Computer users will argue about it endlessly, but a strong case can be made that the Apple Macintosh is the easiest personal computer to use. The reason is Apple's operating system, which uses point-and-click commands. Even so, Apple has developed a new program that makes it even simpler to use the Mac. The software is called At Ease, and it is intended for children, teachers, business executives and people who hate computers.
At Ease ($59) is actually a facade for Apple's regular System 7 operating system. Just as Microsoft's Windows hides the DOS operating system behind a pretty shell, At Ease hides the Macintosh's regular screen display behind a new screen design. It works only with System 7.0 or newer versions of the Mac operating system, and it requires a minimum of two megabytes of system memory.
When At Ease is working, everything on the screen is separated into two file folders, one for applications, and one for files. In other words, one folder is for programs that do something -- word processors, paint programs, spreadsheets, and so on -- and the other contains the files created by those programs -- a letter to Grandma, Michael's drawing of Katie, the August budget report, etc.
Each program or file is represented on the cover of its respective folder by a symbol, or icon. To run the word processor or load a specific file, for example, the user moves the mouse-pointing device until an arrow touches the icon, and then clicks the mouse button once. That's it. The computer then loads the proper application or summons the specific file.
In the regular Macintosh system, files and applications are also stored in file folders. But in the regular Mac file-keeping system, called the Finder, the files and programs are "nested" inside one another.
On my Mac, for example, there are two main folders, one for each hard disk. If I double-click the folder for the hard disk named "Proust," it opens to reveal a dozen subfolders.
One of these subfolders is called "Word," where I keep the Microsoft Word word processing program. Double-clicking on Word reveals the icon for the application itself, plus another dozen or so folders with names like Business Letters, Great American Novel, Laura's School Reports and so forth.
Double-clicking on the Word icon will load the program into memory; double-clicking on any of the subfolders may reveal even more sub-subfolders, or individual files. You get the picture.
With At Ease, everything is up front, with one button, and one click will start everything moving.
At Ease is able to reduce everything to a single click by taking advantage of the so-called Alias feature of the underlying Macintosh System 7 operating system. System 7 users can create aliases of files, represented as icons, that can be scattered on the main screen. I might want to create an Alias for the file Chapter 1 in the Great American Novel folder.
Instead of double-clicking my way deeper and deeper through the nested file structure to get to the original file, I can simply double-click on the Chapter 1 alias on my main screen. System 7 "knows" to load my word processor and activate the Chapter 1 file.
So, At Ease doesn't really do anything new. It just makes things easier.
Equally important for some people is At Ease's password protection, which keeps people from looking at or changing files that they shouldn't be seeing.
A child might have permission to play with a paint program like KidPix. But with the regular Macintosh system, it would be easy to stray into the Excel folder where Mommy and Daddy keep their important files. Junior may be frustrated that there is not enough memory to store his masterpiece "Boots and Spooky Play in the Sunshine." No problem, he thinks; let's just drag the stupid "Household Finances" folder -- b-o-r-i-n-g -- to the trash can.
At Ease hides the trash can. It allows the parent (or teacher, or whomever) to disable any applications or files, to block access to the Macintosh's main Finder screen and to keep users from saving files to the hard disk.
At Ease is not for everybody. The regular Mac system is very easy, and better suited for people with lots of files and lots of applications. It is refreshing to see that Apple isn't satisfied, though. As Windows and OS/2 become more Mac-like on the PC side, Apple is still working to keep the Mac ahead of the game.
Apple has also made the first of several expected changes and additions in its PowerBook line of portable computers. The mid-range PowerBook 140 has been replaced by the PowerBook 145. The newer model has a 25-megahertz version of the Motorola 68030 chip instead of the original and slower 16-megahertz chip.