The cost of simplicty in technology
Recently I decided to try out a new kind of computer and bought a MacBook Pro. After many years on PC, which never really satisfied me in matters of simplicity of use, I wanted to give a shot to this kind of computer.
So what to say?
- the design is nice, the computer becomes an eye-candy and I don’t spend my time removing dust from the screen or the keyboard (it looks as if the aluminium casing was dust-repelling)
- the visual effects and graphics of Mac OS X feel good - and it matters. After all, the computer being my main working tool, it is important for me to have a nice, ergonomic working space (it is not just a tool, but a space full of virtual tools)
- there is a lot of free software out there which works for the Mac, and for the moment I did only buy Microsoft Office (at a student price that is)
- Mac OS X Leopard comes with Java 6, so it isn’t a problem for development, unless you need something very specific that is OS-dependent (but even then, VirtualBox makes it possible to run Linux or else)
However, I think that one important point with the Mac (or the whole “switching to Mac” thing) is to commit fully, in ways I am going to elaborate about now. Indeed, besides the (obvious) cost of money, there are other costs that come with using a Mac. For example, after you purchase a Mac, you’ll need to keep up with continuous upgrades, and if you’re not too tech-savvy about the whole process, you could continue reading at this website to see how experts can assist you.
One example is the organisation of media like pictures and music. When using Windows and Linux, I always saw these two things as deeply connected with their storage mean - files. Yet when using iPhoto and iTunes, the concept is different: these two applications commit themselves to manage one’s pictures and music, hence instead of having a folder with all this material in there, the “iWay” is to import all your media to the library and let them organise it. Of course it took me a bit of work to re-arrange the items like I wanted them to be after they got imported, but the tools are so intuitive that it wasn’t that painful (and there are tools for automation, like iBrainZ for automatically organising music). So in the end I don’t know exactly how my music and my pictures are stored on the disk, I in fact delegated this work to iPhoto and iTunes.
So here is one first cost of simplicty: let go the control.
In one way, it is all about delegating complexity. John Maeda in his Laws of simplicity describes this as the 5th Law of Differences: Simplicity and complexity need each other. You can’t have a technology like a computer and a simple way of using it without someone taking care of all the complexity.
But in order to let go the control, you have to trust - trust the guys at Apple that they did a good job and that my pictures and music are safe with them.
Another feature Mac OS X comes with are software updates. Regularly, Apple pushes software updates to my Mac, which are meant to add new features, correct problems, fix security issues etc. This is not something new in the world of operating systems - Linux and Windows do it too.
That said, I came to realise something the other day, when an update for the HP printer drivers was pushed to me. If I was not going to download this update, and buy one of the new HP printers, that printer probably wouldn’t work right away. This is usual on Windows systems, where you have to install the driver first before being able of using your new hardware. And in some cases, this seemingly simple task becomes a matter of hours of searching for solutions to problems you don’t really care about on forums where other frustrated users try to figure how to get their brand new printer to work.
The Mac philosophy is to have things working out of the box - through means of regular software updates the Mac already know what kind of printer you connect and hence avoids the task of installing the fitting driver.
So in fact, Apple was shipping simplicity to me. That’s nice and all, but it means that in order to stay simple, my computer depends on the software updates. And in a way, it is not only my computer anymore: it is a MacBook Pro computer that is used by me and kept simple by Apple.
Which reveals a second cost of simplicity: accept to be dependent.
In a world where techology increases in complexity faster than any individual can cope with, it takes an armada of Apple engineers to keep things simple. I am not only dependant on Apple for a one-time operation such as importing my pictures, but also on the long run, in order to keep simplicity.
I can’t say if these two costs are bad. After all, it is a service that Apple provides, and I from my experience there is no company today that provides as simple computers and the service that helps keeping them simple over time.