a Burbank firm that rented time on a mainframe back in New Jersey, I quickly got addicted to the power of the big machines. HASP tapes, punch cards, leased telephone lines, and paper tape readers were pretty advanced back then, and being able to upload a 9-inch tape full of random data at the beginning of the shift and download a 9-inch tape of carefully ordered information for the phototypesetter at the end of the shift was pretty intoxicating. I pored over the stacks of COBOL listings in a vain effort to unlock the secrets to such power for the future, when doubtless I would have some task requiring that much computational power.

The job came and went. The Altairs came and went. The IMSAIs came and went. I kept an eye on the microcomputer scene, vowing to buy one as soon as they were powerful enough to satisfy me. I checked out the Commodore, the Sinclair, and the Kaypro, but none of them had what I was looking for.

The Apple II proved to be more of an enigma. In some ways it seemed so crude, yet there was no denying that people everywhere were pushing forward the frontiers of personal computing with the darned things. What finally torpedoed my desire for an Apple II was an invitation from the brother of a girlfriend to check out his extensive (and mostly pirated) collection of software for his tricked-out Apple II. He turned it on, booted it up, and then for reasons unexplained this young power user immediately began doing a sector-by-sector search of one of his floppy disks. After watching the rows of hexidecimal numbers march up the screen for about five minutes, I had the information I needed to make my decision: no Apple II for me.

Years have passed since those days, but still I tend to view power users with some suspicion. So while I check out a lot of the desk accessories (DAs), DA jugglers, INITS, FKeys, and Finder replacements, debasements, and add-ons, I keep coming back to the source: I like the way Apple does it the best.

Oh, sure. After a year and a half with my Mac Plus I have a custom start-up screen (Max Headroom; who could resist?), and I just added an automatic screen blanker (after being promised by someone I trust that it wouldn’t crash my system). I was perfectly happy turning down the screen intensity with the knob that Apple so thoughtfully provided on the front of the machine. If that screen blanker screws up, I’ll be back to manual screen blanking in a heartbeat.

Were I to give it a name … that is, if I had to name what it is about the Apple Way that I find so nice … I would have to say it is the look and feel. I like the way the screen looks. I like the menu bar. I like that silly font they use (Chicago?). I like double-clicking, dragging, zooming, scrolling … all that stuff. And the thing I resent most about the various we do it better than Apple programs that are running around loose is that they lose the subtleties that for me make the Mac so wonderful to work with in the first place.

Take DAs, for example. I’ve downloaded a ton of DAs. Most of them are sitting on a disk I have around here somewhere. I don’t keep them on the hard disk; I never use them. I do have the standard Apple DAs (less the Puzzle, thank you), and one extra one for doing word counts on my Word 3.01 files. And from what Bill Gates said the other night at the LAMG meeting, that DA’s days are numbered.

I have tried a lot of the Finder replacements and supplements as well. MiniFinder, Power Station, Switcher, Servant, MFMenus, etc., etc., etc. Fortunately tried them before I bought them, so when I found I didn’t like them, into the Trash they went. Who needs ’em? If you want my opinion on the right way to bolster the standard Finder, you need look no farther than MultiFinder. Now there’s a piece of system software. No surprise; it’s from Apple, too.

Notice that I am not saying that MultiFinder is perfect. It just happens to work right. It’s predictable. I feel right at home when I use it. It may be that my preferences in system software reveal more about me than I would like, but to me the fact that it feels good is more important than the fact that it crashes occasionally and has a yeoman’s appetite for RAM. The way I look at it, the bugs will eventually all become worked out. If on the other hand, there were no bugs but the look and feel weren’t there, I doubt the interface would evolve in the direction I would like it to take. And if I didn’t have the extra RAM to run MultiFinder, I would be plenty happy with the latest Finder. It’s got that look and feel.

What’s the point of all this? I want to make the computing world safe for neophytes who, while looking at the Mac for the first time, feel daunted by those who claim everyone simply must have all the latest foofahraw desk accessories, INITS, and utilities. Computing with a Macintosh can be complete without knowing how to use ResEdit, Fedit, or MacSnoop. And for those of you more experienced Mac users who feel that all that stands between you and power userdom is a DA menu that extends through the Earth’s mantle, relax. To paraphrase Warhol, in the future everyone will be a power user for 15 minutes.

Of course, if it turns out that no groundswell of put-upon power users and nonplussed neophytes rises up to support me, I can still claim to be the spokesperson for the silent majority of computer users (that almost worked for Agnew, didn’t it?). But groundswell or no, if even one harried Macintosh consultant out there reads this article and finds the ammunition she needs for the client at Dewey, Skruem, & Howe who has been bugging her to buy Suitcase and QuicKeys, my life will be complete.