In praise of customizing your computer

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I’ve written a few times now about the lengths I’ve gone to tweak how I interact with my computers. I’ve set up and configured Alfred with a bunch of little custom-built utilities for searching the web. I’ve spent way too many hours trying out different menu bar utilities that provide helpful functions that aren’t built in the OS. I’ve ranted on The Vergecast about how the iPad doesn’t quite work as my main computer because I always seem to want just one more app on my screen.

This week’s episode of Processor is another one of these “pro tip” kinds of videos, where I just lay out six of the menu bar utilities I’m using on my Mac. Increasingly, though, I am uncomfortable with the distinction we casually make between “pro” users and “regular” users. I don’t think these sorts of utilities are useful just for computer nerds. (There’s another category we should leave behind us.) I think they’re useful for everybody. Put another way: we’re all “pro” users.

I want to be clear that I believe computers should be made in a way that makes them simple and accessible enough for everybody. The trick is creating a learning curve that allows people to get better at using them. At some point, everybody hits a moment when they think, “Ugh, why does my computer make doing this one thing so annoying?” Giving people the ability to solve that kind of problem is important. It’s empowering, just as much as the current push to teach people to learn to code.

I tend to prefer using computer platforms that make it relatively easy to fix that one thing through little add-ons (Mac and Windows) that others do not (iOS and Chrome OS). That’s changing soon, I hope. iOS will soon have Siri Shortcuts, which could empower iOS users to really personalize how their iPhones and iPads work. Chrome OS is improving through a mix of Android apps and extensions.

I don’t have a fully formed manifesto here, just a sort of rumbling feeling that the dominance of the smartphone made us (and the companies that make them) take the desktop for granted. The metaphor of the desktop is really powerful. I’m not only talking about the original Xerox PARC set of metaphors of windows and a mouse pointer. I’m talking about setting up your own workspace — a thing that is maybe cluttered and messy, but you know exactly where your stuff is because you put it there.

Once upon a time, adherents to a movement called Taylorism believed that we could optimize the time of every human worker. We could precisely measure everything they did in the workplace, optimizing the placement of parts on an assembly line or the position of papers on a desk. That kind of attitude stifles creativity. It stifles humanity. We’re more creative and less dehumanized when we can control our own spaces and think at our own paces.

There’s something Taylor-esque about computers that you can’t customize. You wouldn’t want to work in an office where some Kafka-esque managerial system dictated the precise layout of your desk, yet your computer is equally as stringent. The difference, of course, is that it’s much harder to customize your desktop to your liking than it is to move stuff around on a physical desk.

We have to learn how to use these digital tools. More importantly, we need to ensure that computer continues to allow them to exist. We’ve learned a lot from mobile platforms about how to make computers intuitive and easy to use, and we’re going to gain a lot as mobile apps come to the desktop over the next few years. As that happens, we need to make sure that we don’t lose what made that desktop metaphor so powerful in the first place. It is a digital space we can make our own.

As an aside, I have no patience for people who think that learning how to customize computers is too hard or is just a thing for pros and nerds. Humans are very good at learning new abstractions if you give them the means to do it. I mean: just watch a teenager use Snapchat, an interface that almost actively works to prevent you from understanding it.

Anyway, this is all probably a little too heady, and I’m over my conceptual skis. So I’ll just dial it back and tell you about the six utilities I talk about in the video above, all for the Mac. (We have also shot an episode for Windows users, so stay tuned.)

  • Flexiglass, $9.99. It’s one of many window management tools. I don’t love window managers that simply let you tile your apps in grids on the screen. Flexiglass can do that, but I use it for a different reason. It lets you set a little key combo that works in conjunction with your mouse to move and resize windows. So instead of having to find the corner of a window to resize it or the title bar to move it, you can just hover your mouse anywhere in the window, hold down some keys, and move or resize it. Seriously, give it a try.
  • High Sierra Media Key Enabler, free. Apple tried to make the Play / Pause and transport buttons on the Mac more useful by letting them control more things depending on context (e.g., stopping video in Safari). I don’t think it worked very well, so this little utility just forces those keys to control playback to a specific app. For me, it’s Spotify
  • Annotate, free(ish). This is still my favorite screenshot annotation utility for the Mac, though an acquisition by CloudApp means that it can no longer integrate with Dropbox. Perhaps the version I use will eventually just be replaced by CloudApp.
  • Alfred, free / £19 for pro version. My all-singing, all-dancing, command line-style search utility and clipboard history tool. It feels more native to the web searching I do than Spotlight or Siri, and it’s easier to customize. I use Karabiner-Elements (free) to remap the Caps Lock key to trigger Alfred.
  • Vanilla, free / $4.99 for pro version. Hides the mess of menu bar icons. It’s cheaper and simpler than Butler, which I used before. Why Apple hasn’t seen fit to build this function in like Microsoft did with the System Tray is a mystery surpassing human understanding.
  • Tooth Fairy, $2.99. The ultimate “saved you a click” app, it toggles connections to Bluetooth headphones and also shows you their connection status right in the menu bar. If you’ve bought a pair of Bluetooth headphones because you don’t have a headphone jack on your phone, this app makes it much easier to use them with your computer. Happily, this app is under new management after a brief hiatus of being unavailable.