Power users vs. empowered users

There's a general feeling in the Apple community that power users are being ignored if not abandoned, as iPhones and iPads take the spotlight from Macs, and OS X is made to look and work more like iOS. Power users look at the cancelled Xserve and the lack of Mac Pro updates, at the lack of Pro Apps or even iWork updates, at iMacs sealed up like MacBook Airs, at file systems abstracted away, and ecosystems tightly controlled, and we wonder where exactly Apple sees our place in their future. If they see a place for us at all.

This isn't something unique to computing. Time was if you wanted to drive a car, you pretty much had to be a mechanic. Even after those days passed, if you couldn't pop the hood and fix a problem by the side of the road, many drivers would tell you you had no business being behind the wheel. Now we have automatic transmissions, cruise control, launch systems, ABS brakes, traction control, and cars that park themselves and even drive themselves. Now, if you pop the hood of a car, it looks like something from a sci-fi movie, not something most people could understand, much less even think about fixing by the side of a road.

My father worked at IBM, yet while my mother was always around technology, she never got the technology. We had an Apple II at home, then a variety of DOS, Mac, Amiga, and Windows boxes, and I can't remember her touching them, much less using them. It wasn't until the school where she taught crawled its way out of the dark ages that my mother had to start using computers. I gave her a Windows box, since that's what the school used, and it was an endless hassle for both of us -- her trying to figure out how to do things and me continually having to provide extensive, sometimes laborious tech support. Finally, after her third virus infection, I junked her Windows box and gave her an iMac. It stopped the viruses, but didn't do much to help her actually feel more comfortable with, and get better at, computing. She still lost one app window behind another, lost files in endless directorial hierarchies, suffered through disconnections and crashes, forgetting to save and back up, and so on. It was always a frustrating, intimidating, borderline humiliating experience for her, and an endless time sink for me. Then, a couple of years ago, my sister and I bought her an iPad 2 for her birthday.

When the iPad was announced, a friend and former colleague of mine lamented it as the death-knell of powerful, open computing. I welcomed it as the death-knell of me providing tech support for every relative and neighbor who walked into a Best Buy and walked out with a beige box of mystery and pain. Turns out, we were both right.

That week my mother had been complaining that her newspaper was arriving late and she hadn't been able to read it before work. The morning after we got her the iPad I called to find her reading her paper. On an app. That she found, installed, and starting using all on her own, all on her iPad. And it didn't stop there, she found her TV shows and books and magazines, she found the National Film Board and museums, and she found a web browser and email program that was simple to get to and easy to use. Home button. App. Home button. App. And everything full screen and touchable. It totally de-stressed the computing experience for her. Soon she was discovering more features and even emailing me and my friends about apps we hadn't heard of before. More critically, she felt good about it, and about herself while doing it. It's the same way my 2 year old godson felt when he unlocked the iPad, tapped his book or game, and started learning and playing, all on his own, in a way that would have required years more maturity and motor skills to accomplish on a traditional computer.

And that was Apple's plan. It's always been their plan. From Apple II to Mac to iPad to Siri or whatever's next, Apple has relentlessly pushed form factor and interface towards the mainstream.

It's not just about mainstream customers either, but mainstreaming usage. Doctors can carry and use iPads in places where traditional computers aren't fast, convenient, or long lasting enough to be practical. Pilots can take them to the skies. I can leave the shackles of my desk and even even where even a laptop would be impractical, I can access iMore, update, and even post from my iPad while enjoying a meal with friends or getting a walk in.

Thanks to the iPad my mother, who'll never be a traditional power user, became an empowered user. Thanks to the iPad, millions of people in countless situations that eschewed traditional power computer use have become empowered.

So yes, in many ways, in painful ways, in sad ways, Apple is ignoring if not flat out abandoning power users, but they're doing it in a way that will eventually result in far broader, deeper base of users becoming empowered. That will let more people do more stuff.

Just as punch cards gave way to command lines gave way to graphical user interfaces gave way to multitouch user interfaces, and may one day give way to natural language user interfaces, people who could build their own computers gave way to people who could write to the metal of their computers gave way to people who could point and click their way around their computers gave way to people who could touch their computers and may now give way to people who can simply talk to their computers, the definition of a power user has, is, and will keep on growing.

Freed from confusing file systems, convoluted install processes, and other legacies of traditional computing, what appears to be a loss to some will be more than offset by a massive gain to many. To put it in Apple-speak, the automated cars will vastly outnumber the highly manual trucks.

When discussing less expensive iPhones, or iWatches, or anything else Apple works on in the future, that's what needs to be kept in mind -- what will empower an even greater number of people? That's what's next.

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Power users vs. empowered users


Mr Ritchie,

That was deep, but so true. My 85 year old fathe, and 83 year old mother, zip around on their iphones, pads and touches like they were "born to run" on ios. Selecting a wifi network and connecting to it on their windows PC's, or other particular things of that nature, is a completely different story. They never got it, and never will. They have become empowered with iOS.

It is the same story with my wife's 87-year-old grandfather. He lives on a farm in Idaho. The only Internet service at his home is Verizon 3G wireless (unless he wants to pay over $100 per month for satellite). My mother-in-law wanted him to have internet access. He had DirecTV Broadband at one point, but when it went down he did not know how to restart it. He had a USB stick from Verizon that he did not know how to hook up to his computer on which he only knew how to play solitaire. He paid for that Verizon service for over two years without using at a rate of $40 per month for 250MB of data per month.

When we visited with my mother-in-law, she asked what we could do to get his computer going so he could get on Facebook and see photos and connect with family since he has been all alone since his wife died.

My response was to cancel his Verizon plan (no easy task with Verizon) and then buy him an iPad 2 and sign him up for the recurring month-to-month 1GB for $20 plan using his credit card.

Since then, he sends emails, iMessages, and uses Photo Stream and Facebook. He reads his local paper's website in the morning and connects with family and uses the iPad at church for scriptures and sunday school lessons. His first day with the device he pulled up the Maps app and tracked our route in the car as we drove to his son's house -- without any help whatsoever.

When we get together every eight months or so, I put him on WiFi, run an iCloud backup and upgrade him to the latest version of iOS. His niece called me last month because she wanted to setup the new Facebook app for him and she needed me to provide his Facebook password to log it in. She was able to get him going over the phone without much trouble at all.

With the iPad 2 with 3G we don't have to worry about the WiFi router getting unplugged. He doesn't have to shell out exorbitant amounts of money to Verizon each month. And he is able to use the device on his own.

Oh... and in case anybody was wondering he also knows how to play solitaire on his iPad 2. He takes that thing with him everywhere he goes now and simply remembers to charge it at night.

Wow. Rene. I've been a follower for years. This is most profound thing I can remember reading by you. Really excellent.

Rene - excellent read, and you raise some excellent arguments/points. Thanks for sharing the story of your mother, that's a neat real life example.

Rene, while I agree with almost everything you said, I disagree about the rationale. I think that Apple planned to make computing a disposable commodity, so it could sell you a new "computer" every year at increasing profits, instead of one every four years. That is why its tablets, phones and iMacs are not user serviceable, they are disposable and meant to be so every year.

Sorry, I think it is profoundly naive to think Apple dit it all to our benefit, so everything could be easier and grandmas around the world could be empowered. All that could be done with user serviceable devices and a great OS. iOS evolved to be everything you said, an instrument of empowerment, but that has nothing to do with cases sealed with glue and memory sticks soldered to their motherboards.

I actually disagree with you. Only the rabid fanboy / fangirl buys every year. Besides, if Apple wanted every person to buy their products every year, they would never release OS updates - period. You would be forced to buy a new computer / iDevice if you wanted the annual OS update (kinda like what the other platforms having been doing the past three years) but they don't do that. Most people I know, that own Macs, keep them on average 3 to 5 years.

And, if Apple wanted you to buy a new one that often, they'd be cheaper. My current PC is now almost four years old, and cost ~$700 new. I've held onto this machine this long, do you really think I'd be replacing a ~$1200 Mac more often?

Apple are a corporation, and their basic premise is to make money. I don't think anyone would dispute that. However, the idea that anyone would buy a new computer every year is ludicrous. I just purchased my first iMac after 20 years of being a Windows user. I plan to have this system for at least 4 years, and my iPhone 5 until it is end-of-lined by Apple.

I think that would be the case for the majority of informed users. Tim Cook isn't holding a gun to my head and forcing me to buy new hardware! :)

That's if you regard the dynamics between us and Apple as a zero-sum game. I like to think it's not.

my grandmother took classes and learned how to use a computer in her 70s. she's now 90.

we haven't upgraded her computer in years, mostly because her short term memory is going. she can do what she learned just fine, but the change would be hard.

the ipad is different. my two year old and her will play a game together. he learned how to use the ipad at 18-20 months old.

What you say is true enough, I suppose; and yet, for those of us who use the Mac professionally (in my case, as a graphic designer) and need it to remain "open" and not become some sort of outsized, locked-down-iPad, it's not much comfort.

I mean, you could compare an iPad to, say, the Kodak Instamatic - an unfussy "point-and-shoot" camera that nevertheless was perfectly fine for most people, most of the time. And those photographers who needed to be able to do more could always turn to other companies (Nikon, Canon, etc) for more sophisticated cameras.

The problem with Apple, though, is that they're Kodak, Nikon and Canon all rolled into one. If Apple marginalizes the Mac in favor of the iPad, who will us professionals turn to, if & when Apple is no longer making computers for us? The design work I do can't be produced on an iPad, and, as a lifelong Mac user, I have zero interest in switching to any other computing platform. But it may come to that; I don't know. (I really hope it doesn't.)

So, it's great for the masses that they're being empowered, and all in all, it's plainly great for Apple's bottom line - but it isn't necessarily good news for everyone.

Brilliant article rene. However I feel apple isn't really going to abandon power users ever. They just introduced retina macs last year.
The way I see it is like you said the master plan is every user becomes a power user in their own way. I can imagine a future where an iPad connected to a retina display tv would be used for professional photo editing (future photoshop app) and at the same time non professional users will edit their photos on an iPhoto or a snapseed for their Facebook albums. So everybody wins and we all end up being 'power users'. Thanks to apple 'power users' would no longer be just an elite population.

Exactly, Jayden!
Most professional Mac users are still on Snow Leopard. I braved Mountain Lion, and feel it has mostly been a step backwards. It's kind of like Apple abandoned all those years of UI research in some kind of shoddy attempt to iOS-ize OSX. My hope is that this is just a bad transition phase, and they wake up at some point. But, unfortunately, some of the most problematic things are stuff like the new 'save' functionality, blind-cloud, and lack of file system on iOS. I can't imagine Apple changing their direction on some of that stuff at this point. (I got a glimmer of hope the other day when re-looking at Mt Lion Server, and it doesn't seem quite as nerf'd as it did on initial release... though it's still not near the product SL Server was.)

If not, I fear you nailed it, with 'it may come to that.' IF this isn't a phase, I'm guessing Pro users will eventually have to look to Windows on the desktop. Yes, that would really suck!

I own NOTHING made by Apple (if you ignore my free ipod mini gift from work that I never use). I generally avoid anything that will have me use an Apple product. I have no intention of owning anything by Apple anytime soon.....but seriously a VERY clear and insightful read. Thank you for the article Rene. This has given me a reason to come back in the future to read more of your work. No bull.

Thank u for being completely against Apple products (nothing wrong with that, different strokes/folks and all that...) yet being completely civil about it. It's sad that a comment like that stands out to me due to the rabid fanboy nature on tech sites(from all sides), but felt I needed to commend u.

I listened to the podcast #336 where you were talking about iCloud/Dropbox/Filesystems, When you were describing how files should automagically find their way to the apps where they belong, it reminded me of how I remember Android working (1-2yrs ago) I don't know if Android still works that way, but if it does, then I'm curious why during the whole time you were discussing this you never mentioned Android once. It would seem apropo, no?

Rene, your thesis is a little too black-and-white for my taste; you're right on when you speak of empowered users, but it's way too simplistic to talk of users being abandoned or even ignored. Many of the enterprise tools in the Mac have never been more robust. To name a few: full disk encryption with the ability for enterprises to escrow encryption keys (something our government, university, and medical customers have asked for for years), System Image Utility now built into every 10.8 Mac (not just Server), configuration tools that no longer require a corporate directory system, unwavering support for automation technologies from the command line to AppleScript and Automator.
Regarding some of the examples given of Apple's "abandonment," was the Xserve a "Power User" tool? It was a piece of enterprise hardware, and customers voted with their wallets that the real power user tool was Mac OS X Server when Apple actually increased server sales upon introduction of the Mac mini server. Regarding Pro Apps: you do realize Final Cut Pro X is still the market leader, don't you? (Avid's CEO "voluntarily resigned" today.) As the FCPX community knows, Apple has been enhancing its capabilities incrementally since its introduction.
Regarding hardware, your car analogy was dead on. The Mac Pro will likely live on until Thunderbolt makes outboard expansion the de facto standard, but Apple has taken the same stand the auto manufacturers did: we all have to acknowledge the difference between race cars, street rods, and ultramodern driving machines. Any of them can have fantastic technology, but the vast majority will be black boxes to their drivers, with the exception of consumables (gas, oil, tires) and their incredible technology will be described and experienced but not exposed. Racers are exotic exceptions; street rods can be focused at whatever their owners want - speed, beauty, customization, lunacy - and we have the same thing in computing. My Macs are my work, and usually play, machines; when I feel like "getting grease under my fingernails," I'll tinker with my own rat rod: an ultra-cheap flat black (can't be a true rat rod without being either flat back or untouched rust, after all) Ubuntu box from a manufacturer who's gone out of business, and make it look as crazy and inelegant (to other people) as I feel like. I'm ordering a Raspberry Pi for the same purpose - to keep my hand in at the board-and-code level in little bits of my spare time when I'm not working with my enterprise customers.
Hopefully you'll take this in the spirit it's given - loved the article, just thought it reflected a somewhat superficial view of Apple's attention to power users.

re: software
The problem I see is more with shifts in workflow, such as the whole 'save-as' mess. With products like OSX Server, initially, it seemed to be lacking too many features. But, they did other things like switch firewalls and database, that have taken away the ease of use of the SL Server or made running many open-source projects difficult (ex: Wordpress).

re: hardware
I guess I agree on the mini, capability wise, though probably not image-wise (just when they were actually making some inroads to corporate and IT). The biggest reason the xServe didn't do better was that Apple never figured out the support issues bigger IT departments often require.

And, from what I understand, the Mac Pros are just horribly behind in speed and features. So much so, that many have taken to building hackintoshes who would gladly buy an updated Mac Pro (money isn't the issue). Apple has no other product to fill that gap. Even if everything could be added externally via Thunderbolt, you'd still want the core machine to have decent specs, I'd think.

I love my mini, but if I get back into 3D rendering (which I'm planning to do), it probably just won't cut it. Can I add CPU power externally? (maybe I can... that's an honest question, as I've never looked into that. I think GPU can be, or one day, will be able to be added with Thunderbolt boxes.)

I agree. Apple has always been about bridging the usability gap between technology and the user base, and that what is mainstream evolves over time. Use patterns have shifting from content creation to consumption, and from the desk to the briefcase to the pocket. I don't believe they're neglecting us power users, I believe Apple simply pulls resources away from shrinking market segments, as they should. I've always been a power user and graphic designer, but I spend increasingly more time consuming and less time creating, and I rely more on my Retina MBP and less on my Mac Pro.

It would make a lot of sense for Apple to allow power users to purchase OS X Pro versions that will run on appropriately spec'ed PC compatibles; it's a win-win - power users don't feel like they're paying a $2-3K premium over an equivalent PC compatible, and Apple doesn't have to spend millions to develop something they'll sell mere thousands of units, probably a net loss after R&D costs. The other option is for them to create iMac Pro versions, beefier spec'ed iMac components in a Pro case for more expandability.

OK, but WHY pull away from shrinking market segments? And, shrinking in comparison to what? (iPhone and iPad sales?!) I agree, if some product line is losing TOO much money, AND, in the big picture doesn't play an important role, then axe it. However, I don't get that impression with units like the Mac Pro. A good friend has built a number of hackintoshes, not to save money, but to get features and power necessary.

But, IMO, the problem is worse in software. They have kind of butchered OSX in the last couple of releases. OSX server is severely limited now. Even iOS has unnecessary impediments to more professional duties which I constantly have to find work-arounds for. Long held UI standards seem to have flown out the window. In an effort to simplify, they have buried important things too much (ex: did we really need the Library folder hidden? Did Spotlight really have to stop displaying the paths to files? Did they have to kludge-job the whole save-as thing? etc.)

It's like they are laser-focused on a particular tree (probably the iPhone sales bar), and are completely missing the forest (like, a lot of the people producing the iPhone content use Macs, etc.).

I agree about the empowerment stuff, Rene. Where I disagree is over there needing to be a tradeoff! How many BILLIONS does Apple now have in the bank? Surely, they could afford to push in both directions (as they always have). Instead, they seem to be headed more consumer than empowered.

I've been around Apple for quite a long time. I've used their stuff personally. I've been a tech consultant, primarily working with their stuff. Yet, I've never felt that empowerment (which has been there as long as I can remember) came at the cost of power. I do now!

And, as a friend of mine pointed out. If Apple just can't, somehow, make 'Pro' product lines work within the company, why not spin out a division like FileMaker. They have been doing quite well. He said, "But throwing away all those years of amazing research and design on power user tools is just stupid. It means that the people creating and building the stuff that regular people love to consume now are suffering on a daily basis."

I concur. If I have to switch to Windows to produce content, I might just stop. I think Apple needs to 'think different' than the bean counters, 'industry experts,' and unfortunately, too many of their shareholders. THAT, IMO, is one of the huge things Steve Jobs brought to Apple... the ability to do what needed to be done in the face of all these folks, and get away with it.

This was a fantastic article. Made me think of all the criticism of the iPad not being a "real computer." Well, maybe it isn't and judging by this article that could be a great thing for those who never really liked computers anyway.

Rene, we all love iMore and crave more great posts like this one but please don't update it while enjoying meals with friends :-)