Road to hell paved with upgrades

October 13, 1995

Don't get me wrong: I have not regretted for a moment my decision to buy a Macintosh back in 1984. What I wish I had not done was put the latest program on a few months ago. There I was perfectly contented with the way my PowerBook zipped along like the Good Ship Enterprise on a Warp-9 afternoon.

But as I was going away on sabbatical, I thought I would splash out on all the new bells and whistles. If speed is the addiction of modern technology, then I am going through withdrawal in the worst way. It was not all that long ago that we spent hours making backup copies by swapping 128K disks. Then, a year or so later, came 512K and we thought a miracle had occurred. A decade on, and we are blase about 512 megabytes.

Never in my dozen years of being a Mac addict have I been more tempted to kick the habit, go back on bended knee to my old typewriter and chuck my precious PowerBook out the literal, singular, lower-case window. Windows-style programming - that concession by IBM-based programs to icon-based accessibility which means death to DOS - has in many ways made life distinctly user-unfriendly for Mac users. How we Mac users inwardly gloated over the poor DOS user agonising over an amber or kryptonite-green monitor trying to recall the right commands! When Windows came along, we gloated all the more - our windows had always been there, spotlessly simple, treble-paned and fully louvred. But the quality of our gloating is now strained. Since splurging on the latest overpacked program for Macs, I have been to microchip hell and back. Microsoft packaging is slick as a Stones' lick, but once you drive the program home you begin to wonder how your eyes will ever adjust to the dashboard. The 35 installer disks should have tipped me off - they contain far more than anyone is likely to master in three lifetimes. First time around, I should have ignored the temptation to install the full program: but why buy a BMW and then drive a Lada? Even with the complimentary RAM-Doubler, my PowerBook ground to a halt. A few hair-rending re-installations later, and the thing still seems sluggish, bogged down with excess baggage. Another sure sign that the IBM-inclined technocrats on the Microsoft Office planning committee won the day is the sheer bulk of manuals. One of the delights in being a Mac user was the user-friendliness of theprograms, which meant that in most cases we could think problems out for ourselves without having to flip a single printed page. Now the possibilities of relying on good-old human intuition are limited. Even with a minimum installation, my PowerBook was so slow I added a 256 MB hard disk and four extra megabytes of RAM. It is infuriating that last year's machines are not sufficient to handle this year'sprograms. Yet manufacturers continue to pour machines onto the market with low internal RAM, which in effect forces consumers to upgrade the moment they want any semi-sophisticatedprogram .

The Microsoft Office screen makes you dizzy trying to decide which one to try. One mistake for Mac users: they have fiddled with the ruler, that bastion of desktop measurement. Now, if you want to double-space your document, you have to search high and low to restore the traditional options.

While the improved Replace command gives you greater choice, the box takes up half a PowerBook screen. If you want to see what you are replacing, you have to shift it . Worse, it will not go away like it used to whenever you click your cursor back on your main document. Ah! the programmers will say, you can reduce the large box with the new WindowShade feature . But this still leaves a thin strip across your page. While there are times when having the ghost box in the foreground can be handy, the programmers should have given the user a choice in the list of options under the Tools menu. (If there is a box to click elsewhere, I have not found it; but the point is, I should not have to find something which has always been there.) The word-count feature is slower than before, probably because it now calculates numbers of pages, words, characters, paragraphs and lines - which is overkill if all you really want to know whether you have reached your limit for the morning. Yet despite all the headaches, the latest program has got some great features: you can now go back and forth through numerous cuts and pastes, which can be handy if you accidentally cut something and then saved the change. Piggybacking on a recent stationery item, stickies offer the on-screen equivalent to those handy yellow stick-on notes, which I have been known to tape to my monitor. Microsoft have pitched their Office package to appeal to Windows users at the risk of alienating many Mac users. They know that Mac users are less likely to switch to IBM-based programs than IBM-users are to convert to Mac. I am too hooked to go back. For one thing, I have now converted too many documents to the new program , and reverting would take too much time. Anyone considering making the leap to any new-improved program is well-advised to make a full backup of all documents in the earlier version in case you decide to revert. Yet such sage advice can be a Catch-22. How many academics in this high-pressure time to produce have a month or two to test-drive a new program ? Overpacked technology may prove too much for academic users. So, Bill Gates, when you have finished counting your exponential billions from Windows 95, could you please give us our Mac programs back for 96?

Don Nichol is a professor of English at Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of Pope's Literary Legacy (Oxford, 1992).

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