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.

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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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