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Mac excels where humans fall short

CNET News' Ina Fried recalls her introduction to the Macintosh two decades ago and ruminates on the future of the iconic Apple computer.

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It was 1988 and I was in the first weeks of eighth grade. I had arrived back after being out for a day. I found a note, intended for my counselor, attached to my absence slip.

The handwritten letter was from my advanced art teacher and it was blunt. She said that I was a good kid but couldn't draw, and could my counselor please find another elective for me?

At the time, it was slightly traumatic. But that turned out to be a great day. The counselor found a spot for me in a graphic arts class. And it was there that I found the Mac.

With the Mac, it didn't matter that I couldn't draw a straight line. MacDraw could do it for me. It turned out I had an eye for design. I used that first Mac to design business cards, T-shirts, and notepads. It helped translate the images in my head faithfully onto paper in a way that my hands seemed incapable of doing.

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That, for me, represents the essential quality of "Macness." On its best days, Apple's computers have excelled by both figuring out what it is people really want to do with their computers and then letting them do it like a pro (or at least fake it acceptably well).

Over time, of course, those qualities of the early Mac were replicated and even exceeded elsewhere. But the Mac, particularly when Steve Jobs returned, staked out new territory where professional tools could be offered up to the masses.

With iPhoto and iMovie, Apple and Steve Jobs recognized that people were acquiring digital cameras and camcorders at a fast rate, but that the actual usefulness of both devices was limited because there weren't simple and useful ways to share the content.

Apple introduced iDVD as a way for people to make their digital movies into something that could even be shared with the computer-less. With photo books, it did the same for still pictures.

GarageBand again tried to take the premise of helping people tap into their inner artist, although I must say Apple faced a tougher battle in turning me into a musician, and I have never opted to test the Mac's limits on that score.

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But Apple faces another challenge, perhaps one even tougher than teaching me music (although my accordion teacher might beg to differ). In many ways, it is the same challenge facing Microsoft. Much of the work that had been done on a PC can now be done on a basic machine, often through a Web browser.

And while Microsoft can work to add online services to complement its operating system, such as Windows Live Photo Gallery, Apple struggles with scale on this front. This can be seen in the way it has struggled to keep its paid .Mac and now MobileMe services on par with the free services from the big names on the Net.

To really thrive (and justify its pricier hardware) Apple needs to identify another key area in which the human mind has trouble transforming its aspirations into reality.

Let's see, what other things am I not good at?

See the rest of our Mac anniversary coverage here.