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Awaiting (or Dreading) OS 10.9

Posted By Gene Steinberg On January 30, 2013 @ 12:00 AM In News | 6 Comments

With so much speculation about as to Apple's next great hardware revolution -- or minor refresh -- the most important issue may be the state of the OS, not the gadgets. Without OS X and the iOS, Apple's greatest achievements may be little better than any other tech gadget. It's the software that provides the smooth, elegant user interface and the relative ease of integrating all of your Apple gear.

With the apparent promise of annual OS X upgrades, maybe it's time to start speculating about where Apple will take OS 10.9. According to some published reports, not confirmed by Apple of course, 10.9, known by whatever feline name seems to make sense, will support Maps and Siri. The former will reportedly come with an SDK, so developers can add the capabilities to their own apps. I would assume, in passing, that the ongoing improvements to Maps for iOS 6 will assuage ongoing concerns about the quality of the service compared to Google.

While Siri might work well enough on Macs, I should imagine you'd want to silence her in a busy office. I would also be curious to see how Apple expands Siri from just a cool gimmick to something very useful in a traditional personal computing environment, particularly where accessibility issues are involved. That's where Siri might just come into its own, assuming voice recognition accuracy rises above the current level of mediocrity.

Apple will, of course, add yet another 100 to 200 flashy features to justify the upgrade, although I think the time has come to make it free. In the scheme of things, $19.99 is just a token payment anyway, and Apple would no doubt want to encourage every possible Mac user -- those with supporting hardware and having no incompatible apps -- to upgrade as quickly as possible.

Beyond those features, the appointment of Jonathan Ive to handle OS interface issues might result in fewer skeuomorphic excesses. Maybe Calendar will no longer mirror the physical desk calendar equivalent. A more consistent, somewhat more minimalist user interface certainly would be welcomed by some of you, though the current layout doesn't bother me. Or at least when it's consistent, which isn't always the case, unfortunately.

It's not just interface cleanups that may be significant, though. There are probably loads of problems with OS X that cry out for fixing.

Consider a recent article from long-time Mac developer Lloyd Chambers, who might be remembered by some of you as one of the authors of DiskDoubler, one of the best Mac compression utilities of the 1990s. In a recent blog on the state of OS X, entitled "Apple Core Rot," Lloyd makes a very compelling case that Apple needs to make some serious changes, and make them fast.

Lloyd's article is long, detailed, and presents first-hand experiences delving into the nooks and crannies of OS X. He makes so many compelling points that summarizing them here barely scratches the surface. But I'll cover a few:

  • The Finder: The center of the Mac user experience, according to Lloyd, is a mess, one that "damages the system, can’t copy files reliably, can’t do useful things it ought to do at all, hides key files, rife with bugs."
  • File system: The existing HFS+ is a patchwork that should have been replaced long ago by something far more modern, such as ZFS.
  • iCloud: No need to summarize. It's one huge mess for many of us.
  • Disk Utility: Hardly changed in years, sadly in need of a serious upgrade.
  • iTunes:  You really think iTunes 11 was an improvement? Some regard it is an incoherent mess that's less usable than the previous version.

He also complains that system upgrades these days are riddled with mostly needless eye candy, rather than improving the user experience and improving system reliability. His language is strong, and his arguments are reasoned and well presented. One particularly indicting statement suggests that "The real talent at Apple has probably been diverted away from OS X to iP* development, leaving incompetent and truly reckless programmers working on areas they have no business touching."

Now this isn't the first time the critics have claimed that the quality of the Mac OS is deteriorating. You could say the same, and more, in the 1990s, when the aging, creaking OS was hardly capable of handling the needs of professional users. The end result, along with stagnation in the hardware segment, was that many rushed to embrace Windows, where the state of affairs wasn't necessarily better, but there was some hope for eventual improvement.

Apple's decision to switch to a tried and true Unix platform was a good thing. It extended the life of the Mac, and with the migration to Intel processors, made the Mac a mainstream product at long last.

Today, however, the Mac is only a small part of Apple's product portfolio. The largest share of cash is earned by the iPhone, followed by the iPad. We are in a Post-PC era, where traditional computers are being supplanted by tablets in greater and greater numbers. That may present a severe disincentive for Apple to invest a whole lot of resources into improving Macs.

Since I am not a programmer, I wouldn't presume to accept everything Lloyd suggests as ideal solutions to OS X's problems. But I agree with a lot of what he writes about, and I have to wonder whether Tim Cook still takes the Mac seriously enough to make the necessary changes. To him, and his executive team, Macs may be mostly in maintenance mode these days. Yes, you'll get lots of fluff, and the hard-to-get 2012 iMac is but one example, but the OS will merely coast along until it is finally supplanted by some future version of the iOS, where the "real" innovation may be occurring. That's not an encouraging prospect, and I hope Apple will seriously consider investing a little more of their cash hoard to making the best OS X they can, and not just let the platform die of inattention.


6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Awaiting (or Dreading) OS 10.9"

#1 Comment By Kaleberg On January 30, 2013 @ 11:58 AM

I got hung up in the 20 page bitching about the details of the Fusion drive, but that Apple Core Rot article is a either ridiculous or a great parody. I remember a PC review bitching that some laptop couldn't stop .357 bullets, was too small to serve as a lunch tray, couldn't simulate hypersonic flight in real time and the version of Windows running could actually crash. If that's the best he can come up with, then the typical teaspoon is a blot on our civilization, failing so utterly and completely as it does.

Worse is the basic contradiction in the critique. Any limitation on user customization or even hint of Apple control of computer operation is anathema, meanwhile any failure in the face of customization or recommendation of a mode of operation is equally bad. Apple is only permitted a narrow path between the two abysses and, as best I can tell, it is not one that can be walked. (I won't even get into the fact that the critique seems to be written from the point of view of the head of software reviewing some peon programmer's code, going through it line by line and arguing about extra cycles used in a once a year list search and poor choice of loop variable names.)

I have my problems with my MacBook, but I also have problems with my car, my stove, my house, my pants and so on. They have operational limits that I have to learn to live with, and they have a broad variety of failure modes, some more familiar than others. If I spent all my time and concern on optimizing them for my needs, I'd go mad. I do make changes, but I also learn to avoid problems. I'm not in love with every Mac OS change, but for the most part, the system is much more reliable, more capable, more useful, more usable and so on. I used to dread upgrades. I still wait until I've finished my taxes and then hold my breath, but then I usually breathe a sigh of relief when my desktop reappears more or less as I've left it.

#2 Comment By Oliver On January 30, 2013 @ 2:59 PM

I use multiple apps and overlapping windows all the time. I need a Compute,r not a tablet.

The original notion was to be able to keep often used apps open permanently but the ODs navigation tools are so confused, with multiple modalities, that this creates immense window clutter and the Finder does not deal with well at all.

I'd happily use a second screen, but with OS 10.8 it won't hep me reduce the clutter

Spaces doesn't work properly

No way to instantly find all the windows for the current application and layer them together and/or hide others

Compound Boolean search of Mail very hard to use

No way to assign to assign specific apps or even a Space to specific screen monitors when using multiple screens

No one uses widgets: dump them or make them apps

Too many different ways to navigate: Dock, Exploding folders, Launch Pad, : the latter is an IOS graft that no one uses.

Get one cohesive scheme and make it work consistently

Gene Steinberg Reply:

@Oliver, Lots of specifics. But perhaps some of the inconsistencies will be eradicated now that Jonathan Ive is in the picture. Reminds me that one uninformed columnist was busy blaming Ive for past OS X ills, which is why I won't mention that particular article, since the author was clueless.

Let's see what happens when 10.9 is announced.

Peace,
Gene

#3 Comment By Oliver On January 30, 2013 @ 3:10 PM

I hope you are right. There is a real market for PCs in the work place. Apple should drop Jobs' axiom that the business market is not for Apple. That have all the pieces in place to deliver great desktop office machine and need some emphasis on packaging them, and not assume that the PC user thinks like a tablet user.

If I were Apple I would partner with IBM to provide a special series of uncompromising business machines with all the tools corporate IT wants. Keep the candy and the "fun" aspect of OS X but make it strictly functional.

Apple must stop making Business and Professional users feel no one cares about them

#4 Comment By Peter On January 30, 2013 @ 9:54 PM

In regards to Ive, one interesting thing is that way back when in the earliest versions of Mac OS X, you could see that the design of windows in the OS mimicked some design cues from the hardware.

Consider this image of the 10.2 desktop. Note the horizontal lines across everything. Now remember the old iMacs and their lines. Of course, as Apple went towards aluminum, you started seeing more brushed metal and those lines became more subtle.

I'm sort of curious if we'll see that kind of look in 10.9...

#5 Comment By Shameer Mulji On January 31, 2013 @ 2:43 PM

@Gene,

Jonathan Ive was became Head of Human Interface Design in late October. How realistic is it that we see major UI changes in OSX 10.9 (or iOS 7 for that matter), with his influence, in such a short period of time? Seems too soon to me. My guess is we'd have to wait till OSX 10.10 (or XI) & iOS 8 to see the fruits of his influence.


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