Switching to Mac isn't right for everyone

When I was in California recently to visit my family I talked to my brother about getting my parents an iMac. Daryl had switched to Mac about 6 months ago and loved it and as you can tell if you've been following my blog for any length of time I've been extremely happy with my switch too. 

Why not share that joy with my parents? It would be great for them to be able to see and speak with their grandkids 2,300 miles away more often and I figured an iMac would be a pretty good solution. iChat and the built in iSight camera are painfully easy to use and my Dad would finally have something other than the TV as a source for his news and information. We would set up a high speed connection with their local cable provider and they'd be good to go!

With that plan fully formed in my head I brought it up to my wife when I returned home from the trip. 

Me: "Daryl and I are thinking about getting Mom and Dad a Mac!"

Wife: "Not a good idea. Don't you remember how it went last time you got them a computer"?

I stopped and looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully. At this point those little swirly clouds that appear in sitcoms washed over me and it was 1999 again:
I just bought a nice little Compaq computer for my parents, loaded up with Windows 98 and MS Office 97.  I set up the entire machine before-hand, patching the OS and placing icons on the desktop to make it painfully simple for them to use the machine. I also bought a copy of Windows 98 for Dummies and Office 97 for Dummies. I even bought them a nice Epson inkjet printer and pre-configured it to work with the machine.

All this was nicely packaged up so that all my parents had to do was take it out of the box and set it on the desk, then plug it in. This was to be a stand-alone machine, no internet access. They really wanted to use it to write letters and my Dad had an interest in playing around with the technology.

The day after the computer arrived at my parent's house I got a call from my Dad. He had my cousin come by to help him set it all up because plugging things in was just too difficult. My Dad was getting nowhere with the machine and he needed some help. I got questions like 

Dad: "OK, the TV part has a bunch of little pictures on it. What do I do now?"

Me: "That's called a monitor and the little pictures are called icons. They represent the applications I loaded on the machine for you"

Dad: "Uhhhh"

Me: "OK, let's just fire up Microsoft Word so that you can type in some text. Double-click on the Microsoft Word icon on the desktop..."

At this point we had a little conversation about how to double-click. It wasn't long before my Dad was frustrated by the pace of all this and sensed that I was getting frustrated too.

Dad: "Is there a book that we should get before Windows for Dummies"?
The swirly memory clouds disappeared and I was still standing in front of my wife, my plans to get my parents a Mac starting to sound a little crazy even to me. Providing basic support to my parents was something I had glossed over in my zeal to get them a Mac.

I then remembered that my parents still had that $1,200 Compaq I bought them and they do actually use it. The Epson printer - which has never actually printed anything - serves as a bill and magazine holder for my Mom. If you fire up the machine it's got an entire screen full of shortcuts for Solitaire on it. My Mom has a tendency to click Start and accidentally drag the Solitaire icon to the Windows desktop every once in a while. After 9 years there are a lot of icons. Turns out that's the only application that's actually been run on the machine.

So I paid $1,200 for a machine that has effectively become the equivalent of a plastic inbox tray and a deck of Bicycle Playing Cards. I shudder to think what would happen to a shiny new iMac if it was put in the same situation.

My Mom is quite happy with it just the way it is. Maybe I don't want to mess with that after all.


Paul said...

If you do get them a Mac, make sure you preload this:


More seriously, I think you might have more luck this time around. My mother tried to use computers about 10 years ago, and didn't take to them. She tried again a year ago and now we can't keep her off of it! I think that having an Internet connection also turns the computer from a productivity tool into an information resource. And that is far more compelling. I can think of few killer apps for someone of their age without an Internet connection, but plenty with a connection. As you say, iChat, email and web browsing.

Just make sure you preconfigure it!

Charles said...

My aunt and uncle had a PC that was getting old, ran very slowly, was jammed full of spyware and was used for only two things - Solitaire and online banking.

They went out and bought an iMac. This was before I bought one myself and was one of the deciders for me. Because they're incredibly happy with it. I think people over 60 shouldn't use anything else. You'll get far fewer family support calls and they'll actually use the thing.

David Alison said...

@Paul: Ha! Thanks for the link. I don't know man - I really would like my parents to get into computers because it would really help them stay mentally active. Unfortunately my parents are really, really technology resistant people. I might be willing to do this if I was local to them but trying to support them from 2,300 miles away is just not going to work.

@Charles: I bought my Mom a digital picture frame for Mother's day. It was set up and ready to go, 400+ pictures loaded into the memory card and everything. They waited until my brother came over to actually plug it in. When people are fundamentally afraid of technology there's not much you can do about it.

Mike said...

My advice is to buy a mac and set ichat to start automatically when it is booted up. Then install chax so that you can set the computer to automatically accept video chat requests and screen sharing requests. Make sure the security settings for their ichat are set to only allow people on their buddy list to see them as available. Then you can run your parents through tutorials from 1000's of miles away and fix any problem they might have. As I type this I see the vulnerability you might be introducing to the computer... good idea in theory though.

idobi said...

An iMac could actually make tech support easier. After the initial setup and internet connection has been installed, you could use screen sharing to walk them through just about any problem.

Robert said...

Man, I completely feel you on this one. I remember when I got what I would consider my first user-friendly pc in 1997: a Win 95 box from IBM. I thought it was great. Lightyears ahead of even my Win 3.1 and so far beyond my old DOS box that it wasn't even fair calling them both "computers". It's like this modern marvel needed a new title all its own. Also, with the internet coming around, I thought that we'd finally hit the point where the computer would be a lifestyle corner-stone for anyone, even my parents. So I did stuff very similar to what you did. Big mistake. My results were also very like your results.

From your description, your parents don't need any more interaction with people 2,300 miles away than they can already get with a telephone. Likewise with having a news source other than the tv.

Here's something I learned first hand at my current company: we have a software product where I'm now having to rip out a lot of old over-architeched framework code that was designed to do things we've never needed and now it's just a pain to work with. This complex infrastructure solved a problem we didn't have and caused many new problems with no real gain.

This is what the Mac could easily be to your parents -- solving problems they don't have and creating problems they don't need.

Let me save you $1,198: Bicycle Playing Cards at Amazon

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you would have issues no matter what machine you got them.

William said...

Converting my in-laws to Macs was very painful. My father-in-law had such severe PTSD from windows, he was afraid to try anything. However, now two years later things seem to have reached an equilibrium where they are almost self sufficient. Their switch has tempered my zeal in encouraging people to switch.

David Alison said...

@Robert: thanks man, but I've already got the card playing task covered.

@Anon: yep, that's it. I have incredible parents - the best I could ask for - they just don't have any interest in technology. The irony for me is the role technology has played in my life is so big.

Tom said...

I'm actually really glad I've helped my mom and grandparents get Macs up and running for them. Now that I do live away from them, iChat for video chat and remote help has been very useful.

The key thing is that you can't just give them a tool. You have to show them a use for the tool that they will enjoy. If you present it to them going "look, now you have a computer", then what happened with the Compaq would happen again. But if you present it to them as "look, heres a great way we can chat and allow you to stay connected with the kids", they will probably overcome whatever barriers to use the machine, even if they never get much more out of it beyond the video chat.

So, if you do plan on getting them one, make sure you are there to set it up initially, then show them iChat on the LAN between your laptop so they get the idea. Setup wise, you might want to look into setting their accounts up using the Simple finder and such to also slim down the chances of them going outside their comfort zone. If you get .Mac, then you can use Back to my Mac to always be able to hop in on your own to look at any issues they are having.

I never really thought my grandmother would use her iBook all that much. But here we are 5 years later, and while she doesn't use a ton of things on it, she uses e-mail a lot, and also uses Safari to get new recipes. My grandfather has his own system as well, and he uses it to play poker online, and to chat with me.

Anonymous said...

Dude, I am totally there! My dad had one of those original blueberry iMacs running 9.2.2. I automated it as much as I could, but I'd get calls from him begging for help that go something like this:

Dad: The thing with my letters isn't there any more.
Me: {asking a series of questions, trying to determine if his MacWrite (!) files got blown away}
Dad: No, I mean the thing used to open, but now there's this stripey bar down at the bottom of the screen.

In other words, my Dad had inadvertently moved the window down to the bottom of the screen. He didn't even know you could move windows around, so when it wasn't where he expected it, he freaked.

I gave up trying to support him remotely. My sisters tell me I use too much technical jargon, but it's hard not to use terms like "windows", "icons" and "files". My dad now uses one of those two-piece iMacs (with the round base) with Tiger on it, thanks to a local tech support freelancer. My dad and I don't talk about computers any more...

Scott Rose said...

I think you should buy them a Mac, and install Timbuktu Pro on it (or use Leopard iChat's screen sharing ability) to provide remote tech support.

That's what I do with my parents, and it's worked out beautifully.

Remember that one way or another, you're going to be giving them tech support, but with the Mac, they will actually have LESS questions & problems than with a Windows PC.

Mister Ron said...

If you get them a Mac, be sure to install a registered version of Burning Monkey Solitaire.

If you're going to do something over and over and over again, do it right! :)

Deef said...

@Robert - you reminded me of that t-shirt "Windows 95 = Macintosh 89"

sircorby said...

My stepmother had the same experience. She bought a nonamo PC with AOL on it and Windows ME.

It ended up so virus infected her "helpful" "techie" friend installed--wait for it--Linux on it. Confused her even more.

She was barely able to send emails and surf the web.

I gave her an old broken-screen iBook connected to her monitor. A week later, she emailed me a photograph from her new digital camera.

She went from afraid of her computer to loving her mac.

Pecos Bill said...

David! How heartless of you to plop down a computer then take off. No matter how well set up, you still ought to have had a few training sessions for them.

That Epson won't print now. It's ink dried out eons ago.

@Charles: Online banking AND spyware? Egad!

Methinks you should talk to them first about what they might be interested in doing with a Mac before changing. They might like video iChat with their grandkids. (Just make sure the firwall/NAT setups are all good before you leave if you do such a thing.)

Anonymous said...

Hi David, I enjoy reading your posts.

Yeah, the problem you've identified is that your parents would probably need the kind of tutorials and introductions to the Mac (and computing) that were available in say, 1984, when all aspects of modern GUIs were completely new to everyone. Now it's almost 25 years later, and the starting point for introductions and tutorials has irrevocably moved. I don't even know where you'd go to find resources for teaching people who have never touched a computer before and have no baseline for any of the concepts and symbols involved. 25 years is a long time--heck, 15 years was a long time in 1999! (I suspect you'd have to look at how kids learn computers, both at home and in school for clues on how to get older adults up and running. But the disadvantage is that kids have no preconceived notions, and adults do, so adults often have a disability to explore and engage new things without apprehension.)

Even those who have been learning along with the growth of the PC industry can be stumped if they only use their machines for very specific purposes and are suddenly confronted with a new application or a new problem to solve.

Anonymous said...

If they are near an Apple Store just get them the $99 One to One program as well... then you can let the Apple employees teach them how to use the computer to do what they want with it.


David Alison said...

Keep in mind folks my parents are in their 70s (my Mom just hit 78) and she isn't asking for a computer. She has no concept of e-mail or the internet so pushing ANY computer on them, even one as simple as a Macintosh, would be a challenge.

As the anon poster above points out, it would require a level of remedial training that would have questionable returns.

I am actually considering getting them a Wii. At least that would get them to become a little more active - as they've gotten older they have become very sedentary. Getting old really sucks.

veggiedude said...

If it was me, I would buy them a new Mac and let them continue using both machines, the new and the old. It will take them some time to get used to the new machine, but can always fall back on the old one whenever they "get stuck." Eventually, in time, they will get used to the new machine - maybe sooner than you think.

Paulie said...

David, I hate to admit this, but I bought my mother (she's 83 years old) an MSN TV (it was called WebTV then) to use for email. Mom lives on her own, doesn't drive, and really wanted to be able to keep in touch with her family scattered around the country and in England. All she uses is email, but she loves to see the photos people attach, and she loves to forward those junky, funny emails folks send around. It gives her lots of pleasure, is easy enough for her to use (at least for her limited requirements), and just works.

She's visiting with me right now, and I've set her email up on a PowerBook. It's too difficult for her to use! She's eager to get back to her MSN TV.

I'm a long-time Apple guy, going back to the very first model of Mac, but I gotta say this MSN TV thing gets the job done for Mom.

David Alison said...

@Paulie: I hear you man. The older you get, the less change you want and the less adaptable you become to change when it happens.

In the end I just want my parents happy. I'd love for them to explore some new horizons and become proficient with newer technology but at the end of the day I don't know that they would really use it all that much. I'd be forcing a technology on them because I wanted them to have it, not because they even asked for it.

Jacob Saaby Nielsen said...

It's all about needs. And habits. Never underestimate habits.

I'm in a similar situation. My dad asked me "if I need a new machine, which one would you recomment ?".

Dad, get the 20" iMac. It's perfect for your needs.

They do some IM, some Skype with us (we're at the other end of the country), email, and photos.

The iMac would be perfect for them. Plus it looks good, and says nothing. Perfect.

But you know what ? They're not keen on learning another new platform.

Cause they're used to Windows, and that's what they use everywhere else.

A shame. I'd love to get my parents on the Mac-wagon, I'm pretty sure they'd love it too.

But old habits are hard to break, even if their needs support switching to an iMac.

On the other hand, I've just settled for the basic fact that you did David. They have to want it, to be happy about it. They don't need their geek son to force it upon them.

Nobody would win from that decision.

I'll keep working them though, showing them the greatness of the iMac and photos, every time they come by :D ;)


Hey David,

On Family Support...
I'm guessing that many of the folks reading your blog have found themselves to be the de-facto user support technicians for their respective families. I know I'm the go-to-guy for all things tech in mine. I'm always looking for ways to ease that "responsibility."

Here are a few things I've found that have helped a lot;

Always use a Mac unless there is a good reason not to.
For new users, especially the elderly, always use Parental Controls & Limited Accounts.
Always go with Cable Modem or High Speed DSL. It really does not pay to go cheap here!
Use something like LogMeIn for remote support.
Optionally get Dot Mac (Family Pack if you can afford it.) It's good for backups and useful for sharing data.

For the Folks...
For your situation David, you might consider sending the folks your "old" MacBook and get a refurb MacBook Pro for yourself. I know, it's a little self serving, but why not treat yourself for being such a good son! Heck, get your brother to send you half the value of the MacBook and you can both be heroes!

Make it Easy...
I'd strongly recommend that you configure your folk's user account(s) on whatever Mac they get, with Parental Controls. They call it "Parental" controls for a reason!

It will limit and simplify the UI drastically. This way the icons are all "locked down" in the dock and in the Application/Documents Folders. They absolutely can't mess things up by dragging the icons anywhere! It really does make it easier for them by reducing all their options to a finite and manageable few.

Additionally, it will make supporting and teaching them how to use the Mac significantly easier for you. Later you can always expand their access to other parts of the system by degrees if or when it's appropriate.

Also consider installing the LogMeIn "Free" client (that way, at no cost, you can help them from any system that has internet access.) iChat is really great and Leopard screen sharing works well most of the time with a fast enough connection, but LogMeIn has ALWAYS worked for me even with a low bandwidth connection. The LMI service works from ANY computer with a browser and an internet connection. LMI is beginning to replace most of my TB2 (Timbuktu) requirements. It's very flexible and has a decent Mac implementation, though not as good as it is for Windows -- Welcome to the Mac in a Windows world!

Sow's Ear? Not for Us...
Rumors are that Dot Mac services are about to expand soon and I'm anxious to see what Apple has in mind by way of expanded services. Dot Mac has changed quite a bit since it's initial free introduction. It's really too bad that Apple had to make it a paid subscription, but even at 50 cents a day, it's been worth it for us.

In addition to using iDisk as your own small private FTP server (iDisk is cross-platform BTW), you can sync Safari Bookmarks, iCal Calendars, Address Book Contacts, Email Accounts, Keychains, and more with the service. It's nice to have an offsite backup of much of the stuff that makes your Mac "personalized." It's no Time Machine, and not meant to be ones primary backup by any means, but it serves it's purpose. The service also provides a destination for public or private photo's, websites, shared calendars or announcements.

Change & Quality Time...
Obviously if your folks just can't muster the interest to learn and use the "new fangled gadgets", there's not a lot you can do.

From what I've been told though, it's a bit like it was when telephones were first becoming popular. It was not uncommon to hear the comment "If I want to talk to Bill, I'll just get on the horse and ride to his place!"

It's pretty obvious to most folks today that computers will be a necessity in the not too distant future. I guess I'm a sucker for catch phrases, but there is a growing digital divide, and who wants those they care most about to be on the wrong side? Those without will have no choice but to saddle up!

What I did to get my 82 year old Mom In-Law onboard was to schedule a weekly virtual meeting. No phones allowed except for emergencies during that meeting. If I'm not available, I always have one of my relatives stand in for me. The nephews and nieces all jump at the chance to show Grandma around the computer, and they're darn good at it too. If nothing else, it's a great self esteem builder for them and an opportunity to spend more time with Grandma.

Time with our folks or Grand folks just seems too short not to give it try!

In Closing...
I think I remember you mentioning that you had a kid that was constantly devising a way to get a Mac? Well, if all else fails and your folks don't take to the MacBook, it sounds like it could always find a home, back at home!



Jeff L. Koffel, Technologist
Takena Technical Services
Albany, Oregon

Disclaimer: I'm a primarily a Mac guy since 1984, but have been multi-platform since it all began. It's occasionally been rough through the years to side with Apple, but for the most part, I'm glad I did. Recently It's been refreshing to see the company and their products becoming more popular with a broader audience. I just hope they don't screw it up! I have a laundry list of things I love and hate on both platforms. I don't love Steve Jobs and I don't hate Bill Gates. I make a great living supporting both Macs and PC's, but to be fair, it's mostly PC support that pays the rent.

Apologies for the long post.

Chris Howard said...

Ah! This reminds me of 20 years ago when I was working for the police and we introduced computers to police stations. We made it optional to use them. So all the younger cops leapt onto them, but all the oldies stuck to safety of their typewriters.

In no time at all though, the oldies were using the computers too. Why? Because they saw how much easier it was to redo reports (that nearly always needed changes). A quick edit, and press the print button. Unlike the typewriter where the whole report had to be retyped.

This story tells you three things:

1) People resistant to technology will only change when they can clearly see a value to them.

2) That change is most likely when it's their peers who demonstrate the advantage.

3) And not so obviously, there's safety in having someone local - especially peers -to hold your hand. (In my story, the young police in the stations.)

I can understand why you want your mum and dad online, but the only way it seems that will happen is if they have friends their age who can show them the benefits and then help them learn.

Your chances may not be that great of finding a friend of theirs using Macs, but it might be something to consider.

David Alison said...

@Jacob: You've pretty much summed up where I am man.

@Raster: That was an excellent comment - and I appreciate your feedback and the advice in there! There is a part of me that really wants to get them into the digital age but it's not a matter of me opening the door for them to walk through.

I'd have to open the door and drag them through it. Then go back to my own stuff, occasionally turning around to find them backing out of the room, at which point I'd have to run over and drag them back through again.

This process would likely go on for a long time and in all likelihood my parents would only use the computer when I prompted them to. In the end I think my parents are happy where they are from a technology standpoint and their needs are very simple.

@Chris: That is a great idea - getting a peer level person that can help them! The problem is that my parents have isolated themselves, moving to a new community shortly after they both retired and not making too many friends - especially of the variety that use computers.


@Chris, That was an apt analogy relating to peers.

You're absolutely right. It does seem that the only time folks (especially elders) want to catch up is when they get the sense that they're being left behind!



@David: If it's not too personal of a question, what part of the country do your folks live?


David Alison said...

@Raster: They are in Southern Cal - Orange County.

Anonymous said...

I don't know man...

I feel like you should get them the introductory $599 Mac Mini (and use their old monitor and printer) OR a refurb MacBook. Something that'll meet their needs and not spend 1200 dollars.

You can add a camera to the Mac Mini for 10-15 bucks at Target/Wal-Mart.

David Alison said...

@Anon: I hear you - believe me. The reality is that the money part isn't the issue. It's the fact that I know how much work it will be to set them up with something they are not asking for and in all likelihood would share the same fate as that old Compaq.

Anonymous said...

I've always found a good way to interest older users in PC's has been to show them how to use it to make more of an Interest or Hobby they have.

It's amazing how soon they are asking how to do more with their new found friend! :0)

Good Luck1