Charles Petzold

“It Just Works”

December 25, 2006
Roscoe N.Y.

I admit it: It's my fault my mother has an iMac, so I have nobody to blame but myself. Here's how it happened:

In 1998 I was working on my book Code and I was afraid that my discussion of graphical interfaces might not be generic enough. I figured I should know at least a little bit about the Macintosh, so on that day in August 1998 when the first iMacs went on sale, I walked down to J&R with a handtruck and walked a new Bondi blue iMac back home. It was my first Apple product since the Newton.

I got the iMac set up and played around with it a bit, but the "intuitive" Mac interface continued to baffle me. I suspect that after several months or years, I too might find it intuitive, but it seemed pretty pointless to me. (Why, for example, would the primary Mac app be called the Finder? Does stuff on the Mac get lost really easily?)

Pretty soon the Bondi blue iMac was just gathering dust in my apartment so I gave it to my mother as her first computer, and she began using it for email. Then the power supply failed so it didn't "just work" any more, and the service guys at Apple recommended I should buy a whole new machine that would "just work," so I felt obliged to buy my mother a new iMac with a domed base and a flat screen.

Perhaps if my mother used lots of various Mac applications and stuck in lots of external devices, the machine would "just work" quite well. But she basically only uses email, so perhaps that's the problem. Just about every time I visit my mother in Jersey, I am called upon to boot up that dreadful machine and do something so it "just works" once again. For awhile she had a problem where certain spam emails would hang the email program upon viewing, but they couldn't be deleted without first being viewed. (Gosh, that was fun.) Presumably some patch to fix this little problem is among the 100 megabytes of updates waiting to be downloaded and installed, but my mother has a dial-up and we're forced to forego this 100 meg download. And besides, the slogan isn't "It just works with 100 megabytes of updates."

Recently my mother's inkjet printer stopped working, which isn't Apple's fault, of course, but we decided to get her a new printer for Christmas. We were very careful to buy an HP inkjet that was purportedly Mac-compatible and said so right on the box. Regardless, for weeks I've been dreading Christmas morning when I'd have to actually hook it up to the iMac and persuade it to just work.

This morning, before even opening the printer box, I carefully read the system requirements and discovered the printer required OS X version 10.3 or 10.4. Alas, my mother's machine is running version 10.2. My first stop to resolve this issue was Apple's web site.

Like virtually all commercial web sites these days, Apple's site targets broadband connections. If you have a dial-up, getting actual information from the web site is like getting nourishment by sucking damp rocks. On Apple's home page, the most important information they deemed necessary to convey to me was that I needed QuickTime 7 to view even more of those insufferable TV ads where that smug goateed glazy-eyed dork tries to make closed architecture and a complete disregard for backward compatibility seem cool. When I selected the Mac OS X tab, the page apparently wanted to download some movie, but eventually the browser hung with the interminable spinning pinwheel, and I had to three-finger it out of existence.

Digging again into Apple's web site, at first I was optimistic about upgrading my mother's operating system. I learned that OS X 10.2 is called Jaguar, and OS X 10.3 is called Panther, and OS X 10.4 is called Tiger, and Tiger is something I really really want because it really really just works. To a longtime Windows user, an upgrade from OS X 10.2 to OS X 10.4 seems the equivalent of a free downloadable Service Pack. In the Apple world, however, upgrading from 10.2 to 10.4 costs $129, which is actually more money than we spent for the printer we were trying to install, and would involve a DVD sent through the mails.

I then went to the HP site to see if they had any helpful information — I think I wanted something that said "Don't mind our obsessive-compulsive listing of various OS X versions. Of course, OS X 10.2 will 'just work' just fine" — but once again I discovered a site that shouts a big "Screw You, You Pathetic Loser" to anybody who accesses it with a dial-up. The HP site actually crashed the iMac. The pointed-finger cursor remained pointed no matter what I pointed it at, nothing on the keyboard worked, the on-off switch didn't work, and we had to resort to turning it off by the power strip.

About 90 minutes after I first sat down to install the printer, I gave up — defeated, humbled, angry, and nursing a major headache. The printer didn't even get out of the box, and we now have to return the printer and get one that is OS X version 10.2 compatible. (And then, presumably, the real fun begins.)

Christmas morning has traditionally been a time of frustration, but usually when someone tries to assemble a bicycle. The irony is: I would have loved putting together a bicycle on Christmas morning. "Some assembly required" is one of my favorite phrases in the English language. Give me a screwdriver and a floor full of parts, and I'm happy.

But just don't force me to boot up a Mac.