By Harry McCracken | Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm
I stopped using Google’s Chrome as my primary browser today. I did so with regret, and hope to be back. But in recent days, some of the Web sites I use most–WordPress.com, Twitter, and Facebook–have stopped working properly in Chrome. I’m uncertain of why, but the most likely explanation is that they’re reacting badly to the newest version of Chrome, which, like all Chrome updates, was installed automatically on my computer. So I’m switching for the time being to Safari, where all those sites behave like they should.
There are plenty of arguments for auto-updates of the type seen in Chrome. For one thing, they’re a good way to stomp out security vulnerabilities as quickly as possible, as widely as possible, once they’re discovered. But they also make it harder for anyone who’d rather decide for himself or herself when to move to a new version of the browser. (For the record, it’s possible to shut off auto-updating, although it’s not exactly obvious how to do it.) Basically, Google appears to think that everyone should use the current version of Chrome (except for bleeding-edge types: they should use the current beta). It’s not going to make things easy for those of us who’d prefer to opt out.
That philosophy–do it our way, not your way–seems to be in tune with the times. Folks who dislike the iPhone often squawk about how it forces you to accept Apple’s way of doing things. They’re right: there are very few features for tweaking the user interface, a fact that even annoys some people (such as me) who mostly like the iPhone. But it’s not like Android is as customizable as it should be, either. It’s nowhere near as tweakable as my old Windows Mobile phones or even-older PalmPilots.
On the iPad, I can think of only one major point where Apple lets you make a decision about the device’s user interface: you can choose to make the slider on its side either a mute switch or an orientation lock. Whoop-de-doo!
The increasing importance of cloud-based services plays a role here, too. It’s not that they’re inherently untweakable–Gmail, for instance, has scads of options (even though it doesn’t have all the ones I’d like to see). But Web services as a class aren’t as easy to mold to your own tastes as the desktop apps they replace, and they auto-update you to the newest versions pretty much by definition.
This isn’t all that new a trend. For instance, when Microsoft introduced the all-new (and in many ways nifty) Ribbon user interface in Office 2007, there was no way to customize the tabs and menus–and it broke many existing Office customizations, driving some of Microsoft’s most loyal customers bonkers. It was only three years later, in Office 2010, that the suite got back the customization options it had lost.
There’s no conspiracy here. One reason why new stuff isn’t as customizable as old stuff is because it’s, well, new: extensive options for changing things around are rarely among the first features a company implements. As time goes on, I suspect that even Apple’s products will provide at least a few more tools for personalization. But Chrome, the iPhone, Android handsets, the iPad, and Office all feel like they’re trying harder to cater to beginners who don’t want to fine-tune things (or who might mess things up if they did) than to those of us who know what we want from products and don’t want to be force-fed a particular way of doing things.
So for the time being, I do feel sometimes like my world is being dumbed down around me. Years ago, I used to shake my head at grizzled PC veterans who carped that Windows or the Mac were for clueless newbies, not the sophisticated types who could make a DOS computer jump through hoops. I go through bouts of similar crankiness myself now. And I’d like to see more evidence that major purveyors of software and services aren’t pushing us towards a one-size-fits-all future.
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