The Stable State of Mac OS X

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.