LONDON – Someone once said that one of the advantages of religion is that it offers security in return for obedience. This point was not lost on the late Steve Jobs, the cofounder, savior and high priest of Apple. And it led Italian semiotician, philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, in an essay published in the 1980s, to describe the Apple Mac as a Catholic machine, in contrast to the IBM PC, which Eco characterized as a Protestant device.
His reasoning was that the Mac freed its users/believers from the need to make decisions. All they had to do to find salvation was to obey the Apple way. All the important choices, including whether a mouse should have one button or two, had been made for them, whereas the poor wretches who had to use a PC had, like the Calvinists of yore, to make their own salvation: installing expansion cards, anti-virus software, wrestling with incompatible peripherals and so on.
Poor Steve has gone to the great computer lab in the sky, but the church he founded endures. And it still knows what is best for its adherents. Recently, the company launched the latest release of its OS X operating system, codenamed Mavericks. What happened was this: one day, while millions of the devout were tapping industriously on their keyboards, a small dialogue box appeared on the top right-hand corner of their screens. It informed them that important upgrades were available for their computers.
For members of the Apple communion, such a message has much the same status as a text from the Vatican would have for devout Catholics. So they acted upon it. And lo! It came to pass that their computers were upgraded. Many of them were then enjoined to update their copies of Apple’s iWork package — Pages (Apple’s word processor and competitor to Microsoft Word); Keynote (the PowerPoint equivalent); and Numbers (the Excel competitor) — and they dutifully complied.
At this point, the ordure hit the rotating blades. For it turned out that these “updates” were not quite what the believers expected. And they’re not all naive users. For example, Lawrence Lessig, the celebrated Harvard professor and founder of Creative Commons, is one. “The latest version of Keynote,” he blogged, “breaks my slideshow (e.g., the deck that produced my TED talk now won’t work).” Given that Lessig is one of the best lecturers in the business, one can imagine why this would be a really big deal for him.
But there was worse to come — with his copy of Pages. “Right away,” he writes, “I confronted a truly insane ‘upgrade': Apple has added an ability to automatically smartify quotes — as you type them at least. But a functionality that used to exist — where you could search and replace single and double quotes and the replaced quote would be a smart quote — has been removed. So now, the only way to smartify those quotes … is to manually search for a single or double quote and then retype it. I can’t imagine this is a feature and not a bug.”
Apple is like the Vatican in that it finds it very difficult to admit that it has screwed up. (Just think of how it bungled the aftermath of the Maps fiasco.) But this time it was sufficiently moved to offer, if not an apology, at least a grudging explanation. “These applications were rewritten from the ground up,” it explained, “to be fully 64-bit and to support a unified file format between OS X and iOS 7 versions.” In the rewriting, it continued, “some features from iWork ’09 were not available for the initial release. We plan to reintroduce some of these features in the next few releases and will continue to add brand new features on an ongoing basis.”
To which the obvious response is: “OK, but why didn’t you tell us this before encouraging us to upgrade?”
The second response is to ask why weren’t the tech media on to it earlier? Given the remarkable expansion in the number of people using Apple computers, you would have thought that any disruption, intentional or otherwise, in the software ecosystems on which they depend for work would be regarded as news. Serious, careful reviewing of changes in operating systems, for example, doesn’t require rocket science — just hard work and attention to detail, as in Pixel Envy’s review of iOS 7.
But in general, technology sites and newspaper tech sections seem to be still obsessed with gadgets and novelties. This was understandable 15 years ago but the world has moved on. Breathless puffs for a new smartphone or yet another way of “sharing” photographs or movies don’t make up a useful signal any more — they’re just noise.