OS agnosticism is good for you

I was talking to a student recently about the MS Office 2007 ribbon feature and how it throws many people off at first. I asked her if this was also her experience, but she replied that she had no major problems adjusting to it. They simply changed where things are, but the icons and names of most of the features are still roughly the same, she told me. In fact, she told me that the ribbon reminded her a little bit of the office suite looks on her MacBook.

Ladies, and gentlemen, I submit this as a proof that using more than one operating system on a regular basis is good for you. In fact, quite a few students in my two classes were Mac users. I know because several of them brought their laptops to school and wanted to use it for a presentation and couldn’t because the projector in the classroom had only a standard VGA cable. None of them thought to bring the mini-DVI to VGA extension – they probably never even bought one. Still, I have noticed that those students were the ones who rarely asked the questions of the type “how do I do X”. They were the ones able to work with the lab handouts and locate desired functionality by looking on the screen shots. These students were inherently more adaptable (at least to some degree) because they have been exposed to more than one way of doing things.

Your work-flow on a mac is slightly different from the work-flow on the PC. Asa result, any new Mac user is forced to go through the adjustment period when they figure out how to do task A, B or C on their new system. They learn how to explore and familiarize themselves with a new system. They are aware that different systems accomplish different tasks in their own unique way. They learn distinction between basic concepts and their implementation. Next time they are exposed to an unfamiliar interface, they are better prepared to deal with it.

The non technical folks who live firmly entrenched in Microsoft’s monoculture often memorize common tasks by rote. They remember which menu option, and which buttons to click but do not try to understand why. These are the people who like to take notes when you tell them how to do something. They go, “hold on, hold on, I go to Tools, then Pro-per-ties and then click on Add Vance… Oh, it’s Advanced… What’s next?”

Sometimes there are many ways to accomplish a task. For example, copying and pasting. In most applications you can do it using the context menu, the Edit menu or the keyboard shortcuts. Some people will learn just one of these methods, and be at a complete loss when it is unavailable. Whenever you change the interface, they are lost and must slowly learn to use the software almost from scratch.

Of course, there is nothing stopping someone from learning how to use a Mac this way – memorization, note taking and rote drills. It is not uncommon. But the very process of “switching” tends to do something to people. When the switch is done out of ones own free will, it tends to trigger a sudden realization in most people. The Apple software does almost everything that the PC software used to do, just differently. There are different ways to accomplish different tasks. They unknowingly take the huge cognitive leap that allows them to understand machines better. This is why so many non-geeks love their macs so much, and keep telling everyone how easy their OS is to learn. It is not because of the design on OSX (although it may be part of it). It’s because the process of switching the OS opened up their minds, and expanded their awareness. It is easy for them, because they have learned how to learn new OS’s.

A lot of people hate Apple, and the culture that surrounds it. I don’t. I am thankful that we have this system which to me is a small beacon of hope. Unlike Linux, Mac OS seems to be attractive, and accessible to the mainstream public. And because it teaches people that you can actually switch operating systems it does open up new unexplored avenues for linux adoption. Think about it – a person who can use both OSX and Windows with a relative ease, is likely to be open to yet another alternative operating system. OSX can be the gateway drug that may lead some to Linux. Not everyone, but some. And even if it doesn’t, it shows them that there exists a world outside the Microsoft. It challenges the MS monopoly – and that is a good thing.

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9 Responses to OS agnosticism is good for you

  1. Garrick UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    My wife is a good example. She has been a lifelong Windows user and only first used Macs at her job in 2004. She had a hell of a time trying to set up here laptop to work with our HP printer at home. Windows made her jump through every hoop available. After about 2 hours of Google searching, and quite a few phone calls to myself at work, she was able to get it up and running. Soon after, I purchased an Macbook, and she went to do the same thing. Due to a more streamlined/common sense interface, she had the printer working in a couple minutes.

    Then when I started using Linux at home, she needed to print something off, and my Ubuntu box (the only computer she had available) had never been set up to work with our printer. She called me with great excitement when she managed to figure it out in less time than it took her with the Mac.

    Most people looking at an “alien” OS like Linux would have choked and begged for help, but she was up to the challenge since she had done it twice before with two completely different operating systems.
    Most non-technical Windows users do in fact memorize the steps to complete a task, instead of wondering why things are where they are, and why they do things the way they do.

    “Switchers” are happy to figure these things out, and as a result, grow to be better computer users.

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  2. Sam Weston UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Absolutely! I’d never really thought about it like this before but since I started using Linux I have become much more open to new ways of doing tasks on my PC. I’ve never had the chance to use OS X for any real length of time but when I have used it briefly, on friends’ laptops mainly, I have found it relatively easy to adapt. I guess this is due to having gone through the same experience with Linux.

    I however don’t think I’ve ever been the single way of doing things type. Even when I was using Windows which I grew up with (3.11 up to XP) I always liked to learn all the possible ways of getting the system to do my bidding so I could use the most efficient way for any given task.

    This fact made it very easy for me to switch to Linux and near impossible to get my XP using parents to try the new OS. They, unlike me, aren’t ‘experimenters’ or ‘switchers’ or ‘power users’…whatever you want to call it and so would much rather stick to their current, comfortable, way of doing things than try something new.

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  3. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’ve always wanted to try Mac OSX, but never quite have the money to get one. I wanted to hackintosh my PC, but found out my new motherboard isn’t supported.

    Ubuntu got me acquainted with linux. I just need to learn OSX now.

    I don’t hate Windows, Mac or Linux guys. It’s just those irritating few who use only 1 of these OSes, not any others, and then self-proclaim that it is the best there is. I have one irritating Linux and one irritating Mac user in office, who like talk in such a manner. I get it. You love it. Now, leave me in peace with my games.

    I just think it is a bit stupid as a consumer to be a devoted fanatic towards a particular company.

    Now that Virtualbox 2.1 is out, maybe I should try FreeBSD. Hmmm….

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  4. Ajzimm3rman UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    They remember which menu option, and which buttons to click but do not try to understand why.

    I remember my Gov teacher saying something in high school, “People who are bilingual use a different part of the brain… .. people just don’t usually use. It’s a different way of thinking. It’s a different mindset.”

    I like how you put this.
    You’re completely right. The ability to use all of them is a very healthy activity-
    It disrupts the stale, dusty environment that biased, straight direction thought appends itself to.
    I don’t know what it’s like to be old- I’ve heard when you grow up “it’s not applicable” to use multiple OS’s/shift around as often as we do in youth.
    I find it’s a mindset, very occurent in many things; sort of revolving around the main idea I think, it’s almost like they’ve just quit the learning process.
    Bland similarity; non-adaptive…
    Waiting for the expert to fix the problem you don’t want to worry about.

    But I suppose this comes with age. People in youth aquire this mindset by not immersing themselves in it as we did.
    The often quoted JFGI spores from (atleast me) hours becoming adapted to Google’s functionality since its growth in the nineties.
    It’s how we function- we’ve hardwired the processes into ourselves, into our generation..

    I feel it’s possible that non-adaptive technological thought will become more obsolete then it already is..
    But- with cradle-to-the-grave spoon fed media/entertainment in television it’s hard to tell…
    It’s possible that the television (without interaction and learning) is part of the problem.

    People will be … fully functional on the xbox but unable to install Windows.. (I was asked once, “so I put it in and it goes?”

    Its… quite a conundrum, my friend. I feel I’m quite adaptive, it’s not like I’m just this way with the computer. But I feel improvisation comes by itself after everything-
    And if that’s the truth,
    Then maybe we’re teaching the wrong thing.

    [quote comment=”11048″]

    Now that Virtualbox 2.1 is out, maybe I should try FreeBSD. Hmmm….[/quote]

    Try ubuntu.

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  5. Ajzimm3rman UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Lol. Once again I’d like to edit my post…

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  6. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    It’s not just OSs, it’s everything. I’ve played a lot of MMOs in my time as have the people in friendship group A, and also enjoy discussing game design concepts with them. I’ve recently become good mates with the people in group B as well, and they are all solely WoW players. There’s concepts in MMOs that don’t even occur to them because they’re monocultural – when I point out this trend or that or benefits and costs of different aspects of game design, they’re spun out by my ‘insight’. In reality, it’s just being able to see it from outside the system, having seen what works and doesn’t work elsewhere. Of course, I milk the rep it for all it’s worth…

    Heterogenous experience is superior to homogenous experience almost everywhere. A mechanic who can fix bikes cars and trucks is going to be better than a mechanic who only ever works on Ford sedans – the former would probably be the better one to ask to fix your boat.

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  7. Jake UNITED STATES ELinks Debian GNU/Linux says:

    Using Linux and often switching between apps at home, constantly helping my mom with Windows XP/Office 2k (only Windows computer left here), and using XP/Office 2003 at school, I am well adjusted. At school I was (unfortunately) taking a class on Microsoft Office 2003. I had no trouble with completing the projects and whatnot. However, when it came time to be tested on the material, I was at a lost. I had to memorize exactly where different items were in the context menu. I learned to just find it. I never had to think about where it was. So I had a lot of memorzing to do for a test that would in no way make it easier for me to use Office.

    The class will be useless for most students anyway the way that it is taught because of the major differences in Office 2007.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Jake: Yeah, I’ve seen these tests and IMHO they are incredibly useless. As I said above, I’d rather have the students learn 15 different ways to do one thing, than memorize one.

    I guess they use these tests to make sure the students are tested on their Office skills. Sadly they don’t measure how well they mastered the software but how good are they at memorizing menu locations. I believe that practical exercises are much better way to gauge the student progress.

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