inessential by Brent Simmons


When my parents bought me an Apple II Plus — in 1980, when I was 12 — I fell in love with this entire new world that was mine. Anything that was technically possible, I could do.

I played games and I learned how to write programs in BASIC and, later, using an assembler.

It was marvelous. There were no chains on me other than the limits of the machine.

* * *

At the same time, grown-ups were sneaking in Apple II Pluses to work so they could run VisiCalc. A little later it was IBM PCs.

And the reason there was similar: the computing power they had access to was tightly controlled by the IT priesthood. Then the personal computer came along, and they had the freedom to solve problems on their own — when they wanted to, the way they wanted to.

This was a revolution.

And then, a little while later, the Mac came out. The PC was great and it democratized computers to a certain extent — but the Mac, and the ideas behind the Mac, took that much, much farther. People who were put off by a DOS prompt on a green-screen monitor had a computer they wanted to use. This extended that revolution, and Microsoft later joined in with Windows.

* * *

After a while, of course, people realized that work computers weren’t really their own. And IT departments did their jobs — as they should — and they networked these computers and worked out administration and so on.

But still, it was much better than what had been.

And — very importantly — outside work, your computer was yours. You had the freedom to use all its power.

And Macs and PCs became ever-more-powerful, with faster CPUs, bigger hard drives, more accessories, and — perhaps most importantly — better software. Things like Photoshop and QuarkXpress and Lotus 1-2-3 and Word.

And (on Macs, which I know best): HyperCard, AppleScript, and UserLand Frontier. ResEdit. INITs. All this crazy powerful stuff, which I loved.

* * *

Maybe because I lived through this — maybe because I’m a certain age — I believe that that freedom to use my computer exactly how I want to, to make it do any crazy thing I can think of — is the thing about computers.

That’s not the thing about iOS devices. They’re great for a whole bunch of other reasons: convenience, mobility, ease-of-use.

You can do some surface-level automation, but you can’t dig deep and cobble together stuff — crossing all kinds of boundaries — with some scripts the way you can on a Mac. They’re just not made for that. And that’s fine — it’s a whole different thing.

In a way, it feels like iOS devices are rented, not owned. This is not a criticism: I’m totally fine with that. It’s appropriate for something so very mass-market and so very much built for a networked world.

* * *

But what about Macs?

Macs carry the flame for the revolution. They’re the computers we own, right? They’re the astounding, powerful machines that we get to master.

Except that lately, it feels more and more like we’re just renting Macs too, and they’re really Apple’s machines, not ours.

With every tightened screw we have less power than we had. And doing the things — unsanctioned, unplanned-for, often unwieldy and even unwise — that computers are so wonderful for becomes ever-harder.

And now comes Marzipan, and I can’t help but worry that it’s another tightened screw. Will sandboxing be a requirement? Probably. Will they be able to send or receive Apple events? Will they support AppleScript? Seems unlikely. Will they be available only on the App Store? Good chance.

And you could say that’s fine — developers will use AppKit. But if AppKit is deprecated — or, effectively the same thing, perceived as deprecated by developers, or just perceived as uncool — then you get only the less-powerful Marzipan apps.

Meanwhile, the iOS triumphalists are saying that we should welcome the end of the revolution.

People will probably tell me it’s generational. And maybe it is. But if we don’t have this power that is ours, then I don’t actually care about computers at all. It meant everything.