Apple's OS X 10.9: a New Hope

“Don't mistake activity [for] achievement. -- John Wooden

Periodically, Apple updates OS X, and we get our hopes up that things will get better, not worse. That's what always happened in the past, and we loved it. Nowadays, however, there is some concern that instead of fabulous new OS technologies to serve us, we'll be dragged into something that unnerves us. That's a big difference. What can Apple do to reemerge as the hero?

Apple customers are much more astute now about business models. They know why Facebook does what it does. They understand why a smartphone game is free. So when features are added to OS X, customers will be quick to notice a feature loaded with self-serving agenda instead of a much needed, fundamental technology. More than ever, given the recent tendency by bloggers to dump on Apple, the time is right to put a new stake in the OS turf.

Features that Serve

It's fashionable nowadays in software development, thanks to the technologies of the Internet, to think about features that fulfill the needs of the developer, not the customer. That's, of course, because they make money. The temptation to use a modern OS that way is no different. But OSes are held to a higher standard and shouldn't be test beds for agendas; they should be sacred ground on which the developer wins over the customer.

For example, many technical observers have been hoping that Apple, after three decades, would update the file system, now called HFS+, to something more modern. Apple dabbled with Sun's ZFS in the past, but there were secondary issues that prevented Apple from moving forward. Here's a terrific article by Chris Foresman that explains, "ZFS-loving Mac users demand support in OS X 10.9."

A new file system would solve many customer problems and would create a sense of excitement that Apple is working hard to deliver the very best technologies. On the other hand, something like Apple Maps, very useful in the mobile world, can be questioned as a priority for the desktop. One gets the feeling that Siri, maps and search constitute an enduring campaign to ostensibly provide not just service but also separate customers from their money. The distinction is crucial.

When a company that has inordinate amounts of cash seems to focus on making yet even more cash, the glamor of developing new and better fundamental technologies to serve the customer is hard to recapture. One way to do that is a renewed focus to delight us with technology rather than smother us with agenda.

Customization is Not to be Feared

Another thing that happens when a company broadens its base greatly is that many different kinds of people are embraced. For example, new ways of doing things in the OS don't always appeal to all the new and varied customers, so intelligently managed customization becomes more important, not less important. Case in point, we shouldn't have to go to command line to turn off Notifications.

In a very real sense, a cleanly designed UI with multiple layers of discovery and customization send a message to the customer that the OS is being designed to serve and enable the customer to be resourceful and creative.

On the other hand, when Apple unilaterally decides to drag 70 million users along, in a direction that seems arrogant and authoritarian, (like supressing the visibility of the ~/Library folder) or won't let them enable and disable feature as needed, then customers start to question whether they're paying for an operating system as a service or being charged a tax for the privilege of being manipulated. Microsoft has already traveled that rocky road. There's no need to follow.

Earning and Keeping Trust

A third factor that can help with a renewed positive attitude about OS X 10.9 is the idea that the user is fully informed by the OS even as strides are made to make the OS better aware of its environment.

For example, Apple has recently been using the Xprotect mechanism to silently and secretly disable functionality when security is at stake without also leveraging one of its most touted features, Notifications.

Instead of creating the Notification Center as a temptation for developers to harass the user, the Notification Center could (and should) also be used to advise the customer about the state of the Mac. For example, the temperature of the CPU, the S.M.A.R.T. status of the boot drive, Apple's remote changes to our OS and suspicious websites are worthy alerts. Instead, all of these things are left to third party apps.

I'm not suggesting that Apple go overboard with geekification of Macs, but the idea that ignorance is bliss doesn't work either in this day and age.

A New Hope

In summary, Apple has always been considered a trustworthy technology partner. The company figures out how to develop or invoke technology that delights and serves us. It would probably like to have that spirit rise again to the forefront of our minds and have it be the popular narrative again.

One way to do that, we hope, is to refocus on implementing more neutral, fundamental technologies, such as improving the file system, improving the Finder, creating a hardware health monitoring system, factoring iTunes, bringing discipline to Notifications, dramatically improving the Mail app, and so on. These are not sexy money makers, but an enthusiastic, solid customer relationship is more important now.

Other methods include putting users back in charge of customization and constructing system services so that users can use their judgment and talents to decide how features will be used.

Finally, there is a certain undefined knack for User Interface design. It takes a considerable amount of vision and talent to create an OS with a sparkling, consistent, intuitive interface that treats us with respect and, in turn, earns our respect. (Mr. Ive: are you listening?) We fantasize that that will be a top priority in 10.9.

The one thing Apple shouldn't want to do is cast us into further frustration with technologies that have been very controversial and are not fully baked for the desktop -- for the sake of competitive urgency, agenda or fast cash.

If there were ever a time when Apple were to do all these positive things, we're hoping that the summer of 2013 is it. There should only be one goal: OS X 10.9 must delight and amaze us. We should adore it for what it does for us, not for Apple.


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