The Stable State of Mac OS X

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the design of Mac hardware has remained largely unchanged for almost a decade. Today, I take a look at the software side of the fence: Mac’s operating system, also known as Mac OS X.

In less than two weeks, Steve Jobs will be giving his WWDC Keynote. While all signs point to an absence of any mention of a Mac OS X update, Steve may yet surprise us with a preview of Mac OS X 10.7 (perhaps that’s one reason a detailed schedule for WWDC sessions has still not been posted). Regardless, most predictions place the release of Mac OS X 10.7 at sometime in 2011. If so, this means we will be living with Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6) for at least another year.

In terms of changes and additions to the end user interface (although not to under-the-hood improvements), Snow Leopard itself is a relatively minor update from Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard). This is almost certainly why Apple had both versions share “Leopard” in their names. Truth be told, Leopard itself was not an especially dramatic change from Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4). By this I mean that, if someone using Tiger today updated to Snow Leopard tomorrow, I doubt they would need more than an hour of so to get comfortable with all that is different. True, Leopard added a few new features such as Spaces and Time Machine, but I would argue that the overall user interface was mostly left intact.

Where does that leave us? Mac OS X 10.4 was released in April 2005. That means it’s been five years since the last truly major update to the Mac OS — with the likelihood of at least another year’s wait before the next one appears. Even if you only count back as far as Leopard (which was released in October 2007), you’re still looking at a likely 4 years between major updates. Any way you slice it, despite the wealth of under-the-hood changes (which are more critical to developers than end users), bug-fixes and minor enhancements, Mac OS X’s user interface has been relatively stagnant for a surprisingly long time.

My reaction to this state of affairs is: “So what?” 

Overall, Snow Leopard is stable, fast and does just about everything I expect of a modern OS. In fact, during a recent podcast, when I was asked what new features I would most like to see in an eventual Mac OS X 10.7, I was hard pressed to come up with anything at all. Basically, I’m in no hurry for a Mac OS upgrade. I remain quite content with Snow Leopard.

At some point, Apple will surely want a new version of Mac OS X so as to stimulate sales. But that’s not my concern.

In many ways, Mac OS X (and its matching Mac hardware) have attained a level of maturity similar to devices like the microwave oven. Our microwave oven is 5 years old. If it broke tomorrow, I don’t expect its replacement to do anything more than what my current oven can do. Maybe someday there will be major technological advances to microwave ovens, but that’s not where we are now.

My attitude towards replacing Mac OS X 10.6 is similar. I can imagine improving Safari in various ways. iCal and Contacts could certainly stand some changes (at the very least to be better integrated with the whole iPhone/iPad world). But entirely new major features? Ones that currently don’t exist at all? I’m still hard pressed to think of any. I’d have to go completely “outside the box” to come up with some (how about applications that can read my mind and save documents whenever I focus on the word Save for 2 seconds?).

As always, I remain optimistic that Apple will somehow surprise me and reveal incredible new features that I didn’t even know I wanted. I just have no idea what they will be as yet.

Mac OS X minor annoyances. Meanwhile, as I wait for the inevitable next major stage in Mac OS X evolution, there are an assortment of minor annoyances that I would very much like to see addressed ASAP. As examples, here are three “features” that irritate me on an almost daily basis:

• Window scrolling. You have a Finder window with a long list of items. You have a document in that window named “Zoo Animals” that you want to drag to the “Animals” folder also in the same window. To do this, you click-drag the “Zoo Animals” item to the top of the window and wait for the list to start scrolling up. If you’re like me, this has at best a 50-50 chance of working. Typically, I have to keep moving the item around, searching for the “sweet spot” that initiates the scroll. Even if I find it, the scroll too often proceeds at a snail’s pace. As a work-around, I instead drag the document to the Desktop, scroll to the top of the window and place the document in the desired folder.

• Tooltips. There’s a similar issue with tooltips (those yellow messages that pop up when you roll the cursor over relevant items — and for which Apple now has a new name that I can’t recall). The problem is that I often cannot reliably get a tooltip to appear. Sometimes, I move the cursor over the item and the tooltip pops right up. Other times, I annoyingly have to twirl the cursor around the item for several seconds or more (and mutter a secret incantation) before it appears. On more than a few occasions, I have given up in despair of ever conjuring up the tooltip.

• Default settings. There are several locations in Mac OS X where I would like to have more control over default settings.

When using Command-F, I rarely want to use the search parameters that appear by default. I can save a set of custom search criteria (where it will appear in the Search For section of Finder window sidebars). That works well. Still, I’d prefer to be able to set a custom default.

Similarly, I’d like to be able to set a default so that, when I launch Safari, it automatically invokes the “Reopen All Windows From Last Session” command (as that is invariably what I do). 

One more example: In Image Capture, when I select a Import folder using the “Other…” option, I’d like that folder to be remembered the next time I launch Image Capture.

Do you have any new features you hope or expect to see in Mac OS X 10.7? Email me with your predictions and I will post the best ideas in a future column.

Comments

BurmaYank

Similarly, I?d like to be able to set a default so that, when I launch Safari, it automatically invokes the ?Reopen All Windows From Last Session? command (as that is invariably what I do).?

So, why aren’t you a Saft user, then?

(OK, I guess you’d probably say something like, “Why should I have to .. and especially since Saft ain’t free”.  And ditto for having to use Default Folder X

“...In Image Capture, when I select a Import folder using the ‘Other?’ option, I?d like that folder to be remembered the next time I launch Image Capture…”

instead of having to buy & install it to do so).

Lee Dronick

I would like to see the “Character Palette” improved. The ability to resize the windows, change the display font, and just overall make it easier to use.

John Martellaro

When I compare the Mac OS X Finder to PathFinder, I remain appalled. That’s why I’ve lived in PathFinder for years.

daddy

@ ted:

(how about applications that can read my mind and save documents whenever I focus on the word Save for 2 seconds?)

Hah!  My (ADD) attention span is much shorter.  My mind-reading app’s prefs would have to be set for about 300ms.  grin

@ john m:  You nailed it.  I’m not looking for an “improved” find, but rather a total replacement.  That would have to be something other than even Pathfinder.

Ted Landau

I agree that one of the best things we could hope for in Mac OS X 10.7 is an overhaul of the Finder, together with a redesign of the underlying file system itself.

geoduck

JM
I though the Finder was just fine until I took a look at PathFinder.
H*** C*** I guess there is some room for improvement. Pathfinder is beautiful. How much is PathFinder? The web site does not say what it costs.

John Martellaro

geoduck: Check the middle of this page: http://www.cocoatech.com/
“Try Before You Buy”  -> US$39.95.

Wait till you use some of the appearance customizations of PathFinder!  And make sure you have the Preview and Info panes open.  You could spend weeks exploring the bells and whistles of PathFinder.

Lee Dronick

PathFinder @ www.cocoatech.com

I give them a lot of points for using QuickTime for their demo video

Looks like something Apple should buy for the next version of the Mac OS

Stephen Swift

Ted, I think we’ve made real good progress since 10.4, but if you don’t think so, maybe go back to it as your main system for a week and see. wink  You’re right that Mac OS X doesn’t make dramatic changes, but the underlying APIs, services, and refinements do make a difference.  A good indicator of progress is taking a look at System minimum requirements for current software.  I think you’ll find most are now 10.5, not because the developer doesn’t want 10.4 users, but because they want to use features in 10.5+.

How much is PathFinder?

$40.  I’ve tried PathFinder a few times, but always find myself uninstalling it.  Has a lot of features, but just doesn’t get out of the way enough for me.  Now I’m using TotalFinder for the tabs and QuickSilver to handle my file management needs.

pb1994

I, for one, would like to see them make good on the promise to replace the file system on OSX with a more modern one.  They stated they would use ZFS for 10.6, but ultimately it was not included.  Something that has similar features would be a good addition to 10.7.

xmattingly

I?ve tried PathFinder a few times, but always find myself uninstalling it.? Has a lot of features, but just doesn?t get out of the way enough for me.

I have not tried it myself, but having seen demoes from Rob Griffiths (formerly of Macworld), I have pretty much the same feeling - that it wouldn’t be “out of the way” enough for me.

All in all I’m mostly fine with the Finder, but I think we can all agree that it could use some improvement. More versatile file renaming ability (not unlike A Better Finder Rename), improvements with meta tagging (similar to iPhoto), and the ability to delete trash from selected volumes only are a few right off the top of my head.

I would also like to use this space to bend everyone’s ear about my gripe with the updated 10.6 Expose. smile I want the old implementation where everything was not thrown onto a grid back. It was simpler, and a heck of a lot more intuitive.

Anyway, you’re probably right about what will come in the next version, Ted. It’ll be “I never knew I needed this until they showed it to me” features.

computerbandgeek

Your argument is well reasoned, but I still disagree with it on principal. As soon as we start accepting things to be “good enough” we lose all innovation. For example, you said that microwaves aren’t changing anytime soon:

In many ways, Mac OS X (and its matching Mac hardware) have attained a level of maturity similar to devices like the microwave oven. Our microwave oven is 5 years old. If it broke tomorrow, I don?t expect its replacement to do anything more than what my current oven can do. Maybe someday there will be major technological advances to microwave ovens, but that?s not where we are now.

However, my microave broke about 3 months ago, and the one that I replaced it with for about the same price has sensors in it that allow it to know exactly when a plate of leftovers is the perfect tempurature. I don’t even have to tell it how long to cook for, it just figures it out on its own. This goes to show that even the most basic appliances can go through revolutionary changes, 20 years after their initial inception. I see macs as the same way. I don’t know how they can be improved, but I will never give up and accept “good enough”.

You also complained about window scrolling. I would also like to point out window resizing. Windows 7 revolutionized the way that I think about window resizing. I quickly copied these features by installing BetterTouchTool, and completely forgot that OS X didn’t have the feature until I used my friend’s mac.

Just a little tip on tooltips, in many Cocoa apps, you can remove the wait time for a tooltip by tapping the option key. This doesn’t work in Safari, but I know it works on abridged file names in the finder, for example.

As for your Safari ‘open all windows from last session’ at launch gripe, I agree that this should be a feature, but it would also take less than 5 minutes to launch automator, press record, launch safari, choose that menu item, and stop recording. Save this as an app and give it safari’s icon, slap it in your dock and voila smile

Thanks for the detailed presentation of the evolution(or lack thereof) of the mac for the past half decade.

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