Apple: Leave room for “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels,” wouldja?


Yesterday my feeds were full of chatter about translucency. Apple’s big announcement day included some major overhauls to the Mac operating system in its new Yosemite release. The edges of windows, henceforth, will be see-through! Some font will change. Icons, too. Big stuff afoot.

Apple’s marketing act is so well-choreographed at this point that it commands the tech world’s attention — whether there is real news or just the sort of stuff that, long ago, might have been relegated to a technical white paper.

When you are the company that produces most of the devices members of the tech press use every day, that’s understandable. But I’ve learned that every batch of Apple announcements contains some that end up making a difference and others that turn out to be duds — and the calls made by the pundits in the first 24 hours often don’t pan out.

So, as we chew on the incremental improvements and competitive feints that constitute Apple’s seasonal burping up of announcements, there’s a larger story whose thread I hope we don’t lose: As Apple continues to meld iOS (for the iPhone and iPad) with OSX (for the Mac), how will its choices expand or confine users’ creative options?

Apple has always served two crowds: The everyday non-technical user who wanted things to “just work,” and the creative professional who needed the integrated features that only Apple offered. At its very best — with extraordinary products in both ancient times (HyperCard) and the modern era (GarageBand) — Apple found ways to bridge these two worlds. It created simple tools that led users magically toward complexity without ever cramping their style.

In the world of user experience research this sort of thing is called “end-user programming.” That’s when people who can’t write code themselves are given enough power to push a creative tool in new directions — and to share their work.

Because end-user programming mobilizes the innovative energy of a much larger population with more diverse needs than the software-developer crowd, it drives unexpected sea-changes in technology. It is what sparked the adoption of spreadsheets in the ’80s, which turned out to be the early personal-computing business’s first “killer app.” It also catalyzed the initial success of the Web itself: HTML was easy to learn and write yourself; URLs were a simple, universal way to point to other people’s stuff you liked; and “view source” let you see exactly how they did it and try it out yourself.

There are still pockets of this sort of empowered creativity in the world of the Mac. There is precious little of it in the consumption-happy world of iOS. As Apple goes about merging its two universes, it needs to keep that space for “end-user programming” open — not just because advanced users want it, but because it’s where unpredictable innovations grow.

One small indication of Apple’s direction here is the way the new OSX will hide full URLs in Safari’s address bar. This isn’t the end of the world for webheads — a click will reveal the full address path — but it indicates what we can assume is Apple’s aesthetic prejudice: Code is ugly; hide it wherever possible.

On the one hand, sure! (Just let me check a preferences box that turns the full URL back on, please.) On the other, if this is a first step toward deprecating the very idea of a user-accessible Web address, well, that would be bad — not only for those of us who love the Web, but for Apple.

That’s because this prejudice against “http://” is oddly retro; it makes Apple look curmudgeonly. URLs may offend the technophobic among us, but this isn’t the ’90s. We’ve lived with them for a long time. People have grown up with them. Objecting to them is sort of like being pissed off that Interstate highways have numbers instead of names.

Today, the “URLs are gobbledygook” argument is, I think, in the same category as the “people don’t want to scroll” argument or the “people want to own their music on physical media” argument — a vestige of generational prejudice that the march of time will erode. Put them behind a scrim if you must. But leave it translucent!

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  1. Scott Rosenberg

    Thanks, Chao! That’s kind of sad about Chrome, given that Google’s whole edifice is built on the value of a simple link…

  2. CarlosT

    Has anyone been asking for the “hide the URL” feature? This is why I have found Apple’s products so frustrating to use. It’s like Steve Jobs (and now his ghost) is constantly elbowing me out of the way so he can “help”. Stop it.

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