Article: Mind-Numbingly Simple

by on February 1, 2012

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of Apple products. Often, it’s been hard to part with many, especially those which I have used regularly day-in and day-out. I’ve often been given even more Apple products from folks who decided it was time to move on. One of my favorite acquisitions was a Mac 128k—the original Mac, but it was missing a keyboard.

Since this Mac in question became a bit of side-project, I put finding a keyboard off for awhile, but finally got one. Although I’ve been a Mac user for years and can rattle off facts and figures in my sleep, it struck me how simple the keyboards on the first few Mac models were.

I managed to track down a Mac Plus keyboard, which still works with the old 128k, but features a numeric keyboard and has cursor keys. It’s a little less rare, but still works to complete the system—for now. The computer itself actually has a 512k motherboard (which was an Apple-sanctioned upgrade), so it didn’t matter that the keyboard wasn’t 100% original either. Anyway, pulling it out of the box and setting it on my counter next to my aluminum wireless keyboard (which gets quite a bit of use on my iPad), I found it quite amusing that it seems the complicated versus simple continuum is heading back in the simple direction. It’s amusing that Apple even used Helvetica (or something close) for the hardware labels before completely adopting Apple Garamond as the typeface (Helvetica also happens to be the iOS system font of choice).

Mac Plus Keyboard

While today’s Mac are getting increasingly complicated (well, they have been ever since OS X hit the scene, maybe even earlier than that), powerful, and more user-friendly with some of the features in Mac OS X Lion, they still are a far cry from the goal of the original Mac, and certainly overkill for many who just want a basic computer for entertainment or communications. Don’t get me wrong, Apple’s hardware lineup is probably the best value it’s ever been, and the designs are top-notch.

Two Years On

In light of the iPad’s second birthday (January 27), I started reflecting on what this has meant for the tech world, and am surprised some people still question the iPad’s long-term success. I wonder if the Mac community had this feel in 1986—excited about a product growing in popularity, but a bit apprehensive about its future. I vaguely recall some early comparisons of the iPad to the original Mac—simple, appliance-like, closed. Much like the original Mac, the iPad could’ve been a bit more powerful, didn’t offer multitasking until a couple of software versions later, and was sealed. Mix in the App Store, and you have a completely Apple-controlled experience. Critics say the App Store limits the “openness” of software choice, but the original Mac was lacking software options simply by the pure number of developers wanting to take a stab at a new platform. Eventually they came, but not in droves like the App Store.

The iPad is a very personal product—it makes it difficult for multi-user environments, such as classrooms, but it begs not to be shared even more than a Mac. I like the idea that everything on it is yours and all yours, although a “guest mode” might be nice for sharing something—much like booting off of a fresh system diskette on the original Mac.

But back to that keyboard…

Mac Plus Keyboard

Missing Keys

For some reason, looking at that aged, yellowish, oversized, yet small Mac Plus keyboard got me thinking where it all came from. Take away the extra keys that were added for the Plus and you had a keyboard that was almost identical to the on-screen keyboard on the iPad, except for a separate row for numbers. Things like Escape, Control, Function, F-keys, Eject, and even cursor keys that adorn our Mac keyboards were nonexistent. To the left of the space bar is simply Option (for alternate characters) and Command (to simplify tasks). While some may say that you’d at least need arrow keys, the idea was that there was one or two ways to do a task and that was it. Uncluttered.

I hope that the iPad continues to develop as a competent standalone computing platform, especially with the introduction of iOS 5. The iCloud/iTunes Match model is much different than the Mac has ever been, but if you buy in (or start from scratch) it works quite well. While the computer geek side of me will always want something with more features, tweaks, and power, the user side of me wants something that is simple, uncluttered, and will always work as expected. The Mac faced the “PC-ification” of becoming more complicated, conforming to standards, and offering more flexibility—all of which are not bad, but today’s Mac models are vastly different than the original goal and experience of the first Mac. I hope the iPad can stay true to form as it grows up and be a nimble, reliable, appliance computer that it is.

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