Going from "It Just Works" to "I Just Work"

Posted by Matt Birchler
β€” 3 min read

The "it just works" message pushed by Apple and the company's fans in the early to mid 2000s was a sometimes tricky pitch to pull off. Of course at the time, Macs were much more intuitive to the average person than Windows1, but it opened them up to criticism when any little thing went wrong. "I thought you said it just works," PC fans would snidely remark. And as annoying as those PC fanboy were, those digs stung just a little best they had a semblance of truth to them: the Mac didn't always "just work."

Apple has long since stopped using this phrase, but the idea remains. Apple products are easier to use and have fewer overall issues than the products put out by Apple's competitors. And while I would argue the Mac is still more reliable, easy to understand, and an overall better computing platform than Windows, I think it's the iPad and iPhone that have come much closer to fulfilling the "it just works" promise.

I'd like to dub these devices to be "I just work" tools. The best thing I can say about the iOS family is that they make me stop thinking about them as computers and instead make me think of them as tools.

I think of a computer as something that I need to have certain skills to use. I need to understand a file system and how to back up my files. I need to understand user permissions. I need to manage my software updates so that I'm always on the latest, most secure version of everything (or I could be like most people and keep clicking that "update later" button). And god help me if something goes wrong and I need to jump into the terminal, command line, or registry. Even at their best, PCs require a good deal of maintenance.

This is totally at odds with my experience of using my iPhone and iPad. These have their own limitations, but I call them "I just work" tools because I don't have to think about anything besides the task I want to complete when I use them. All of the above-mentioned cruft of using a PC falls away as I don't need to think about anything with how the device is working, I just have to tap the icon of the thing I want to do and I do it.

That sounds so simple, but it's just not how traditional desktop operating systems behave. An app on my iPhone will never give me a modal pop up on launch saying "THERE IS AN UPDATE AVAILABLE, WOULD YOU LIKE TO INSTALL?" The process of uninstalling an app from my iPad will never include navigating to a Library folder and deleting a specific .plist file. There are no startup items that launch every time my iPad boots either, apps only get to run if and when I want them to.

None of this happens all the time on the Mac or Windows, but to shamelessly use a pun, it's death by a thousand cuts. The Mac is incredibly powerful, and there are things on there that I still can not do on any other device, which is why I still use my Mac pretty much every day.

But that list is getting shorter all the time.

Here's what I prefer to do on my Mac:

  • Web development (Atom/MAMP)
  • iOS development (Xcode)
  • Graphic design (Photoshop/Pixelmator)

And here's what I find legitimately better on iOS:

  • Web browsing (Safari)
  • Email (Outlook)
  • Writing (Ulysses)
  • Social media (Tweetbot/Facebook/Instagram)
  • Messaging (iMessage)
  • Photography (Photos/Pixelmator/Lightroom)
  • News (Reeder/Apple News)
  • Music (Apple Music)
  • Video (YouTube)
  • Task management (OmniFocus)
  • Podcasts (Overcast
  • Plus all the things desktops can't do, like run tracking, navigation, photography, etc.

When I look at it like that, it's pretty clear the only real thing keeping my Mac in play at all is the fact that I write code, and that simply hasn't been figured out on mobile yet. Apple introduced Swift Playgrounds for iOS 10 this month, so even that wall may start to fall in the next couple years.

I'm not telling you how you should live. If you prefer a desktop to and iPad or iPhone for most of your work, more power to you. I do want you to take a good long look at all the cruft that comes along with running and maintaining a Windows or Mac-based PC and acknowledge that the amount of work and knowledge that is required to make them run smoothly is a little insane. It may not seem like it today, but I assure you we'll soon look back on these things as absolutely barbaric.

  1. And I'd argue they still are by a s significant margin.