I first learned how to work a computer on an Apple Mac. Marvellous things they were – I’ve still got my old Apple Mac 128K in my garage. I didn’t want to learn on a DOS machine. It looked like the effort might be considerable and for the limited reward of rather clunky word processing. The Mac was a revelation and fun fun fun. I transitioned reluctantly to the windows world (I think) when I was in John Dawkins’ Office in Dec 1990 – with the horrble Windows 3.1 which was apparently a lot better than the more horrible Windows < 3.1. (Given that the first decent GUI Microsoft came up with was memorably in 1995 assuming Windows 95 came out in 1995 perhaps Windows 3.1 wasn’t with us at the end of 1990. Anyway, I was certainly on Windows by 1994 and despite various infuriations (not unknown in the Apple world either) Windows 95 was a good interface, 98 was better and, looking back XP was very nice because it was as intuitive as Windows 98-8 and stable. I didn’t have to reboot it twice a day as I did with 98 as 98 gradually became unreliable as one worked on it.
I now have a very nice little ASUS Ue2. It’s a nice machine but running Vista it’s slow. And Vista does nothing seriously better than XP (for me) and the search function remains deeply mysterious. But it’s OK.
I remember keeping my eye out for ways back to the Apple world. Office 97 was a very good package, but there were a bunch of things that irritated me about it (almost inevitable in any big upgrade and aggregation of a suite of complex apps got out the door quickly) and they were just the kinds of things that had been better in the Apple environment. For instance if you wanted to back something up you’d have to work through wizards (if you were lucky) which would work (if you were lucky) but you wouldn’t know what was happening so if something did go wrong, or you wanted to apply the same principle you’d learned in one environment to another – well tough luck. I recall wanting to port a glossary from one machine to another. In the Mac World you’d go and find the relevant file and copy or move it to the relevant place on another machine and things would often work out very nicely. All very modular. Anyway, on checking out Word 98 on a Mac, it turned out that none of this was any longer true and the weaknesses and strengths of Word for Windows had been ported across to the Mac World. Once you were in Word, you were locked in the Microsoft world, so I didn’t see much point in paying a lot more for hardware and software and switching back to Apple.
I’m a techno conservative in this sense. While I love new natty things that new ICT things can do, I don’t like donating hours of my time to learning new programs, fixing new bugs or just figuring out some weird new way of doing things. I’d been wanting to get an iPhone for a while, but hung back for two reasons. One is the great Steve Jobs’ enthusiasm for reaching into my pocket, not just with a capital charge, but by way of additional monthly subscription fees. Another is his arrogance. I mean perhaps refusing to build floppys into iMacs was visionary (and ultimately a public good for the industry), but refusing to make batteries on iBook Mac Airs swappable is just infuriating and stops me considering them.
The other (this is now three reasons, but no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition) is that I seriously don’t like iTunes software and it has been one of the main tings to give me pause about the whole idea of just moving back to Apple and expecting it will all work better.
Anyway I thought it would make sense for me to aget an iPhone being involved in the Government 2.0 Taskforce and so out I went and paid around $40 more per month for the next two years than I’d otherwise have to pay for a normal mobile phone. What do I think (I hear you cry)? What do I think?
Well I think that Apple is a great hardware designer. The iPhone is hard to fault as a piece of hardware. And the software that is on board the iPhone is of course a major part of how good it is. There are features that I wouldn’t use on a normal mobile, not because they’re not there, but because I just wouldn’t take the time to learn how to use them, or would forget how to use them because of infrequent use. For instance quickly doing a voice recording is so easy that I’ve started using it to my great convenience. I’m still not sure if it’s all worth $40 a month, but it’s fun. And a mobile ago was a bluetooth mp3 player, but I spent an hour trying to move files across to it using bluetooth and then gave up. iPhone is just lovely for all that stuff.
But the software integration with my PC? Well that’s a different story. It’s iTunes. Now I find iTunes bad enough for an iPod. I mainly use it to just cycle podcast (talking) radio programs like the Reith Lectures, and Vox Talks, ABC Radio etc. So I’d like to just download the file and load into iTunes. This can be done, but it’s not intuitive. My iTunes is subscribed to the Reith lectures, but won’t pick up any but the first lecture. So I’ve downloaded them and tried to stick them in the relevant ‘folder’ or ‘subscription’ in iTunes. No dice. And there are basic things about it that drive me nuts. It’s massively resource heavy judging by how long it takes to load. It doesn’t have ‘tabbed’ browsing which is infuriating when one is hunting for podcasts. It wouldn’t be that hard to make iTunes at least as good as a browser for this kind of thing but it’s much worse for me.
But as a complete interface for the iPhone iTunes is ridiculous. For instance, it synchs contacts and calendar. Now I have 5,000 odd contacts in Outlook and most are just email addresses. So I got 5,000 useless contacts in my iPhone. How to get them out? Well the manual didn’t tell me. I guess there’s a way. So I completely reformatted my iPhone and started again. That was the only reasonably quick way I could find of reversing that mistake. Perhaps there are even programs – as there damn well should be – that enable you to interact with your iPhone using your PC that are built for that – and feature calendars and contacts and so on in such a way that you could mess properly with what was on board your iPhone but from the comfort of your PC and its nice big screen and keyboard. But if there are such programs, Apple hasn’t let me in on the secret. (I haven’t yet got going on apps properly, so there will presumably be something along those lines there.) But seriously expecting me to interact with a PDA which has seriously more power in virtually every respect than my old Apple Mac 128K, without access to anything more than (bad) music management software. Well it’s a joke. And it’s just the kind of joke that undermines what I presume Apple would like me to think which is ‘switch to Apple and all those things – or most of those things that irritate you about your current set up will just melt away. You’ll wonder why you didn’t just do it years ago’. All my experience has done is to reassure me in my techno conservatism. If you fancy something, make sure you give it a good look before you outlay lots of dough and don’t assume that anything will be much better than anything else until you check it out for yourself.
Apple is great at hardware, and seems to be good at operating systems, but programs are no great shakes (it’s odd that Claris never got far with its applications compared with other apps companies, though it did give birth to Filemaker). And integrations between your PDA and your computer? Well I’m not too impressed. Perhaps it’s better if I go buy a Mac. But on what I know, it’s no more than a fond hope – like expecting Microsoft to fix something that intensely irritated you about it’s last distribution in its next one. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t.