Minimal Mountain Lion

The recent announcements regarding the forthcoming addition to the menagerie of clawed operating systems from Cupertino was very interesting to me for a number of reasons.

Chief amongst them is “Wooo! New toys!”, closely followed by “Yay, more consistency!” and finally the slow dawning of realisation that an idea which has been floating around in my head for some time can now be put into action: Project Minimal Macbook! But first, some background…

When I first got my Macbook Air I was delighted with it, but had to rigidly enforce some new ideas about how I used it compared to my previous Macbook which had considerably larger storage capacity. I couldn’t even get close to restoring my data onto it, I had too much stuff, and so I had to work from a fresh install and keep in mind that I needed to be at least mindful, if not downright picky, about what software (and importantly “data”) I could afford to allow into it’s hallowed SSD halls.

Straight away out went iPhoto and iTunes. I could fill my puny 128Gb of space with my music and photos alone. Co-incidentally around about the same time that I got the Air I picked up my first non portable Mac, and my iPhone 4. That’s another story, but still, off you go dear data, there’s a nice fat spinning platter just waiting over there inside the iMac… But I couldn’t banish it forever, I may as well not have it if I can’t access it. So thank goodness for iTunes Home Sharing, and iPhoto Sharing. They might not be ideal solutions, but they allow me enough functionality to be get by with only the occasional massive tantrum.

At which point, I suddenly suffer the timeless fate of those who are lucky(?) enough to have multiple machines, made more tedious by the addition of multiple platforms. What about the stuff that hasn’t got a Homeshare equivalent? What about my PDFs, my family tree data, diary entries, password files and so on ad infinitum? What about not just having access to stuff just from my Macs, but from my iPhone also? What about having anything I can use on my iPhone, also available on my iPad? And so the hunt for the ultimate synchronisation mechamism begins.

Suffice to say, I found ways to handle most of my data, either through carefully choosing to use software that had the ability to use Dropbox or iCloud or other mechanisms to sync for me, or through the use of a third party synchronsation tool that monitored half of my home folder, or by just admitting that I won’t do X on machine Y.

At the point in which these steps were largely dealt with and stable (it will never actually be complete) I had amassed quite a collection of methods and software that did the job, but the inconsistencies and sheer number of solutions and amount of times the workflow was only 90% there put a bug in my ear that’s never quite been removed.

Do I really need all this software? Do I really need an App for keeping track of my books and DVDs, or can I just do it in a Spreadsheet? Do I need a recipes App, or just a bunch of tagged Textedit files? Twitter client, or visit the website? Will I only ever play podcasts on my iPhone, or do I want to have more choice?

You can see where this is going. And now I have the chance to put the thought to the test: Can I manage without nothing but the pre-installed default apps on my Macbook Air running Mountain Lion.

Whenever I have previously thought about this, 2 simple words would stop me in my tracks: “Notes” and “Todos”. Ever used these features in Mail and iCal? Then you will feel my pain. Ever tried to sync them from OSX to iOS? Then you will share the nightmares. Many, many, hours and a not inconsiderable amount of pounds sterling have gone into messing around with replacement software that a) doesn’t suck so hard and b) syncs nicely, not just with my other Macs, but with my iOS devices too. Even when I thought I had nailed it, something would come up to bite me on the butt. A new App would appear on the radar promsing to do stuff better. An iOS app that I liked but discounted because it previously didn’t have a Mac client, suddenly would. An iOS app that was previously only for iPhone would get a Universal binary update to allow use on the iPad…

Each of these things would see me striving to compare the new possibilities against my existing setup. Do I need feature Z? Is switching to App X going to be worth the hassle of migrating and converting my data? Do I actually want to be able sync my podcast playback position back to iTunes…

The freedom to have so many options available to me, so many choices to make on how to do just everyday simple things has started to become time consuming and hard work. I don’t want to have to put so much effort into syncing my tasks. I want to tick those suckers off and get some work done! Right now I have 5 task manager apps on my iPhone that I am in the process of either using, evaluating or trying to export the data out of them so I can bin them…

It’s too much, I want another freedom, freedom from choice. And Mountain Lion gives me that. It covers the basics for almost any generalised computing activity, and makes it available across every device I own. There are no obvious holes in the integration. “Notes” and “Todos” (or should I now say “Reminders”) are finally something to look forward to just using rather than researching. Throw in to the mix that any temptation to download additional software has to run the gauntlet of compatibility with an as-yet unreleased operating system, and it’s a pretty powerful reason to try to keep things as stock as possible. Running on a Beta OS probably isn’t to be recommended, but given my data should be safe (and I have a fully operational other computer with all the 3rd party software anyone could wish for) it’s worth an experiment.

So with that in mind, I have the Developer Preview sat on my Macbook Air as we speak. And I am going to try my level best to not install a single piece of 3rd party software on it from now until it hits retail. Straight away I know this is an impossible task (1Password anyone?) so I may make exceptions with strict critera (namely it must be fully available on iOS and OSX via the App Store, as universal binaries, using iCloud or Bonjour sync only).

I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck!

In defence of inefficiency

In years gone by the definition of a “power user” has subtly altered as more and more people not only own more and more computers, but become more familiar with how they operate, and more competent at actually doing the things that we have been told for years they will help us to do.

It’s a phrase I have never particularly liked, and one that is increasingly unhelpful when it comes down to assessing the relative skills of a user. It’s also largely only ever used by people who already consider themselves to be “power users”, which immediately skews the meaning somewhat and somehow makes it self serving. My brother understands cars more than I ever will, can fix them up, describe their inner workings and drive them faster and likely more safely than me. He’s not a power driver though, that would be ridiculous.

When I first started messing with computers properly, and certainly when I started to do it professionally (and that is another term that I have beef with) I considered myself a power user, and if asked for a definition of that phrase I would probably have suggested that it would describe someone who knows how a computer and it’s operating system combine with application software (there were no Apps back then!) to allow you to achieve some end result, and that the power user would understand the whole end to end process sufficiently to be able to not just know what to do, but understand why you are doing it. And in extension of this, should said power user need to do something for the first time, they should be able to work it out from first principles without having to be taught the new actions required or refer to any manual etc. That’s very wordy, but there is no simple soundbite phrase that covers all the elements in a nicer way that I can think of.

In short, a power user was a someone who knew how their computer worked, and was able to use it to achieve tasks that they might not have been taught to do by anyone else because, like maths, once you understand the concepts you have no need of learning times tables to infinity by rote any more.

These days most people with a computer could probably fit that description at least up to a point. A combination of improved usability and capabilities of the whole computing eco system, along with the prevalence of computers in everyday environments (these days you are a minority case if you do not have at least one computer of some description with some form of internet connectivity in your household or workplace) means that today my retired mother can probably do more on her first Macbook that I could have done with my first PC, even with limited tuition or training.

But of course, those of us who live and breathe computers, whether for fun or for money, have the need to set ourselves apart from the regular Joes, and the way in which we do this has changed over the years. Previously, we could just do more. Now thanks to technological progress we can all do the same, so we need to find a new differentiator. So we’re going to have to do the same, but faster.

Santa’s little helper

Say hello to a whole host of tools to help me, the power user, stand out from the regular crowd by using a suite of applications and services that allow me to do things differently to my dear Mum. I’m looking at you TextExpander, and you Launchbar, Keyboard Maestro, FastScripts and so on. If you’ve even heard of these programs, much less used them, you are probably entering power user land.

Using everyday actions like starting a program from it’s dock icon, using the built in keyboard shortcuts where available etc are all out of the window. It’s not enough to be able to do what we need, we need to do it faster, with less key presses, and we certainly do not want to take our hands off the keyboard to go near the mouse unless it is strictly necessary.

I have to say, I don’t use any of these tools. It’s not that I am dismissive of them, but I could never fit them into my way or working. And I think I just worked out why. It’s not that I am incapable of first of all knowing that such tools exist, and then learning a) how to use them, and b) how to adapt my workflow to include them into it, in order to make myself a faster and leaner computer user. It’s more that I don’t feel the need to increase my productivity in such a way that requires me to change the way I use my computer in a way other than it might have been designed.

I think a part of this is that I don’t use my Mac for professional purposes, it’s very much my home and hobby machine. I spent 12/13 years supporting Unix servers in commercial enterprises. I learned all the arcane keyboard tricks for multiple shells, and could navigate a text file in vi like a man possessed. At work knowing how to shave 10 seconds off the performing of a task yielded tangible benefits, either I got rid of the annoying user faster, or I got more time to talk toot with the rest of the cubicle monkeys, or I got to slope of for longer lunch breaks and so on.

I’ve tried to use Quicksilver and Launchbar and Alfred, and any number of similar tools, and never been happy with the results. I’ve always assumed that it was because the particular app didn’t quite suit how I like to perform a certain action, or perhaps because I wanted it to do even more things beyond what it wanted to allow me, as if even the power tool wasn’t powerful enough for me. For a while I even nurtured a few thoughts that since moving away from a technical role to a managerial one at work I had some how “lost it”, and was in a downward spiral into regular user land.

Then it struck home. When I am at home, what is the motivation for doing things faster? I’m using my computer in a completely different mode to at work. I don’t want to save 10 seconds filing away a dozen emails by calling my customised applescript via a customised keystroke. It gains me nothing, but forces me to turn my brain into work mode. It’s not a chore that must be paired down to the minimum actions that produce the maximum efficiency that I can extract from the process. If I start a photo editing application, it’s not a task to get it out of the way as fast as possible, I’m there to enjoy my photos while I am cropping them and tagging them.

The innate power user need for increasing my productivity and doing things ever faster in a more streamlined workflow is directly irreconcilable with my requirement to enjoy what I am doing. Efficiency such as what these tools lead us towards, is a step away from the creative mode of using my computer to do something for myself. Those few seconds longer it takes me to do something, or the extra few steps required provide me with breathing space to appreciate what I am doing, have just done, or am about to do. I don’t exactly use my computer to create earth shatteringly amazing works of art, but to take the efficiency drive to it’s logical conclusion would have me slaving over ways to edit my photos faster for example, which would surely result in failing to enjoy the process, and as such failing to appreciate my photos etc. I could save time changing my slideshow settings to show each picture for 4 seconds rather than 5, but where is the requirement to reduce the time it takes to do something I have chosen to do, rather than need to do? This blog post has taken roughly an hour to write since I thought up the topic. When I click publish in a few more minutes, I’ll be using my mouse and clicking buttons rather than using shortcuts, and won’t be using any time saving mechanisms to publish it faster. Would saving even 5 minutes of the time taken to load up a text editor normally, write it, copy it into WordPress and so on have yielded anything useful? Would this blog post be any better had I had a few minutes more time through using MarsEdit?

I’m not saying these tools don’t have a place, many people who have different usage requirements will and do find them essential. But I would questions the motives of anyone who is using them because of some internal need to be a “power user”, like it was some sort of entry requirement in the hall of fame for geeks and nerds.

I’d be interested to hear from people who use these tools in a non professional environment and have other views.