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  • 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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