mac.column.ted: Manuals and monopolies

mac.column.ted: Manuals and monopolies

Ted Landau
April 2004

Manuals and monopolies

When you have to go a month between columns, sometimes you find you have more than one topic you'd like to cover. This month is one of those times. Rather than pick one and drop one, I decided to go with both.


Bring back the manuals

The other week I started a long overdue and dreaded task -- cleaning out the storage area of my basement. In one corner I found about a dozen or so unlabeled boxes. Most of them contained stuff that no longer held any interest to me. But one contained an unexpected surprise: a collection of manuals for Macintosh software dating back to the original MacWrite and MacPaint, Multiplan, FullPaint, Word, Excel, PageMaker and more.

I took a pause from my clean sweep of the basement to browse through these relics of another age -- one last look before sending these manuals to their final resting place. Aside from being an exercise in nostalgia (which I suppose is still appropriate as this 20th anniversary year of the Mac continues), I came away impressed with the breadth and depth of coverage contained in these often large books. As one example, Microsoft's Excel originally shipped with a whole collection of manuals, including one called Excel Reference which listed every function that you could enter in Excel, how each worked and what it did. A Macintosh Reference manual (that shipped with all Macs back around 1990) was over 400 pages long; it covered all basics of the Mac OS plus much that went beyond the basics. Then there was the collection of three HyperCard manuals (which also shipped with every Mac back in the early 90's), with a combined total of yet another 400+ pages. All in all, I calculated that a typical Mac once shipped with over 1000 pages of printed documentation; the combined total of Word and Excel documentation was more than another 1000.


In contrast, my 15" PowerBook shipped with a 130 page Getting Started manual, and a couple of brief pamphlets: grand total less than 200 pages. The documentation for an iMac or iBook these days is even skimpier. The total documentation that accompanies iLife '04 amounts to an 8 page pamphlet with the ironic title "Making the most of iLife '04." Are they serious? Eight pages is all you need to read to make the "most" of five of the more content-rich software programs ever designed for the home consumer market?

I don't mean to single Apple out here. Almost all major vendors have pretty much followed suit. That Excel Reference manual I mentioned a few paragraphs ago? It no longer ships with Excel (at least not as part of the Office package I have). In fact, Office ships with virtually no printed documentation at all. I also recently purchased the Adobe Premium Creative Suite (a super bargain at the educational discount price of less the $400, assuming you qualify). It came with just a skimpy "Design Guide" (although there is more extensive documentation included on the CDs).

So what happened? Why did these manuals vanish over the years? There are several commonly accepted theories, and they are probably all at least partially true -- although, in my view, none of them justify the result:

    No one reads the manuals anyway. In fact, being able to successfully use a Mac without reading any manuals is considered part of the allure of the Mac. So why bother making them? While most users can indeed get work done on a Mac without ever checking a manual, they will be unaware of many noteworthy features that do not typically get found just by exploring. Probably half the Mac tips that are posted on various Web sites are sufficiently basic that they should have been included in material that came with the software. You shouldn't need to go to a Web site to find them. Here are two quick examples regarding Mac OS X:

      What's the difference between dragging a document and Command-dragging? The documentation that comes with your Mac does not say.

      What's a Safe Boot and why do it? Don't expect the Getting Started guide that came with your Mac to reveal this useful tip.

    In my experience, Adobe software (such as Photoshop and GoLive) is perhaps the worst case scenario. Granted, Adobe's products are laden with high-end features designed for professionals, but almost nothing about how they work is self-evident. Even with the aid of the software's built-in help, it often takes me several tries to figure out how to do the most basic tasks. Adobe's products scream for decent documentation.

    More generally, despite the common folklore about users not wanting to read manuals, there is clearly a healthy interest in printed documentation. As I recall, David Pogue's "Missing Manual" book on Mac OS X was the number one best selling computer book of the year -- not just Mac computer book, but any computer book!

    Printed manuals are expensive. Vendors eliminated them to save money. Printed documentation adds two significant costs for a vendor: the cost of producing and printing the manual and the cost of packaging and shipping the manual. Paying someone to write the manual is usually small potatoes in comparison, but is still more than zero. Eliminating all of these costs obviously helps increase profit margins. This is almost certainly the driving force behind why printed manuals are on the endangered species list. Some vendors (as in the Adobe example I mentioned earlier) at least produce a manual and include it as a PDF file on the software's CD. I can also attest that Apple's Final Cut Express similarly comes with decent on-CD documentation. Other products do not bother with even this minimal support.

    Not that a PDF manual is a completely adequate substitute for printed documentation. For starters, reading a manual on a screen is not as convenient as browsing through a hard copy. You can't quickly thumb back and forth between two chapters, for example. Yes, you can print these PDF files, but you wind up bearing a significant expense to get a stack of paper that is much bulkier than a book. And if the manual includes color, your print out won't show it unless you want to pay more for the manual than for the software itself!

    You can use Web-based or "built-in" Help files instead of a manual. An application's Help command certainly has its value. When you want a quick answer to a common question, nothing is faster (assuming the quality of the Help files are sufficient, which is not always the case). For example, the other day I wanted to do a mail merge in Word using an Excel file as the database. It had been years since I had done this, so I went to Word's Help files for assistance. They came through, and I was soon on my way.

    But the same arguments against on-CD manuals apply to Help files as well. Plus Help files are typically much briefer (often too much briefer) than either printed or on-CD documentation. And if you just want to explore the features of your software, with no specific question in mind, the Help format is far from ideal. Personally, if I have well-written printed documentation, I can enjoy reading it almost from cover-to-cover. (OK, I admit I am not typical here!) There is no way that online help can duplicate this.

    You can buy a book if you really want a printed manual. As someone who has written books about the Mac, I would certainly not argue against the value of third-party books as a supplement to manuals that come with software. But buying a book should not be a requirement to get the minimum information the vendor should provide. In any case, shelling out an additional 40 dollars or more for every significant piece of software you own can become prohibitively expensive. If vendors are determined to eliminate manuals from their software package, they could at least include a coupon to get a discount on any related book.

Now that I think about it, maybe I won't part with all of the manuals I found in my basement -- especially as I don't hold out much hope for software publishers reversing their current direction. For starters, the Excel reference looks like it could still be useful today. Perhaps vendors need to hear more complaints from users before they consider a shift in policy. If so, consider this column to be my submission to the complaint department.


Microsoft's monopoly and the European Union

As you have probably heard (check here if you haven't), the European Union (EU) hit Microsoft last month with a $613 million fine. By itself, that probably won't bother the company all that much. What potentially really hurts (assuming Microsoft loses its appeals) is that the EU also required Microsoft to create a version of Windows minus its Windows Media software. Why? Because by bundling its media player with Windows, the EU claimed that Microsoft was blocking legitimate third-party competition for media software (with Real Player and QuickTime Player the most often cited alternatives). This same logic, the EU warned, might be applied to other Microsoft products in the future, if it perceives a similar artificial dominance gained by Microsoft's monopoly of the market.

This all got me thinking of a statement I made in my column last month: "If Apple had Microsoft's overall market share, it might be Apple that the DOJ was investigating for monopoly-like practices."

Indeed, Apple bundles QuickTime Player with its Macs. No other player is included. So how is this any different from what Microsoft is doing? Or isn't it really different at all?

I believe it is different - for two significant reasons.

    Apple's hardware division is not complaining. Complaints about Microsoft's practices come not only from the vendors that make the competing media player software but from hardware PC makers. The reason behind the hardware vendors' complaints is summarized in the following quote from a consumer organization's document published in 2001:

      Microsoft insists on equal or superior location for its products if a competitor is shown on the desktop. Further, Microsoft insists on being paid for all the programs, regardless of whether the computer manufacturer wants to use them all.

    Microsoft has further been accused of threatening to prevent PC makers from installing Windows at all if a blacklisted competing software product was included on the Desktop.

    With Apple, there are no such conflicts with hardware vendors. As the only hardware vendor for its OS software, Apple could only complain to itself about what software comes or does not come with its hardware.

    Size matters. Of course, third-party software vendors can still complain about Apple's policies. And they often do. But here is where Apple's measly sub-5% market share comes to its rescue, at least from a legal perspective. Essentially, the presumption is that if Apple does something that most vendors see as unfair, the vendors can choose not to write for the Mac platform at all - and go elsewhere instead (as in Windows). As long as there is an "elsewhere" to go, let the free market reign. If Apple's policies turn out to be unwise, it is ultimately Apple that will suffer the most, not the third party vendors. Apple itself admitted as much in this year's annual report to stockholders:

      The Company's future performance is dependent upon support from third party software developers. If third-party software applications cease to be developed, then customers may choose not to buy the Company's products. [For example,] if customers choose not to purchase the Company's products because Internet Explorer is not available on the Macintosh platform,...the Company's net sales...could be materially adversely affected.

Still, within the confines of Apple's market share, one could argue that Apple's behavior does represent something akin to what Microsoft does. And when I look at it that way, I admit to having some sympathy for Microsoft's position. I mean, if the situation was reversed, and Apple was the dominant player, would I really want to prevent Apple from including QuickTime Player on all Macs (and, even worse, including Real Player instead)? Would I prefer if iTunes did not ship with each Mac? I don't think so.

But I can't work up too much sympathy for Microsoft here. What really irks me about Microsoft's behavior is its incessant drive for dominance over everything. I mean, how much less money would Microsoft have today if Netscape was still the dominant Web browser? Why does Microsoft feel compelled to challenge Google for search engine supremacy? And how bad would it be for Microsoft's bottom line if iTunes became a defacto standard for PCs? Especially since all the software in question is "free"? Well, there is money to be made even with free software -- such as the advertising revenue that Google attracts. But Microsoft's goals here are not always about money -- at least not in the short run. Microsoft's concern is more often about control. If Microsoft's browser dominates the market, it can control how Web developers design their sites. How? Well, if a designer doesn't follow Microsoft's rules, such that the site does not work with Explorer, Explorer users will be unable to browse the site. And if many sites only work well with Explorer, users will be reluctant to shift to another browser. The current war over music media dominance is similarly about control. Control translates into money in the long run. For my money, however, Microsoft already controls enough. The music media war is one that I hope Apple wins.


Utility of the month: Preferential Treatment

You're having some odd problem -- such as a failure to print in Safari. You think it's due to a corrupt preferences (.plist) file. But you are not sure which file is the culprit. Is it a .plist file for Safari, Printer Setup Utility, or some process more general to the OS itself? You can use trial-and-error to figure this out. Or you can use Preferential Treatment. It's essentially a more user-friendly GUI for the plutil command (as used in Terminal). It tells you if a .plist file is not a valid XML file. This won't detect all possible forms of corruption, but it's a good starting point. And be sure to check out the included Help file for much useful background information (and no, I did not expect a printed manual to come with this shareware utility!).


Ted Landau is the creator of MacFixIt and author of the soon-to-be-published Mac OS X Help Line (Peachpit, 2004). Check it out at

This is the latest in a series of monthly mac.column.ted articles by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here.

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