The 10.7 Wish List: Time to Revisit Your Hopes and Dreams

June 24th, 2008

We know now that most of the new features of Snow Leopard will be confined to the guts of the operating system, and that, other than native Microsoft Exchange support and a handful of other things, you won’t see much of a difference between 10.5 and 10.6. That, of course, excludes performance, which ought to be much greater, not to mention the system’s promised smaller footprint.

Although it may take two or three years to arrive, I thought it would be a good idea to take a stab at a proper wish list for a hoped-for feature upgrade instead (and don’t ask me what feline name Apple ought to use). Certainly with all the extra time to architect some compelling new features, you’d think that 10.7 ought to feature hundreds of them, including, perhaps, major changes in the personal computing paradigm.

Apple might, for example, leverage all that it’s learned from the grand experiment known as the iPhone in touch technology. One area that’s lacking in Multi-Touch, so far at least, is tactile feedback. When you work on a standard keyboard, you know your fingers are doing something because you feel the keys being pressed. With the iPhone, obviously, you’re just jamming your fingers onto a piece of glass!

That also returns you to the surface features that can still use some work and improvement. While the Leopard Finder works better than its predecessors, it can still stall temporarily when performing multiple copying operations even on an 8-core Mac Pro. Then again, maybe the multicore enhancements promised for Snow Leopard will remedy that, assuming the Finder is appropriately updated.

But let’s take this a whole lot further. You see, every single improvement you’ve seen with Mac OS X, or even the Classic Mac OS, has been incremental. The basic interface that debuted with System 1.0 back in 1984 is, in large part, fundamentally unaltered. Yes, this is testimony to the great programming efforts of the original Apple programming team, for building graphical interface conventions that have survived for nearly 25 years and have been imitated widely.

Being tried and proven doesn’t, however, mean that it’s necessarily perfect. Even experienced Mac and PC users are still occasionally flummoxed by system inconsistencies that cause migraines. When your Mac misbehaves, for example, you are often given little clear information about what to do to solve the problem, which is why we have troubleshooting sites and system maintenance utilities.

Now I do not wish to see such great programmers as John Lowry, creator of Leopard Cache Cleaner, put out of work. Such utilities serve a crying need, because they are filling in the wide gaping holes left in Mac OS X, and they also provide tools that power users crave to customize their computers.

Part of the problem, of course, is the sheer complexity of today’s personal computer operating systems, and Apple is as guilty as anyone. There are tens of millions of lines of code, and, while Apple is apparently doing it share to reduce the amount of storage space it will parcel out for itself in Snow Leopard, a leaner meaner system doesn’t mean it won’t be a bear to fix.

You should not, for example, have to pore through incomprehensible system logs to figure out what went wrong and why, nor should you ever have to enter the Terminal unless you’re a command line maven and want to do your Unix thing unfettered by a graphical shell.

Just for a change, what if Mac OS X provided clear and detailed troubleshooting guidance when things go awry? I’m not talking about offering to Relaunch an application after a sudden quit or restoring preferences to their default setting. I’m thinking more in terms of additional step-by-step guidance to help you get your Mac running again, or at least tell you where to go if the standard remedies fail.

This is also a large reason why I dislike the current Help system. Making the Help menu labels smaller than the others might allow for more information to be delivered in a single line, but it’s otherwise a questionable design choice in a system where interface inconsistencies were supposed to be eradicated.

The core question, though, is whether system-related assistance can be done in a way that works well for the novice, the experienced user, and the power user alike. That’s why I return to the suggestion I made early on (for 10.5 and 10.6, for that matter) that there should be some sort of intelligent Help system that refashions itself on the fly depending on the level of knowledge you display.

So when you first encounter the initial Setup Assistant,you are asked a few simple questions that are used to determine your level of expertise (it can always be changed later). On that basis of that information, the level of Help is configured to best guide you through the various functions of the operating system.

An active Help scheme, for example, could put up tiny messages to alert you to a better way to accomplish a task. Why, for example, double click on a document, when the application is running and the Open dialog box would handle that task a lot quicker? And don’t get me started about the lapses in the Open/Save dialogs. That’s why we have Default Folder X. To this day, in fact, Apple seems to have learned little from the work of Jon Gotow in making his dialog box enhancer a must-have.

This is, however, just the beginning. Now that we know that few of our hopes and dreams will likely be fulfilled in Snow Leopard, it’s time to consider the prospects for 10.7. This time, we’re entering this dialog early enough for Apple to actually consider some of these suggestions before too much work has been done.

And, believe it or not, it’s very likely Apple has already done preliminary work on 10.7 and even some of its successors.

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5 Responses to “The 10.7 Wish List: Time to Revisit Your Hopes and Dreams”

  1. Kaleberg says:

    One area I’d like to see improvement is in helping me figure out what I did three or five or ten years ago. Bigger disks mean that I keep lots more stuff around, and I find that useful. Why should I throw out that old luau invitation and all that tiki motif clip art I downloaded? I might hold another luau any day. Spotlight helps, but it assumes that you have the right text in file names and file bodies, but what if I don’t remember what I called things?

    One approach is to have some kind of cluster analysis that keeps track of which files I used and when. That way, I can use a combination of Spotlight text and metadata search combined with an approximate time search to locate files and URLs that were used or modified at around the same time. If I have trouble remembering where an image came from three years back, you can imagine the trouble I’ll have in another ten years.

    It might be useful to consider a program like sLife that tracks application and file use, or HistoryHound that tracks URLs. Spotlight search is sort of backwards. It seems to assume that you remember what you did ten years ago better than what you did yesterday. Look at the weird default time related smart searches in the Finder. Were they chosen for Alzheimer’s patients?

    I’ll bet that some bright folks in the Apple back room could use a combination of data sources to determine clusters of action, or at least some sort of page ranking a la Google, along with a more stuff like this option.

    I can think of lots of minor improvements: a migrate feature to track when I move a pile of stuff from a main drive to an archive drive (networked or local), better Apple scripting of applications through menus and dialogs, integrated annotation e.g. stickies that you can associate with times, open files, URLs and so on, but they have to be application independent.

  2. David says:

    The shortcut I miss most from the OS 8 days was the ability to click on an open Finder window to automatically populate the Open/Save dialog. That may have been a feature in Default Folder or maybe it was in one of their now dead competitors. I frequently open documents whose parent folders are already visible in Finder and it would be a great time saver.

    It would be confusing to do this in OS X because all windows are independent and modal dialogs no longer block application switching. Therefore it would have to be a special click, perhaps holding down Option, that can be programmed into a multi-button mouse.

    The Finder still needs some usability work when it comes to managing files. I expect the future will all be “smart” folders that organize files by meta data rather than a location in a file system hierarchy. Hopefully there will still be the ability to quickly group items together by dropping them in a folder rather than having to tag each file and wait for Finder to recognize that they now belong in the same smart folder.

  3. Well, regardless of how that’s handled, let’s hope they don’t make things more complicated than they already are. Just work? Sure. Right.


  4. Kaleberg says:

    Actually, my idea could look a lot like Time Machine. I’d scan back in time and see what I was doing when. The system could Quick Look my documents helping me figure out what I was thinking and doing then.

  5. Kaleberg says:

    Actually, my idea could look something like Time Machine. I’d slide back in time and have the various documents I worked on Quick Look up on the screen so I could figure out what I was thinking and doing back in time.

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