November 14th, 2003

"Show Business"

PDAs are terrible, wretched little things, whose only saving grace is the fact that the only thing more pathetic than a PDA is the person who simply believes what their PDA tells them.

Case in point: me and my Handspring Treo 90. It told me about my flight from Boston to San Jose, it told me the confirmation number for my hotel, it told me about my flight from San Jose to Medford Oregon and all the other stuff I needed for the Andy Ihnatko Pan-Pacific Goodwill Tour which took place two weeks ago. So when it told me that I didn't actually have a column due that week, the rails were well-greased for me to simply take it at its word and then continue playing Snood for the rest of the flight.

This is just a skittish way of saying "Hello for the first time since the time I should have written a column, but didn't." Um, sorry 'bout that. But skipping a column was probably all to the good. For one, I've only just recently been able to write or speak without degenerating into a Tourette's-style outburst regarding the World Series. See? I typed both of those words (in sequence, mind you) without needing to go off and take another fistful of the yellow pills.

Secondly, that column was going to be all about Panther, and my incredible relief that Mac OS X finally has aspects which I honestly despise. One likes to have a few weeks to reflect upon such things.

Watching the development of Mac OS X has been like watching the various things rolling out of the Wright Brothers' bike shop. First, they made an unpowered glider, which was impressive just on the basis of the achievement, and then they made a powered airplane that crashed a lot, and then, finally, they built the aircraft that would assure the Brothers' proper place in history, as the tinderbox for the Second Civil War.

(I know this isn't a political column, but I simply must speak my mind, here. Just where does Ohio get off grabbing both the first flight and the first moon landing for its commemorative state quarter? I bemoan the enormous cost in human lives, but after the smoke from all those missiles inbound from North Carolina, Florida and Texas clear, any survivors who emerge from the rubble of what was formerly downtown Akron will have to concede that it was pretty cheeky.)

So if 10.0 earned Apple some props for just becoming a shipping product, 10.1 for being a for-real, usable OS, and 10.2 for once again asserting the Mac's proper position within the Industry as The Place Where All The Great Stuff Is Happening, what would 10.3 be about, I wondered?

I didn't know. Apple needed to continue to take steps forward without taking many steps back. It's exciting to put people in the air and then return them safely to the ground. No question. But your next step is figuring out how to provide these people with a B-list Kate Hudson movie and a working bathroom. It isn't the sort of achievement that gets you on the cover of "Time," but it means that you've earned the right to continue.

That was it; "Panther" would be all about bathrooms and movies.

It's unfair to review an entire OS based on a screenshot. Naturally, I went ahead and did it anyway earlier in the year, when I downloaded coverage of Panther's first public preview and discovered that while I napped -- peacefully and unafraid, mind you -- the Finder had suddenly become an iApp.

It seemed like an obvious mistake. The metal interface of an iApp is deceptively powerful. You have to use iMovie and iTunes and the rest for a while before you understand just how easily you're slipping from one task to the other. It wasn't until Rendezvous came on the scene and iTunes libraries started showing up in iMovie projects that its brilliance shone through. It was flexible yet simple: a pane of music could suddenly appear within iMovie and it was just as natural as natural could be. You aren't importing anything; the iApps clearly support the idea that your Mac is a Noah's Ark of resources and any one form of media is as welcome and useful as any other.

The interface is just so simple. The majority of an iApp's window is given over to the content you're working with. Resources that can be applied to that content or can help you organize them sit in a well off to one side. Above or below, you'll find tools for managing those interactions. It's a perfect layout for cramming an iPod full of Buffalo Springfield tunes but it just doesn't translate to Finder operations.

Let me say right at the top (well, several paragraphs in, but you weren't counting) that I was prepared to be proven very wrong. I would have been delighted to be proven wrong. During the Public Beta days I was a big skeptic about toolbars appearing in Finder windows. "Make a nice, streamlined window easier to use by adding lots of new user-interface elements to it," I sniffed. "How...Microsoft-ey."

My bile ran out about twenty minutes into my first OS X test drive, though. I've used the Dock and I've used spring-loaded folders and I've used all kinds of third-party launchers and file palettes, and no other UI element is as useful as the Finder toolbar for keeping folders and servers handy, whether you need to navigate to them or drag something inside. That's good enough. But once you start leaving drag-aware apps and AppleScripts in the toolbar, you're ready to kiss the person responsible for making this a part of the Finder. If that proves impractical, you determine to tip waiters and waitresses an extra 3% for the next few weeks, just to sprinkle some more good karma around the vicinity.

I'm glad I waited another two weeks before writing about the new Finder. I've used it and I hate it. Isn't that wonderful? Y'see, two weeks ago, I hated with humility. Where the immensely-useful Jaguar toolbar once sat, I saw only immense, empty, tumbleweed-ridden wasted space, for instance, but I was still willing to turn my attention towards an important recurring question: "It possible that I'm an idiot?"

Nope. You may single me out for having avidly watched every episode of "Joe Schmoe" on the Spike Network. It's a fair cop. But you're not going to make the Idiot tag stick with this Metal Finder business. Like a monkey in a psych experiment who keeps obsessively pressing the flashing orange button because he can't possibly believe that it won't cause a food pellet to drop into the cage, I kept trying to drag stuff into that empty acreage. Yes, you can customize the toolbar area with the (more or less) standard collection of widgets and doo-dads. But for me, the real purpose of the Toolbar has never been a Burn button. That area collects the tools for navigating through folders (forward and back, list views, path to current view, search) but it's also the place where you make the Finder you own.

You can mimic that sort of function with the new Sidebar. Fair enough. My AppleScripts and favorite folders drop in there as neatly as they did in the old Toolbar...and for once, the icons auto-resize so I can drag a file onto any of its elements without having to resize the window first.

Still, it's clumsy. It's a bad iApp translation. I can imagine the way this layout must have been pitched to the rest of the development team: "common folders and servers sit in the sidebar the way that libraries, albums and playlists appear in other apps" -- but the mindset that works so well for iApps is out of tune with the mindset of a Finder user. And nothing will allow you to make good use of that shiny, glaring expanse of empty metal at the top of every window.

(Yes, yes; if that space offends thee, then pluck it out by selecting "Hide Toolbar." That's no good at all. I want to make use of the space, not lose a dashed-useful group of navigation buttons, after all).

Finally, the metal Finder doesn't pass the smell test. It's unscientific and lacking in credible examples and the strongest argument I can present on the fundamental wrongness of a Metal Finder is the simple phrase "Because it's so." But ask yourself: iTunes. iMovie. iDVD. iPhoto. The Finder. Which one does not belong with the others?

I'll concede that the fundamentals of the new interface are a Big Win as translated to Panther's new file open-and-save sheets. But even here, as Apple giveth, so Apple does take away.

How do I add a folder to this view, so I can zap this column straight into my folder when I'm done with it?

Jaguar answer: navigate to it the hard way just once, and then click a button on the sheet to add it to a permanent pop-up list of favorites.

Panther answer: Keep looking, and clicking, and dragging, and option-dragging, and shift-option dragging. Then look through System Preferences, and then do some Google searches and iChat some smart friends and desperately read lots of message boards, and when even that fails, maintain Faith. Because this is Apple, after all. Surely they wouldn't remove a natural, one-step, one-click process that you use all the time.

Double-super-plus-surely Apple wouldn't have taken that button away and told us "Just close the sheet, go into the Finder, navigate to that folder all over again, and manually drag it into the Sidebar. When you return to your original app and use an Open/Save sheet again, the new favorite folder will appear."


So now I've been using Panther for a good while and I'm satisfied that I'm hating certain parts of it for all the right reasons. But that doesn't diminish my affection for the upgrade.

Everything's been polished up and enhanced:

  • Networking is even easier than it was in 10.2. Navigating to the Windows volumes on my network is barely more difficult than using Mac volumes.
  • We finally have a DVD player that can sit in the Dock alongside iTunes and iMovie without looking like Eddie Deezen at an international convention of stuntmen. It's a real app, not a puny joke.
  • I can uninstall AppSwitcher. In Panther, switching from one running app to another works just the way it should have from the beginning.
  • As a bedwetting AppleScript junkie, I'm agog about the new Script Editor. (Sure, I'd been using the beta for a year, but I've precious little time for gogging these days, and so I try not to waste it on pre-release software). I've enjoyed languages intended for programming mechanical hardware, and I've enjoyed ones that are good for symbolic list processing and little else. I have done my time with all flavors of object-oriented C. But AppleScript (buttressed by Apple's increasingly slick and sophisticated tools) remains the place I go when I want to have fun. And the new Script Editor is a wonderfully direct vector from A Stupid Idea For A Piece Of Software and an actual, working, shippable piece of Stupid Software. You can write sensible, time-saving Cocoa apps with AppleScript, too, but Stupid software is a lot more fun, o'course.
  • Holy crud...TextEdit now supports stylesheets? And it can open and save in native Word format? Is anyone still wondering if Apple's working on a Microsoft Office-killer? (Or, more realistically, an app that causes Office to suddenly yelp and hop around until it can get to a chair and can see if it's accidentally stepped on a piece of broken glass or something?) At any rate, I have to start wondering if it's time to ditch the word processor I've been using for the past ten years and switch to TextEdit, buttressed by a mess of AppleScripts that give it every last feature I've been yearning for in a word processor.
  • How can you catalogue all the tiny little tweaks to the user interface? Eject buttons that appear where they're most needed. Icons that grow and mist-ify when double-clicked. A new method of rendering tabbed panels that reflect the great potential that programmers have found for this UI element since its introduction. Sheets attached to windows now appear and disappear like garage doors. None of these things will influence someone's decision to go out and buy their first Mac...but once it's on their desk, these tiny little enhancements leave a user convinced that they've made the right choice.
  • Mail simply kicks butt. It's still not the one mail client to kill all others -- nor will it ever be, in a world in which Mac users are informed and discriminating -- but like DVD Player, it joins iMovie and iTunes as an app that would be a successful product if sold commercially.
  • Exposé? Marry me. I don't care that you're nothing more than the trademarked name of a code library. I don't even care if you're a guy. We'll move to whatever place where same-sex marriages to abstract entites are legal and encouraged. (Ontario, maybe?)

On and on and on. Panther is a landmark. It's really the first upgrade that we didn't need, per se. You couldn't really skip 10.1 or Jaguar. Both addressed critical performance and compatibility shortfalls in X, and gave us things we've been waiting for since X was nothing more than a gleam in a keynote projectionist's glass eye.

You can skip Panther. Chances are excellent that you won't want to.

Apple could put this quote on a banner at the next Mac Expo, but somehow, I doubt they will:

"PANTHER: At Last, Bringing A Bathroom And A Mediocre Movie To The Mac OS X Experience."