The Tiger Report: Here’s a Feature We Didn’t Get

May 7th, 2005

Since Mac OS X 10.3 came out in 2003, I have been writing about the features I wanted to see in Tiger. Ever optimistic, I really hoped I’d see some of them in the final release. Even when most didn’t appear in the initial list, I remained hopeful.

Now that all 220 features are out in the open, and Tiger is spreading across the planet, it appear Apple’s system software developers, for the most part, had other ideas. So maybe this should become the first wish list for 10.5, and I would, based on the current schedule, expect to see it towards the latter part of 2006. I mean, wouldn’t it be great to trump Microsoft with still another major OS upgrade before Longhorn is out?

In any case, rather than simply reinvent the wheel, I’m going to start by revisiting one of the most important features of all: The help system. You see, it’s not surprising that Mac OS X requires more than a little education for someone new to the operating system, whether they’re migrating from Mac OS 9 or Window. This applies especially to folks who’ve never used a computer before. It’s not that Tiger’s help menus aren’t clear about the essentials, but I can see where the process of guiding a newcomer through the basics is lacking. More to the point, Tiger’s printed documentation is threadbare. This is one huge operating system, with an awesome feature set. Even if you ignore the stuff that only programmers will lust after, it only adds to the confusion, since there’s a lot more to learn.

So what about the state of Tiger help system? Any changes? Not really. The basic setup is the same as Panther and previous Mac OS X releases. Today, with more and more Windows users coming aboard, it’s clear that a more aggressive or active help system is needed. I’ve mentioned this before in passing, but the more I see people struggling to figure out what to do, the greater need I see. Yes, you should be prepared to take a little time to figure out how things work, but the task should be as easy as possible. You’re probably too busy for extended training sessions. You want action. A book? Well, computer books aren’t quite as successful as they used to be. Life is just too fast-paced for most of you to sit back and pour over a large book to learn something new.

Yes, Apple has made some strides in trying to make your Mac do more of the work for you. Certainly Automator, a smooth and relatively simple way to create complicated workflows, will help. You no longer have to concern yourself about learning that oddball AppleScript language. But I dare say many Mac users, and I emphasize those that don’t fit into the power user category, will never give it a second glance. And that’s too bad, because there is a rich and vibrant set of possibilities, if you care to put your creativity to the test. Third parties are apt to jump in and, over time, perhaps you’ll see enough prebuilt Automator Actions that you won’t have to build them from scratch.

Next on the agenda, let’s look at the ever-famous Setup Assistant. Apple wants to know your name and address and a few other vital details when you register your operating system, and the essentials of your Internet setup. But what about the magic question: Do you consider yourself a beginner, intermediate or advanced user? Or just ask you a few basic questions and perhaps use a little “fuzzy logic” to figure out your skill level.

How will this work? Well, once the skill category is established, the help system takes over. If you don’t qualify as highly experienced, it’ll occasionally deliver pleasant looking reminders of how you can do something more efficiently. When you do access the help system, there will be a clearly labeled place for you to tell it what you want to do. I once facetiously suggested an animated Steve Jobs extending his famous reality distortion field to the day-to-day use of your Mac, taking you step-by-step through the process of how to accomplish a specific task. Maybe you could even choose a helper for yourself, and this could be a great way for third parties to get involved. Perhaps you’d prefer to hear it from, say, Catherine Zeta-Jones, or even Dr. Phil.

You want to set up a new printer or scanner, configure a new ISP, connect a cable modem? No problem. Your Mac’s handy computerized helper will be there to make sure you don’t make any missteps. Something wrong? Just tell the helper and it’ll set you on the road to salvation. Think of all the support calls that are never made. Maybe Apple will find some way to use the money it saves to give you a longer period of free support. And, no, I’m not thinking of the Assist Me feature found in some preference panels, such as Network, or, heaven forbid, a Windows Wizard.

If you are one of those people who’d rather figure things out on your own, no problem. You’ll always be able to dismiss the helper; for good, if you choose. But you can bring it back when you want. And you can even temporarily give it a brief time out period if you’re doing a processor sensitive task, such as 3D rendering or playing a flashy game on your Mac.

I think Apple could do a terrific job making this feature do wonders to empower the Mac user. Will we see it in 10.5? Not unless Apple realizes that Mac OS X will never just work all by itself without a little help for the technologically challenged.

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