The Leopard Report: Time to Fix the Interface for Real?

June 23rd, 2006

One of the things often criticized amount Mac OS X is the large number of interface inconsistencies. You have brushed metal, a so-called platinum look, and a variation or two. It may seem as if the Finder and Mail were designed by different teams for different systems.

True, there is a set of interface guidelines for developers to follow, but some have rightly criticized Apple for not always following them. But that raises the larger question of whether every window should have the same basic look and functionality. Do people really care all that much, except for a few purists?

Well, except for any remaining maintenance releases, Tiger is yesterday’s news. In August, the wraps are officially lifted from Leopard, Mac OS 10.5, and you wonder what Apple is planning. Part of it, of course, will no doubt be to trump Windows Vista as much as possible. Barring further delays of Microsoft’s troubled system, there may even be a near-simultaneous release.

As far as I’m concerned, though, matters of basic window functionality are small potatoes. I’m sure most of you can accommodate them in the scheme of things and keep the complaints to a low growl. The real issue here is whether Apple can take operating system development to a new level, or just deliver more eye-candy to catch attention, with a few plumbing alterations to optimize performance and create a few more headaches for developers to cope with.

You see, as Mac OS X gets better and better, it’ll get more difficult to persuade you to upgrade to the next version. Sure you’ll get it free on a brand new Mac, but what about sales of upgrade kits? It’s not just a matter of the bottom line. If a system gets a wider user base, it makes it easier for companies to come out with products that support its best features.

To be sure, there ought to be stuff that serves ease of use and maintenance. I’d want, for example, more of a self-healing system that can run its own background diagnostics and fix such things as permission-related troubles and corrupted preferences and cache problems without forcing you to see a third party utility. Sure, Terminal mavens can do that, but a system that “just works” shouldn’t require command line use, except for folks who happen to want to work that way.

More ought to be done to make the operating system anticipate your needs, in a sense train itself to understand your working routing, in the manner, perhaps, if the automatic transmission in some luxury cars. Some basic functions would be to automatically drop into sleep mode or shut down at the end of the day, after asking you a simple question of which you’d prefer once or twice. If you go to lunch every day, queued downloads can proceed without your interruption.

Don’t tell me about Automator workflows that can address every single issue. You are talking about a state-of-the-art personal computer operating system on a desktop or note-book with supercomputer number crunching capabilities.

The interface? Well, again it’s time to look at the everything with an eye of what’s confusing many users. The Open and Save dialogs, for example, ought to fully, not partially, mimic a Finder window, so you can handle simple file management, such as deleting or moving a file. It’s not that I want to kill the third party product that can handle such chores, such as Default Folder X. The reason developer Jon Gotow created this terrific utility in the first place is because Apple couldn’t or wouldn’t do it themselves.

In the larger scheme of things, despite Spotlight, fundamental file management is still confusing. Some of you toss everything on the desktop just to have it there when you need it, and you may end up having to comb through dozens and dozens of pretty icons to figure out what you want. You may, instead, bury everything through multiple folders created at one time or another on a whim, and now you have to figure the best way to retrieve it. Now, what did you call that file? Did you actually write about that house remodeling project using this phrase or that one?

My tech show’s Special Correspondent, David Biedny, suggests that 3D features ought to be used to enhance the file system. Maybe a way can be found to visually “age” a file, so you know it’s something you haven’t touched in six months.

In a sense, Apple ought to hammer away at the remaining issues that flummox both novice and experienced users, the things that are sources of irritation for most of you. No, I don’t have to listen them, as I’m sure you’ll give me a list of the most notorious chronic offenders.

In the past, I’ve suggested that today’s operating systems are still stuck in 1984 in terms of the way you interact with them. I do not expect things to change much in Leopard, at least in that respect. But there’s a lot Apple can do to make it run more efficiently, take better advantage of the powerful processors inside those pretty cases, and really empower you to spend more time working and less time making things right.

Macs just work? Don’t make me laugh. They may be far better than Windows in that respect, but there are still too many exceptions to the rule, too many usability shortcomings. I know you readers have lots of bright ideas on the subject, and I’m curious to see where this discussion leads.

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10 Responses to “The Leopard Report: Time to Fix the Interface for Real?”

  1. Richard says:

    I just bought two new iMacs for my wife and myself. Wonderful machines. I really like the Mighty Mouse, by the way, and put my Kensington mouse in a drawer. However, the Mighty Mouse had every “button” enabled and all hell broke out for a few moments until I went into system preferences and shut off all but two of them and the track ball. Now I’ve been using Macs for decades, so it wasn’t exactly brain surgery, but I do have a friend who recently switched and the mouse in its stock configuration almost made him send his new iMac back. He thought it was broken! So, a piece of advice to Apple — KISS (keep it simple, stupid!) at least until newbies get their Maclegs.

  2. sam williams says:

    The Open and Save dialogs, for example, ought to fully, not partially, mimic a Finder window, so you can handle simple file management, such as deleting or moving a file. It’s not that I want to kill the third party product that can handle such chores, such as Default Folder X.

    Like you can do in Windows? Come now Gene let’s not be copying MS. 🙂

  3. Love it 🙂


  4. Windude says:

    Really sounds like you should stick with Wintel OS and hardware…

    Who wants an OS to “self repair, self start, self operate, self screw up, self sent your life to Google and The Man, etc.

    Be off the grid or become just another gear in the machinery…

  5. jeffharris says:

    Certainly there’s plenty of work that Apple can do to streamline the Mac OS X interface. I see the main need for more visual consistency.

    The use of different window styles makes sense as long as they’re used with consistency… System-level, Finder, Application, Open/Save dialogues, etc.. Right now, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge and could use some tweaking.

    Some of my pet peeves…

    Having to constantly resize columns in Column View is aggravating. We need a preference that allows you to see the whole file name, or 20 characters or 50, or 100… Maybe add a button to expand/contract widen a column… like the green Finder window Zoom button?

    Why can’t I use keyboard commands, like Safari’s Command-Left/Right cursor key, to navigate forward and back in Finder windows. It’s logical.

    Bring Tabbed windows to the Finder! And be able to save specific window/tab states.

    Spotlight needs more obvious ways to access and navigate to files from the Spotlight window… gee, maybe more Safari/browser-like interface elements?

    Also, add a Spotlight preference where I can FINISH typing my search query before it starts scouring my hard drive for “a”.

    How about the Menu Bar? There are SO MANY Apple and third-party menu additions that there’s not much Menu Bar left. I’d love to see a Menu Additions Menu, where they’re ALL grouped together and their order is changeable. Or even a small palette from where they’re easily accessible. Where I can decide what I NEED to see at all times (clock, Airport, etc.).
    Apple needs better and more comprehensive built-in system level voice recognition accessible from ALL applications.

  6. Really sounds like you should stick with Wintel OS and hardware…

    Who wants an OS to “self repair, self start, self operate, self screw up, self sent your life to Google and The Man, etc.

    Be off the grid or become just another gear in the machinery…

    Well, isn’t Mac OS X supposed to “just work”?


  7. sjk says:

    I see the main need for more visual consistency.

    Funny, the pet peeves you listed are more usability than visual consistency issues.

  8. Delysid says:

    I agree that adding full Finder capabilities to Open/Save dialogs is probably the most overdue enhancement for Mac OS X, as sad as it would be to kill the market for Default Folder which has been such a godsend for so many years.

    Another long overdue improvement which has also long been part of Windows is to make all windows resizeable from all four sides and corners, to which I would suggest adding the ability to make any side or corner a place you can grab and move the window by holding down a modifier key. Or flip it and make moving the window the default behaviour and resizing the window the modifier-key behaviour. Or let the user set this preference. Whatever, as long as you can resize from any side or corner, it would be a vast improvement over the present need to drag, resize, drag, resize, etc. until the desired result is obtained.

    A third equally ancient need is to give cmd-tab app switching the same capability as that provided by the good old LightSwitch utility, which is also superior to the alt-tab switching of Windows. If you’re unfamiliar with this invaluable utility, details are at Like Default Folder, once you’re used to LightSwitch any Mac OS machine without it feels distinctly crippled.

  9. woz says:

    I totaly agree with you on Spotlight. You still need to save your files in different folders. Spotlight can only find your documents if you remember how you named it. This renders it useless for older files.
    And we work on a Mac server. Spotlight finds things SO SLOW we all wish we had the old ‘find’ function back again. It’s faster to just browse folders youreselve. Spotlight + Server = Bad…

  10. Andrew says:

    Am I the only one who never really got excited about search? I can on one hand the number of times that I couldn’t find a file that actually was on my computer. Sure I’ve had to look for files, but almost always it was for things that weren’t where they should have been, and the reason was that I deleted them or at best offloaded them to a CD or DVD.

    Like most users I have a hierarchy of folders that works well for me. Everything is where it should be, and while I occasionally have to drill down a few levels, so what! It only takes a few seconds to double click through even five or six levels of folders, and my clicking finger is strong.

    I think I’ve used Spotlight at most five or six times to actually find something that I had (text within an email or document) and for that it is terrific. For files, though, I just can’t get myself to really care.

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