OS X is Getting Simpler. What to do About That

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” — E.F. Schumacher

The user interface of Apple’s OS X operating system and its default apps is getting simpler over time. That’s a natural thing to happen as Apple seeks to widen its audience for the Mac. However, it causes some heartburn for experienced users. What can we do about that?

How OS X Evolved, Succeeded

Once upon a time, back in 2001, Apple’s new operating system was being reconceived, born of the BSD UNIX OS that was developed under Steve Jobs at NeXT. The primary goals at Apple were to 1) Replace Mac OS 9, 2) Build a beautiful, elegant, easy to use UNIX, a task never before achieved, 3) lay a foundation for more modern apps and 4) only peripherally, deliver a respectable UNIX for enterprise and science.

Bertrand SerletThe interesting thing is that it requires a very senior, experienced UNIX guru like Avadis “Avie” Tevanian or Bertrand Serlet (shown left) supervise the development of a respectable, capable UNIX OS that can achieve the first three goals above. And if the UNIX core of the new OS gets off to a bad start, is ill conceived, and doesn’t have the right infrastructure and design for growth, it will be both reviled by the UNIX community and fail in its ability to further Apple’s commercial goals.

Thanks to Steve Jobs, we had two of the foremost minds working on the design and evolution of OS X. A fallout of this process, however, is that a UNIX OS can become an end in itself. UNIX constructs, the way it’s surfaced to the customer, and how that percolates into UI thinking can be a joy to the UNIX scientist or it can become overwhelming and possibly irritating to customers who don’t care about OS theory. They just want to get on with their lives.

Accordingly, for all of the history of OS X, it was a steady refinement of the most successful UNIX OS to ever be put in the hands of a mass audience of non-technical customers. But Snow Leopard still retained that geek factor that earmarked it as the apogee of the technical UNIX OS with serious and brilliant mods to make it a successful commercial OS.

The Lion Roars into a New Era

Starting with OS X “Lion,” Apple started thinking differently about OS X as a UNIX OS. For starters, the UNIX promotion and literature at apple.com started to disappear. We were no longer reminded that this is A 100 percent POSIX UNIX based on BSD. Bertrand Serlet left Apple, and I can only guess why.

In terms of the UI, UNIX file constructs like Save and Save As … that caused customers to lose personal work started to come under scrutiny. Tiresome, technical ideas like HTTP cookies in Safari were simplified. Software facilities that were originally part of the UNIX standard trade like Java and X11 were removed, to enhance security and simplicity respectively, for the every day user.  Sandboxing, which can cripple the capabilities of a robust OS X app, was introduced in the name of customer security, not a UNIX heritage of power and interoperability. Holy cow.

The Impact on Some Users

Rage?The impact of Lion and Mountain Lion has been twofold. Young, new customers who never studied computer science or never worked for an aerospace company up to its ears in Sun workstations only want to do the popular things. They want to communicate, create and share. They don’t want to lose work because the OS is too stupid to save periodically, and they want to shop and bank with safety, not learn about SSL certificates.

On the other hand, experienced customers who, perhaps, go all the way back to Mac OS Classic have watched Apple’s OS efforts evolve with joy. The ancient, creaky, Mac OS didn’t have protected address spaces, reentrant code and therefore no preemptive multi-tasking. They watched with joy as Apple developed this new UNIX, and except for some much needed modernization under the hood, highly approved of this new Mac OS X, now just OS X.

This departure from the old ways of thinking, the simplification of OS X, the hiding of geeky elements, has caused many experienced users to become concerned about the future of OS X. The term iOS-ification has come to the forefront and led to concerns that, someday, our Macs (if they even survive) will someday be a lame and limited as an iPad, leaving them no recourse but to fall into the, omigod, open arms of Linux.

How to Deal With the Changes

Despite Apple’s direct interest in making Macs easier and more fun to use, there are plenty of opportunities for experienced users to travel a different path. And I’ll point out that if you don’t want to continue down that path of learning, OS mastery, system oversight and supervision, you might want to just stop reading here. That’s because, if you’re pleased as punch with OS X “Mountain Lion,” out of the box, then the rest may not be for you.

Part of the issue for the expert users is that they’re from a culture of lifelong learning. They’ve used UNIX systems at work, have written code, opened ports in a Perl script and dumped data to a server, or been a database administrator, just to name a few. Their computing life, out of necessity, has been about deep learning.


Can we just move on from X11? Please?

Life on a Mac is a mixed bag for them, both the joy of Twitter and browsing and the pleasure of finding things out. When information is obscured for the sake of simplicity, they want an option to bring it back. But Apple learned that infinite fine control in preferences, like Windows, just confuses the newbies.

The good news is that Apple hasn’t slammed the API door shut. Sure, some APIs become obsolete or insecure, and so they’re deprecated. But the API space of OS X is so rich that any developer can dig in and make anything at all happen. Anything.

In fact, that’s the salvation of the expert users. Developers know that simplification is a losing battle. Apple has the upper hand on the system apps, customers are going to use them, and it’s a losing battle to out-Apple Apple. The best course is to foster and cater to a specific audience that wants what they can deliver. And so, while Apple continues to simplify OS X and its default apps, there remains a rich space of 3rd party apps, outside the M.A.S., that gives the expert users what they want. For example, I am writing this article in BBEdit, an app that continues to offer me a genuine, traditional Save As…

For example, I almost never use the OS X Finder. I use Path Finder. For browsing, I use Firefox, a product from a company that’s looking our for its customers with no other conflict of interest. I use Time Machine, but I supplement it with Data Backup 3. I use Intego’s Virus Barrier to block malware because I’m all over the Internet daily. I use Vienna for RSS because I never cared for Apple’s approach. (And now we see why.) And when I really need to muck around, there’s always the Terminal app.

PathFinderCocoa Tech’s Finder Replacement, Path Finder

Even if, someday, Apple removes the Terminal app the same way they’ve removed X11 in Mountain Lion, the company is unlikely to block us from downloading one from a 3rd party site. In fact, getting software from 3rd party sites, code-signed or not, is something that will be with us for a long time, and affords ample opportunity for exploration and the building of OS expertise.

My only major OS X app exception is that I use Apple’s Mail app, but I can’t wait for the day when I can switch away. Maybe .Mail will be my salvation.


It’s clear that Apple is now fully leveraging modern ideas about how customers can interact with a Mac with pleasure and convenience. UNIX is no longer even on Apple’s marketing radar. To be sure, while I have previously called it “Happy-go-lucky computing,” Apple also works very hard behind the scenes to protect its customers. What more can we ask?

Meanwhile, expert users may lament that the days of UNIX geek computing seem to have gone the way of Snow Leopard, but they can still continue to bend, fold, and mutilate OS X into their own vision. It just won’t be handed to us by Bertrand Serlet on a silver platter anymore. We’ll have to work for it.


UNIX hippie via Shutterstock.