The Mac is just as compelling

In recent times, all this talk about using iOS for ‘serious work’, going ‘all-in’ with iOS, using iOS devices as one’s main (or sole) computing device has put the Mac in a bad light. At least, that’s the feeling I got. I have nothing against iOS, and have no problems recognising its strengths. But I still haven’t found a balanced article written by one of these ‘iOS-only’ supporters. ‘For the way I work, I could easily go iOS-only’ doesn’t necessarily mean that iOS is a one-size-fits-all solution capable of addressing everybody’s needs. As a long-time Mac user, and as a heavy iOS user, I’m frankly surprised at how many tech guys consider iOS more versatile than Mac OS X just because it fits their needs or mindsets better.

The iOS platform today has a first great advantage over the Mac OS X platform, and it’s not even a software advantage — it’s the hardware. iOS devices are portable and instant-on, and that’s what makes them attractive since today everyone is obsessed with mobility. Another advantage is the touch interaction and what it brings to the user interface: directness, a even higher degree of intuitiveness, an added simplicity. So when we talk of versatility, these two elements pop up first, and play in iOS’s favour. But what about the software? What about the system? What about the workflow? This is where things get interesting.

In Why iOS is Compelling Ben Brooks writes:

It’s that same allure many of us are feeling with iOS now — the idea that while the Mac is still pretty simple and mostly just works — iOS is even more simple. Like Macs in 2004, iOS either just works, or it flat out won’t work for that task. Either you can do it pretty easily, or not at all.

The simplicity of iOS lies, I think, in the scope of its apps. I have to generalise here, but usually what you have on your iOS devices is a great number of apps, each doing a series of well-defined tasks. It’s very modular. Each app is like a tiny, simple unit, that does a few things — sometimes even just one — very well, very intuitively. With such a model, learning how to use an app is generally trivial thanks to the Multi-touch interface and to the specific purpose of the app itself. Users are happy because in many cases they get to learn to do everything the app lets them do rather quickly. And if a certain app doesn’t provide a specific feature they need, they can always find another one that does. And another one. And another one until a full range of tasks can be accomplished. Everything gets more easily digested because it’s assimilated in small bites. This is one very important strength of iOS and I think it’s what makes iOS appealing to many tech-averse people.

And this is the first part of that Either you can do it pretty easily, or not at all that Brooks talks about. The pretty easily part. The flip side of iOS’s modularity, of iOS’s model of accomplishing a complex task through a series of simple apps, is… well, it’s that often you have to go through unnecessarily long-winded routes and seek the assistance of multiple apps to get stuff done. It’s that in order to find the ‘perfect’ app to handle a task or a series of tasks, you end up installing a lot of similar apps with overlapping features. A personal example: I’ve been toying with the idea of just using my iPad to work when I’m not at home. I’m a writer and a translator, so I shouldn’t need very complex tools or intricate workflows. And yet my experience with iOS has been surprisingly frustrating due to the unexpected fragmentation of what, on the Mac, is a trivial thing to achieve. I wrote about that in this article and this other one. From the latter:

I had a folder with six old RTF documents, written in Italian about twenty years ago, which I needed to edit and then translate into English. The idea was to simply open them and edit them right away in an app, then open a second app where I would create a new document and begin the translation. I don’t have Split View on my old iPad, so I would have to endure a bit of back-and-forth, but nothing overly dramatic. The problem is that I’d forgotten that none of the text-handling apps I have on my iPad (a dozen, more or less) can edit RTF files. So here’s what I did:

  1. Opened the first RTF document in UX Write, an app that can display RTF files but not edit them.
  2. Created a small workflow in Workflow that would convert the RTF text into HTML and copy the converted text to the Clipboard.
  3. Created a new document in Daedalus Touch, pasted the HTML text in there, and tried to get rid of all the useless, superfluous markup by using Find and Replace.
  4. Realised that Daedalus Touch has a Find feature, but apparently not a Replace feature.
  5. Opened WriteRight, pasted the HTML again, and proceeded to remove all unnecessary HTML code via Find and Replace (a feature WriteRight has, thankfully).
  6. Saved the result as a new document in WriteRight.

The time I lost, from Step 0 (becoming aware of the issue) to Step 6, was more than half an hour. If I had had a Mac with me, I would have opened the document in TextEdit, created a new document, stacked the two windows, to then begin working on the translation right away.

Maybe this is an extreme example, but a similar thing can happen with photo apps. Maybe you like a certain app for taking photos, but the app only offers limited editing tools, or filters and effects that are a bit boring or not suited for the result you want to achieve. And so a little dance begins, where you take a photo with App 1, save it to the Camera Roll, open App 2 and use its marvellously intuitive Curves feature to get the shadows and highlights just right, but App 2 doesn’t have quality black & white filters that can get you that grainy film look you’re seeking, so you try App 3, and if you’re lucky you’re done in just three steps. Sure, this process can be fun and not necessarily complex, and with the right apps — when you already know which you can use to obtain the desired result — it’s certainly a good alternative to learning a more complex piece of Mac software.

What happened to me with photo apps on iOS is this, though: over time, I’ve accumulated dozens of them. A lot of them are great, each offering me an amazing array of tools, modes, filters, etc. I’ve got to the point that if I want to crop an image, or vary its colour temperature, or apply an automated ‘clarity boost’ filter, I can choose among at least twenty-one different apps on my iPhone. Now, when I need to edit a photo in a more thorough manner, I can try to stick to a known workflow, but I often stop in my tracks and wonder: What if I tried this other way? or What if I’m doing it wrong and there’s a better combination of apps I could try?

Don’t tell me that hasn’t happened to you as well. And sure, that kind of freedom of choice is exhilarating and we can even call it versatility. What I have found out in my case is that — despite finding a lot of iOS photo apps fun and great to use for quick retouches and effects — when I need to do more complex editing and refinements, I’m just more efficient on a Mac — where I use fewer apps, but each being generally more flexible and powerful. Naturally, your mileage and experience may vary.

More than one platform being simpler/easier than the other, I believe that with iOS and Mac OS X we have two different types of simplicity:

  • iOS has smaller, more straightforward apps that usually have little to no learning curve. Combined with the directness of the touch interface, they create an overall pleasant, fun, less intimidating experience for the user.
  • Mac OS X usually has bigger, more complex apps, but with a broader scope. In some cases it’s necessary to spend a bit more time learning how to take advantage of everything an app can offer, but the reward is a simpler workflow and fewer switches from one app to another, because certain tasks can easily be accomplished without leaving an app, without needing assistance from other apps.

Let’s consider some of the examples Ben Brooks makes in his piece.

Window management

On a Mac you have to decide if your window is going to be full screen or not. If it is full screen, is it full screen but split with another app, if so by how much? Or is it going to be a window on the desktop, if so where and how large? Repeat that for every app, and a lot of your day becomes just managing the size and location of your windows.

Is it just me, or does this above sound ridiculous to you too? That’s just overthinking the whole thing. There are apps whose main window you keep full-screen by default, all the time. In my case, Safari and Mail are always full-screen. With other apps, management isn’t that complicated if you’re not suffering from OCD. You open documents and windows as needed, you move them where you need them, and you start your work. I arrange windows according to focus, and I usually avoid having more than three apps share the same desktop space. Almost all the apps I use on a regular basis on the Mac have their main windows opened in a fashion I’ve devised one time, and they stay that way unless I have to change something for a new, unexpected task that involves apps I use less frequently. I certainly don’t spend ‘a lot of my day … just managing the size and location of [my] windows’!

With iOS you only get one size on your iPhone, and four sizes on the iPad (full screen, 2/3, half, 1/3). That’s simpler no matter how you slice it. It’s also faster, as you are now spending far less time managing application windows. Spend your time arranging your application windows or spend it getting shit done.

Sure. But get this: often I need to translate a technical document, and I’m given another technical document containing similar parts; or I need to keep an eye on a previous document I translated for the same client because it contains the same jargon, and of course the client needs consistency when certain terms/expressions get translated in the latest document. This kind of task is trivial when using TextEdit, or a text editor such as BBEdit or TextWrangler: I open the four documents and arrange them as to have, say, Doc 1 and Doc 1 Translated in the upper area of the screen, and Doc 2 and Doc 2 Translated in the lower area. Four windows, in a tile arrangement, roughly dividing the screen in four quadrants. Sometimes I even need to keep 6 or 8 windows arranged similarly. In TextWrangler (and BBEdit), there’s even a handy command to quickly arrange windows for this kind of workflow (Window > Arrange). Try doing this on an iPad.

I’m writing my serialised novel Low Fidelity in TextEdit, each episode being a separate file. I often keep older files open and stacked behind or around the latest episode I’m writing. I do that mainly for continuity, to avoid inconsistencies in names, places, scenes, what information every character has learnt or passed, and so forth. I also keep Notational Velocity open on the right side of the screen, because that’s where I keep notes and ideas for the novel, lists of characters and places, a glossary of terms and acronyms I coined for the story, and so forth. And finally I keep a Finder window open on the contents of the Low Fidelity folder, and when I need to search for occurrences, I can do a multi-file search using the search field within the Finder window. It’s a very effective workspace which took me little time to set up. I just can’t do that on an iPad.

It’s in cases like these where — with regard to iOS — simple feels more like limited. Could I adapt my writing workflow so as to work exclusively on iOS? Perhaps, but why? I would certainly work much less comfortably and efficiently. I’m not the kind of writer who just works with one window open and uses only Markdown to write. I would have to jump back and forth between different apps and open documents all the time (yes, even if I were on an iPad Pro with all the multitasking features of iOS 9). I would have to come to terms with an array of constraints and tradeoffs that it simply makes no sense accepting, whereas I could just take a Mac, fire up a text editor, open up a bunch of documents, and arrange them right there before my eyes as I see fit. It’s that simple.

File management

On the Mac, you can have files and folders anywhere you want. You can try opening problematic files with different apps. You can open corrupted files with a text editor and manage to extract part of their contents. If you don’t like photo apps that import images in obscure libraries, you can simply organise your photos in a hierarchy of folders of your own choosing. Such degree of freedom and flexibility almost looks like a bad thing to have when you read Brooks’ piece.

On my Mac I have files I drag out to the desktop, to drag into another app, to export back out of that app, to drag back to another window, to then upload and finally use. It’s madness if you really think about it. On iOS I rarely touch icons representing files, instead I get to where and what I need much faster.

Yes, it is madness if you do that on a Mac. There’s no need to drag stuff around so much. You can pretty much place a file anywhere you want from an app’s Save As dialog box. You can import a file in another app by right-clicking and selecting Open with (just like Open in… on iOS). When I need to create a document and have it on the cloud, I just save it in my Dropbox folder directly, or in a directory of my server that I keep on the Desktop thanks to Transmit’s Mount as Disk feature. I can have screenshots and other files uploaded automatically with CloudApp if need be. And so on.

I don’t care where the file lives anymore, I care only about getting my file to the place(s) I need it. From Ulysses to WordPress, Photos to Pixelmator, or Mail to Documents.

It’s a personal preference, granted, but I do care where my files are. It’s how I organise my stuff. It’s part of how I handle backups. And getting a file to the place I need it, on the Mac, is just as easy: from MarsEdit to WordPress; from any folder containing photos (even on external devices and network volumes) to Acorn (or Flare, or Graphic Converter, or Aperture); from Mail to Preview (or whatever app handles the attached document by default).

And if dragging and dropping is such a drag (pun intended), there are excellent apps like Yoink! and Dropzone on the Mac App Store that make such operations really easy to handle, and add a great deal of functionality in the process.

Power management

Here is when talking about iOS becomes talking about hardware, and I’ve already said that iOS devices have the advantage of portability. And yes, battery life as well. I have an older MacBook Pro, so if I need to work off site for more than three hours, I have to bring the charger with me. It’s really a non-issue, since the various places I go when I don’t work at home all have power outlets at hand. A newer retina MacBook has a battery life of ‘up to 9 hours’ and a 13-inch MacBook Air ‘up to 12 hours’ according to Apple. I believe one can safely take one of these laptops to work a few hours away from home without having to carry a power adapter, if it’s such an inconvenience.

Final observations

I really don’t want to give the impression that this is a matter of iOS versus Mac. (I also hope we won’t get there in the tech debate.) For me it’s not. I use both and I’m happy with both because I take the best from both. If I wrote this is because I’ve noticed a bias towards iOS from an increasing number of tech people that goes beyond the excitement of choosing it as the main (or only) platform for themselves. If you’re able to do all your work by going iOS-mostly or even iOS-only, more power to you, but it’s not necessary to paint the Mac as a second-class system all of a sudden. I agree, iOS is simple and intuitive, but the Mac is far from being that obscure, complicated and convoluted beast some make out to be.

iOS is praised but at the same time you hear that it needs certain refinements — especially when it comes to the iPad Pro — to fully take advantage of the hardware and the possibilities it opens. As I said previously, to achieve that, to become a more powerful, less rigid system, iOS will have to get a bit more complex. If you want a higher degree of freedom when multitasking in iOS, things will have to behave in a more Mac-like way. And that’s ironic, is it not? A few days back I saw someone posting a design for a drag-and-drop interface between windows in iOS, and the general reaction seemed to be: That’s a cool idea. I thought: Of course, it’s like on the Mac. It’s one of the simple things of the Mac. You can tell me it’s great to move files from an app to another by using share sheets. Dragging and dropping is just as simple, and works basically everywhere.

At this stage, and to simplify a little, iOS and Mac OS X have two different kinds of simplicity: iOS has easy-to-learn, easy-to-play-with apps, and more complicated workflows, awkward multitasking and a still frictional inter-app communication; Mac OS X is the exact opposite, having more complex apps (but often capable of taking care of multiple tasks on their own), more flexibility and fluidity in its workflows, powerful multitasking and application interoperability.

You don’t have to choose. You don’t have to jump through hoops to get a task done on one platform if the other just offers you a more straightforward and efficient way to tackle it. What guides you towards a preferred platform is how you work. Justin Blanton, quoted by Brooks at the beginning of his article, explains how he’s reached a point where he can do almost everything from his iPhone, — I’m genuinely amazed and happy for him. I’ll always need big displays and plenty of screen real estate, and I’ll gladly accept the tradeoff of carrying a Mac laptop with its charger when I leave home.

iOS is indeed compelling, now more than ever, but the Mac can be just as compelling once you get to see the ways it can be simple, powerful and versatile.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!