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The Snow Leopard Report: Recovering from Feature-Bloat

You have to appreciate Apple’s point of view with Snow Leopard. After releasing reference upgrades for Mac OS X with two or three hundred new features — some of which you may not have even wanted — it was time to fix the plumbing to pave the way for the future.

Or at least that’s what Apple expects you to believe.

The question, of course, is whether a feature-bare operating system release will be worth the same $129 that Apple charges for the one that’s usually filled to the gills with fancy new stuff. Over the years, customers have been trained to expect something new and different with new software upgrades — particularly paid ones — even if some of the new stuff weighs the system down as far as performance is concerned, or creates problems where none existed before.

Indeed, with Leopard, Apple boasted over 300 new features. But not everyone appreciates the changes. Macworld’s Rob Griffiths, for example, has his personal top ten rant list, things where Apple clearly fell down on the job. This is not to say that he’s reverted to Tiger. On the whole he prefers Leopard, even though some of its better ideas are, to him, actually worse.

This is not to say that Apple necessarily is out of good ideas either. Certainly there are things that Mac OS X still doesn’t handle properly, and features that were actually present under the Classic Mac OS but were never carried through in the migration to Mac OS X.

Now I’m not necessarily a believer in the conspiracy theory once voiced that the original Mac programmers were at war with the NeXT developers that arrived along with Steve Jobs when Apple acquired his company. It may be true, or it may be that, together, they conceived a different list of priorities.

However, you have to wonder why some things just never quite made the cut. The configurable Apple menu, for example, which was so easy to manage in the days of Mac System 7.0. Yes, there are third party alternatives, but today the Apple menu is a rigid structure where you can only change the number of items displayed in the Recent Items submenu. Is that really an improvement?

What about managing locations? Mac OS X’s Location feature is pretty much restricted to wired and wireless network setups. In the old days, with the Classic Mac OS, you could configure such things as specific printer and application setups as well. Sure, you can easily select another printer from the Print dialog, but you’d still have to figure out whether that particular device is actually a part of the network to which you’re connected. Are you expected to store this information in your cluttered brain? Isn’t the computer powerful enough to figure this out for you?

Do you remember the original PrintMonitor? Well, maybe you want to forget that relic of the old days. But I remember an extremely important feature that no longer exists in the current printer status display — and that’s the ability to schedule and prioritize jobs. Say, for example, you have a 200-page document, with lots of graphics, one that would keep the office printer purring for half an hour before it’s done. Now you don’t want to have this particular job run while other employees are cluttering up the print queue with smaller documents of more immediate concern. So you schedule the larger document at a time when everyone’s off to lunch, or even at night, after the staff is gone and only the admins are around doing their network management tasks.

Maybe Apple believes that today’s output devices are so fast, that a job of that size wouldn’t clog the print queue, or that it’s just as easy for you to remember to manually add it to the queue at the appropriate time. But why?

I’m sure you can come up with your own list of lost features that ought to return. You might even be able to recommend third-party alternatives that will provide the capabilities you want, and I’m certainly in favor of giving shareware developers an opportunity to make a living.

There are, however, certain features that ought to be a part of the core operating system. You shouldn’t have to depend on independent developer to produce them, or find some hidden Mac OS X feature that delivers just what you want but, for some reason, hasn’t been activated.

Now with Snow Leopard, I’m quite certain that the ability to handle multiprocessors more efficiently is extremely important, particularly with tasks that can overwhelm a single processor. Being able to offload chores to the graphics chip is another plus. Why have all that capability underutilized, except for 3D rendering and games?

Indeed, cleaning up Mac OS X and eliminating dead wood and potential sources for system slowdowns or crashes is a good thing, and Apple is to be commended for its foresight.

On the other hand, maybe Snow Leopard will give Apple a time to catch up and add just a few additional features, ones that have fallen by the wayside, but deserve to be returned. I’m not even going to bother with the official wish list, beyond what I’ve discussed so far. If you were using Macs in the old days, I think you know just what I’m talking about, and if you weren’t, you’re really missing some neat stuff.