The Work of Making Something Just Work

Etch a Sketch-like product with the word default written on it

You might have seen this Chuck Skoda quote bopping around Linux and Apple blogs:

What’s more, I remembered why I use Apple products in the first place. Sure there are a million choices in the PC (Windows/Android) world. I can make things look this way or that. I can download this or that utility. I can use this or that hardware. But really, I don’t want to. I want my phone to be done when I buy it. I want to know what it does, and how I’m going to do it. I don’t want to scour message boards for help when I’m in over my head.

iPhoto works, iTunes works, iMovie works, iChat works, Safari works, Apple stuff works. Sure there might be a program that lets you organize photos better than iPhoto, or a faster music player than iTunes. But my Mac was handed to me preloaded with 98.3% of what I want my computer to do. You can’t put a price on that.


It’s a relatively common refrain. Apple stuff “just works.” And even though we know it’s often not the case, even we Linux people tend to say Linux “just works.”

But of course, you need to qualify a statement like ” just works.” Because usually, when something just works, it’s because the person working it already knows how it works.

Over the winter holidays, my sister-in-law got an iPod. I haven’t used an iPod in quite a while. My wife’s iPod has been set-up for years. We hadn’t worked with a new one in quite a while. My sister-in-law hooked it up to her netbook and downloaded some music. But then, she realized she had some music on another computer. She went to hook her iPod up to that second computer and discovered iTunes wouldn’t let her sync her music, because automatic sync is the default iPod setting, and cannot be used across multiple computers. Some simple DuckDuckGoing revealed a solution, but things didn’t just work for us. We had certain assumptions about how iPods and iTunes work (or should work) and the device and software did not conform to those expectations.

It’s not hard to find lots of examples of Apple devices not conforming to user expectations. Here’s one and here’s another.

And that’s not to pick on Apple. How much of the Ubuntu Forums is really about Linux not doing what someone wants it to? And let’s not even get started on Windows. I still can’t believe Windows 7 was the first iteration of the OS to put the date in the taskbar.

I don’t think Skoda is some kind of Apple shill. I think their products really do work for him. But I don’t necessarily think everyone has that same experience. Which is why choice is so important with technology. Because it’s pretty tough to craft an experience that just works for everyone. So by giving users lots of choices, it allows users to create an experience that just works for them.

There’s no magic technology bullet that’s going to work for everyone. But choice gives us the opportunity to create our own magic bullets. The strength of Linux will always be choice. The freedom to choose software. The freedom to choose a desktop environment. Even the freedom to choose to keep whatever defaults our distribution uses.

We should all strive to use things that just work for us. But we should also recognize that sometimes getting something to just work means we’re doing some of the work ourselves.

Default settings aren’t written in stone. I prefer to think of them as written in Etch A Sketch.

And sometimes things don’t just work out of the box. Sometimes we have to make things just work for us.