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This article was published on July 24, 2011

Apple and power users: A lopsided love affair

Apple and power users: A lopsided love affair
Matthew Panzarino
Story by

Matthew Panzarino

Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter. Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter.

Apple hates power users. I’ve heard the refrain many times over the last few weeks, but it’s reached a crescendo with the release of OS X Lion. Apple’s newest OS has a host of user-facing features that are aimed at making it the easiest and most feature-rich OS that Apple has ever made.

Those features, along with the fact that several key new additions to Lion borrow heavily from the iOS mobile platform, have convinced many that Apple is actively discouraging power users from using its platform. Launchpad, Mission Control and the changes to the finder are seen as more nails in the coffin of the Mac as a platform for more advanced users. Some say that soon we’ll be using a version of OS X that makes the Mac just a bigger version of the iPad.

There is some truth in the reactions to the changes that Apple has made, and is continuing to make, to its flagship OS. But there’s also a decided lack of perspective. To figure out what the future holds in store for OS X power users, we have to examine a couple of factors. The first is to determine what exactly a power user is.

What is a power user?

There are a lot of definitions that would work here and power users will likely find different ways to define themselves based on what they do with computers and why they do it. But the basic needs of the power user can be boiled down to two things: Access and control.

Now, a power user’s wants and needs are not diametrically opposed to the needs of a regular user. There is significant overlap here and any given user might want or need a certain amount of control over their machine to do what they need to do. The difference comes with the way that Apple decides how much control and how much access a user needs. In the end, a power user believes that they deserve full access and full control over their computer system, giving them the ability to mold the hardware and software however they see fit to accomplish whatever goal they have in mind. In contrast, a non-power user might want a specific bit of control to accomplish a purpose, but otherwise doesn’t care.

To give you an example, let’s say that a particular Apple computer is not compatible with a brand of electronic drawing tablet and pen that an artist uses to make digital paintings. In the eyes of the artist, this is a barrier to them producing artwork on this machine. So they have two options, either purchase a new tablet or gain access to driver support on the machine to reinstate the compatibility that they had on their previous computer.

The outcome of this situation depends largely on that artist’s desire to delve into the deeper workings of the computer’s functionality. If they decide that it’s worth it, financially or time-wise, to fix that issue then they very well may learn why the problem is occurring and gain the expertise necessary to fix it. On the other hand, they may decide that it’s not worth it and just pay someone else to fix it or buy a new tablet.

A power user would never ask themselves the ‘is it worth it’ question. Instead, they would automatically assume that it was their right to use the machine how they wished and delve into making the tablet’s software work on the machine if possible.

There is a variation on this theme that’s worth mentioning too. Often a power user can be defined as a heavy user of the system for a specific purpose. If, for instance, you’re a professional using a Mac to do video editing, you’re going to want to tweak many software settings to make it the ideal environment for you to do your work in. This is really an extension of control though, and many of the same principles apply here that apply to any power user.

In the end, we all have a bit of a power user in us when the situation presents itself, but the desire for control and the ability to access the system to get that control is the defining characteristic of a power user.

Apple and the power user

Just over three decades ago, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were excited to show off what they had created in a bedroom of Woz’s house in Palo Alto. It was a homemade computer kit called the Apple I and they wanted who would appreciate it to see it. So they brought it to the local homebrew computer club and presented it to the members in the weekly meeting. Those people were what we now call power users.

This is a bit of a conceit, because at the time there was really no such thing as a ‘regular’ user of Apple’s computers. Very few members of the general public had much of an idea what computers actually did. And even if they did, these were things that were used by corporations, not in the home.

The members of the club wanted to build their own computers to use at home. They wanted access to the capabilities of a computer and control over their construction and programming. That was a difficult proposition at the time because there were very few computers that were affordable and available enough to make this kind of thing a commodity. The Apple I, and later II, changed all of that by offering these users a complete kit (minus a monitor, a case and a few other things that we take for granted today) that they could build and use without having to source many of the components themselves.

This offering was made to these power users but it didn’t stop there. The Apple computer was effectively the beginnings of the personal computer revolution. It took something that was available only to the power user and brought it to ‘regular people’. By the end of the 1980s, Apple was selling tens of thousands of computers to users who would be classified well outside of the power user spectrum.

In effect, Apple’s genesis was with the power user, but its ongoing success has not been due to appealing to that market, but instead by making the computer more available to the public at large. The vast majority of people who use Apple computers are doing so because they give them an easy and well-designed way to use the functions of a computer, not because the hardware or software gives them more options.

Access and control

Apple knows which side of its bread is buttered. From the very first, Steve Jobs knew that the market for the personal computer reached far outside of hobbyist clubs and enthusiasts. Both he and Wozniak, and many of the early employees of Apple, envisioned a future where every home had a computer. And they have been fortunate enough to see that dream come true in their lifetimes.

If a computer was to be in every home, however, it couldn’t be designed with just the power user in mind. It had to be relatable to the average person and usable by just about everyone, even those with a very meager or very shallow understanding of computers. To this end, the Macintosh was designed with a software interface that felt familiar to the user. There were folders, files and a desktop. Using features was as easy as pointing at them and ‘touching’ them with the mouse.

This, of course, led to the concept of limiting access to the underlying system. When you have this beautiful graphic interface laying on top of the system, offering a relatable way to control the system, it becomes less necessary for people to get access to the underpinnings of the computer.

In this manner, Apple really began moving away from serving the power user with some of the very first computers in its lineup, even before the Mac. Beginning with the Apple II, the company began a general shift towards wanting people to see these computers as a complete product, not a collection of parts. The streamlined case and integrated keyboard made it seem like an appliance. This only became more evident when Apple began offering the Apple IIe with a monitor early in its 11-year lifespan.

This was truly a complete machine. You wouldn’t have to solder or build anything here. Just plug it in, buy some software and away you go.

This ease of use has continued to drive Apple’s innovation when it comes to the Mac and its other products up to this day. At first, it may have seemed like a betrayal to the power user, but in the end, it’s really a sign of Apple growing up.

Wants vs. needs

By the time the iMac was rolled out, the days of generic Apple hardware were over. This had removed the physical tinkering aspect from the Apple lexicon almost completely. Apple power users had experienced a shift from hardware geeks to software geeks. This paradigm largely holds true today as power users of the Mac seem largely focused on making the use of the system more efficient through software tweaking, while the hardcore hardware customizers tend to gravitate to PC’s, where generic, interchangeable parts offer more flexibility.

Apple’s design ethos of their computers and portable devices, which de-emphasizes specs in favor of emotional quotients and broad statements about magic and beauty, extends to its software as well. If you’re using a Mac and you’re not interested in tweaking things manually, there is an almost 100% chance that you will never, ever have to do so.

For most of Apple’s customers, this is a godsend. A computer that offers them productivity and a sense of purpose, wrapped up in a beautiful package, is exactly what they need. It’s one of the primary reasons that a lot of creative pros use Apple machines. It allows them to focus on creation, not manipulation of the system.

The continued inclusion of Apple Script and Terminal access in the default accounts of Macs today shows that there is still at least a vestigial awareness of the power user at Apple. Even though those users are a smaller percentage than they once were, they’re still there. And in many cases, the features that those users take advantage of and how they use them informs the design of the OS.

However, many of the changes within OS X Lion have made some question whether Apple cares to cater to power users on an even basic level.

Lion and the power user

Although the reception to OS X Lion has been generally positive across the board, there have still been those among the heaviest users of the Mac that feel slighted with the changes and lack of attention to ‘power’ features.

Foremost among these is scripting support. The lack of improvements in the support for AppleScript language has been a rallying cry for those that feel that Apple hates power users. You can still create scripts that automate tasks and operations within OS X, but additional support in applications or the OS hasn’t been added in Lion.

Instead, the Automator application, which uses an interface that gives scripting a visual component, has gotten a lot of love. The new stuff in Automator is really great and allows people to create automatic actions throughout OS X very easily. If you’re a power user that hasn’t checked out some of the new stuff, I’d suggest you take a look at this excellent site. If you’re a user that hasn’t dabbled in Automator much, you should definitely give it a look.

Automator is the future of AppleScript. There may always be support for people to write custom actions, but in the end, Automator is the way that Apple wants this system to work on OS X. This speaks to what power users feel is some of their access to the system being taken away. Instead of being given the ability to access every application with AppleScript, users of OS X are now having the extent and types of automation that are available to them dictated by Apple.

Another major feature of Lion that has been causing some waves is Mission Control, which combines some of the features of Expose and Spaces into one gesture-launchable app. When you break down the features of Mission Control, you’ll find that Expose has survived this blending with most of its features relatively intact. Spaces, however, has been modified heavily. This has removed much of the ability by users to determine the virtual ‘location’ of their spaces as well as the ability to move applications between spaces with the same speed.

Mission Control is a relatively ugly, but incredibly functional feature that should take the idea of virtual desktops out of the shadows, where it’s been used by power users for years, and put it into the hands of new users of Lion, especially those who are new to Mac.

This is the reason that Apple is making these changes, not to spite the power user, but to open up the Mac to new users at any cost. By acting as an editor and displaying a willingness to be merciless in that editing, Apple is showing maturity that has come along with its growing success in capturing a large part of the personal computer market…again.

Maturity and foresight

By choosing not to do things that it could do and instead looking at what it should do, Apple is trying to be wise, not just intelligent. Could Apple enhance scripting greatly, giving users incredible access to the system by providing extensive support? Yes. Could it offer the option to return to the old way that Spaces used to work? Yes. Will it do those things? No.

Recent years have shown, for better or for worse, that Apple is willing to make hard decisions about the direction of its products. The recent brouhaha over Final Cut Pro X and the changes it made from the previous version, are a prime example of this.

Apple divested itself of the design of its older software and came up with a creative vision of what it thinks the future of video editing is. I won’t go into my thoughts on its success or failure here, there are plenty of great articles about the topic already. Instead, I’ll answer the question why.

Apple doesn’t make these changes because it hates the power user, it does it because it loves the regular user. Or, to be more accurate, it loves the income that the new user brings to the company when Apple computers are purchased.

The history of the company, especially in the modern era, has proven time and again that Apple is interested in creating, at least as far as it perceives them, the best products in the world. Whether those be category defining like the iPad, or category refining, like the MacBook Air. But the interests of the company don’t stop there. It is also interested in making money, and to do this it needs to anticipate the needs of new users in ways that may sometimes seem arbitrary or hostile to current users.

In short, it’s displaying maturity and foresight.

What, to the power user, may seem like hostility, is in fact closer to apathy. Apple is telling these users that if they’re interested in bending the system to their will, then they will have to find their own way of doing that. Apple is too busy building a system that will appeal to billions to cater to the comparatively small thousands that make up the power user base.

If you want it done right

There is honestly a lot more that could be said about the one-sided battle that power users have been fighting with Apple over the years. There are minor features of OS 9 that didn’t make the jump to OS X that are still a major point of contention (WindowShade anyone?). But in the end, what it boils down to is that Apple doesn’t make products for power users, it hasn’t in years. Instead, users of their products find them so useful and pleasant to work with that they gain a desire to make them even more efficient.

What Apple has been saying for years is that it will continue to edit and refine its products according to its own goals and if you’re a power user, you need to find a way to get the access and control that you need within those editorial bounds.

There are still tools available to the power user, even inside Apple’s editorial walls. Automator is better than ever in Lion. AppleScript, while not expanded upon, remains a great way to create custom actions not supported by the OS, and there are a host of preference files still available for tweaking via the Terminal.

Apple doesn’t hate power users, but it also doesn’t love them. As the company matures its making harder decisions about what its customers need versus what they want. As Steve Jobs has famously said, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

If you’re a power user, well, you’re probably already looking for a way around that.