Are There Really Mac Secrets?

August 2nd, 2007

What’s a secret? The conventional definition is “something kept hidden or unexplained.” Indeed, the word “secret” has found its way into lots and lots of Mac books and articles over the years, but many of them were not about what products Apple might be planning to deliver, even though they are the real secrets.

Instead, they refer to features of the Mac operating system that you supposedly don’t know anything about. Of course, nobody knows everything, and I dare say you couldn’t find a single developer at Apple who could recite all Mac hardware and software features off the top of his or her head.

But what do we mean by a Mac secret anyway? If it’s a real feature, why would it be hidden, kept from your eyes? Clearly everything that the Mac does was incorporated as part of years of development. Apple loves to tout the number of new features present in each Mac OS revision. It’s a powerful sales tool, and the higher the number, the better.

So why would those features be kept secret? Well, I guess the first thing to determine if they are secret.

Now I suppose the conventional wisdom of a Mac secret is something that Apple allegedly didn’t want you to know about for some strange reason, so they were shielded behind a special combination of keystrokes, or provided with no information whatever in the Help menus or online documents about how to make them work.

Now over the years, I’ve written books and articles that had content labeled as “secrets,” even though that claim was probably an exaggeration. Every one of those features, in fact, were readily accessible via the menu bar, the Option key or another alternate keystroke combo, context menus or the Help menus.

Now maybe they aren’t used terribly often, which would surely lead one to believe they were, in fact, seldom-used features. But you can’t sell magazines and books using the words “Seldom-Used” in the title. “Secrets” sounds better, and it does indeed invoke the feeling that Apple engaged in surreptitious practices to make sure that many of the capabilities of its operating systems are designed so you can’t access them unless you use some special technique or a private handshake.

Now in the days of so-called Easter Eggs, this was probably true to some extent. You don’t seem them anymore all that much, but experienced Mac users once delighted in being able to find hidden menus listing the members of a programming team, or providing a neat visual effect. That was really nice, and it did demonstrate a certain level of independence on the part of Apple’s developers.

However, these days, Apple keeps its employees under a very tight leash. They can’t just leave components in the operating system unless they are fully documented and approved by the appropriate managers, although some of those things are occasionally left in the system anyway.

At the same time, since Apple has switched to tried and true Unix-based capabilities, you can bet there are a load of command line functions that aren’t readily apparent to the average Mac user. Indeed, you can do an incredible number of things in the Terminal, as Unix mavens will tell you, but the rest of us don’t need to know any of that stuff. For example, it’s possible to delete thousands and thousands of files by a simple set of commands, and there will be no “Are you sure?” prompts to remind you of the potential of disaster before you press the Return key to commence a catastrophic maneuver.

I suppose in the general sense, Mac OS capabilities that are not readily available or accessible via the standard set of graphical tools are indeed secret, and for good reason. They represent the NeXT-based Unix heritage of Mac OS X, and power users will treasure those capabilities and, in fact, harness them as necessary.

But they are otherwise left well enough alone without the proper set of directions at hand. Indeed, unlike the original Mac secrets of old, today’s Mac is a highly sophisticated personal computer with all sorts of capabilities buried down deep that help deliver the incredibly stable environment we’re all accustomed to.

Under limited circumstances, you may have to harness one of those powerful tools to get you out of trouble. Fortunately, there are a number of maintenance utilities that put a pretty face in front of those features, to make it easier for you to solve problems.

In fact, even Apple’s Disk Utility is basically a graphical front-end for some of those command-line functions.

Sure, a Mac secret can be entertaining from time to time, but too much power in the wrong hands is not a good thing.

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3 Responses to “Are There Really Mac Secrets?”

  1. Dana Sutton says:

    “I suppose in the general sense, Mac OS capabilities that are not readily available or accessible via the standard set of graphical tools are indeed secret, and for good reason.” I bet part of the good reason is that some hidden OSX features could do damage if used improperly.

  2. I know just enough to get myself into trouble. 🙂

  3. I know just enough to get myself into trouble. 🙂

    That refers to lots and lots of people. Unfortunately, not everyone realizes that 🙂


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