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  • Is it Time to Fire Apple’s Simplicity Police?

    March 26th, 2009

    When Mac OS X was first released eight years ago, a number of smart programmers found simple ways to customize the interface and behavior of Apple’s Unix-based OS. What made these methods all the more intriguing is that all they were doing was putting pretty faces on features that already existed. Only, for reason’s known only to Apple, they were simply not enabled within the graphical interface.

    Consider, for example, the position of the Dock. Did you know it can be placed at the top of the screen? What sort of legerdemain do you have to use to accomplish that miracle? Well, the capability is already present, available in Mac OS X’s command line, the underbelly of the system. Such applications as TinkerTool allow you to easily access that and dozens of other features with simple checkboxes.

    What about the dreaded 3D Dock introduced in Leopard? Well, it doesn’t bother me — or maybe I’ve just grown accustomed to its face — but you’re not stuck with it unless you decide to put the Dock on the sides of your display. Indeed, a number of those customizing tools will take care of the problem or, if you prefer, open Mac OS X’s Terminal, which you can find in the Utilities folder.

    After it launches, you’ll see your username, followed by a dollar sign. Now simply enter this command, precisely as I’ve typed it (no periods please): defaults write com.apple.dock no-glass -boolean YES; killall Dock

    When you press the Return key the Dock will quit (leave the screen) and return in 2D mode.

    To restore it to its 3D glory, just reverse the process with: defaults write com.apple.dock no-glass -boolean NO; killall Dock

    Simple enough, right? The question is, of course, why Apple adds features to Mac OS X but doesn’t enable them. Are they working in secret with those shareware developers, so that there’s still a market for system enhancement utilities?

    Probably not. But while talking with prolific author Joe Kissell on this week’s tech radio show about his new e-book, “Take Control of the Mac Command Line with Terminal,” he came up with the term “Simplicity Police.” I didn’t invent it. He was simply describing Apple’s fanatical desire to make things as easy as possible.

    I can see his point, at least compared to Windows, where many elements of the user interface, while quite visible, are simply irritatingly complex to use for normal people. Now some Windows users will rag on me for that statement, saying I’m just too stupid to understand their purpose and value. Let me just say that I am comfortable using the command line when necessary to manage our Linux-based Web server, so the accusation is without merit.

    On the other hand, I do agree that Apple is overcompensating. They’d do better, to echo Kissell’s feelings on the matter, to have an Advanced option in, say, System Preferences. Once selected, there will be additional checkboxes strategically placed throughout Mac OS X’s user interface to allow you to access all or most of these extra features.

    Sure, I know that might not sit well with the developers who hope to earn some extra cash from Apple’s decision to forgo such choices. But it’s also true that a fair number of Mac users these days are Windows converts. Those of you who switched from Microsoft’s operating system are accustomed to those extra options, and you might appreciate having more checkboxes on a Mac as well.

    Of course, you can see Apple’s schizophrenic behavior in the Mighty Mouse. Even though it masquerades as a single-button mouse, a couple of clicks in the Mouse preference panel lets you access its right-click feature and other options. Mac users who are accustomed to a single button don’t have to change their ways. Those who prefer it the way it’s done on all other computing platforms can have the extra button and, of course, the scroll button. I will ignore the ability to press the sites to access additional features, since it’s so uncomfortable.

    If you have been lucky enough to acquire one of the new unibody Mac note-books, again you’ll see a similar behavior. The single glass trackpad hides the ability to have it provide the same two-button mode as a Windows note-book. Or use it in the same fashion as on older models, which employ a single button.

    But at least Apple has afforded you the choice, without forcing you to install some third party input device utility. That’s not available for lots of Mac OS X’s capabilities, unless you educate yourself on the choices in the command line, perhaps with Kissell’s new book.

    Now I don’t think adding an Advanced option would represent a difficult choice for Apple’s developers to make. As they move towards the finish line with Snow Leopard, perhaps the biggest way they can present new features, beyond the rumored interface refinement, is to let us all access the operating system’s vast repository of hidden capabilities.

    But first, Apple has to give its Simplicity Police their walking papers.



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    8 Responses to “Is it Time to Fire Apple’s Simplicity Police?”

    1. Joe S says:

      One advantage to Apple of simplifying the user options is that it substantially simplifies its testing. Testing is not a trivial effort. User interface code is some of the most difficult to test, especially if you start looking for interactions.

    2. Joe S wrote:

      One advantage to Apple of simplifying the user options is that it substantially simplifies its testing. Testing is not a trivial effort. User interface code is some of the most difficult to test, especially if you start looking for interactions.

      I don’t disagree with you. But if they’re going to take the time and undergo the expense to put features into the operating system, it doesn’t seem logical not to offer an easy way to make them function.

      Peace,
      Gene

    3. David C says:

      While Apple does provide a hidden way to put the Dock at the top, it is not a choice that they wanted to offer most users. I’m all for tucking away features that 99% of us won’t need to access. I’m also OK with Apple deciding what does and does not make the cut. By adding the feature in, however inconvenient to access, complainers can’t gripe about a feature gone missing and all have an interface uncluttered by obscure options.

      I very much like the idea of hiding power user and obscure options from the typical user. One of the hallmarks of the Mac OS is that it’s simple on the surface, but very powerful options like tucked away for those that need them.

    4. DaveD says:

      Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) is drilled into my head after over 25 years as a programmer in the data processing. I know all too well that if you don’t do this, the level of user/customer support go way up. I’m so glad that Apple takes the extra steps to make my Mac experience quite enjoyable. Long live the single-button mouse click.

      I wanted to use an iTunes add-on under Leopard. From the web, there were two ways to get it working. One involved getting some more files and tweaking it, the second was using the Terminal. I chose the Terminal which required a few commands. Somehow, I’ve got into a fat-fingers mode and entered an important command incorrectly.

      If the Mac OS X was a person, I would say that the person vomited. Knowing that all is lost, I shut the Mac down and looked for my Leopard installation DVDs.

    5. @ David C: That’s why I suggested an Advanced option, so the typical user wouldn’t need to contend with it. But those who might appreciate the additional choices could access them without resorting to the command line or a third-party utility.

      @ DaveD: I’m down with the concept, but if a feature is going to be developed, there ought to be a way to access it without jumping through hoops. Otherwise why is it there in the first place?

      Peace,
      Gene

    6. John says:

      Gene, I’m with you on this.

      As a Mac person since 1986, I’ve always thought that accessing a CLI seemed like a step backwards. To bring up another car analogy, using a CLI is like having to be a mechanic and tinker under the hood of one’s car in order to get the most use out of driving it. I shouldn’t have to be a programmer.

      I’m just the type of person who could use some of those hidden power-user features, but can’t stand the idea of having to go to the Terminal. DaveD’s experience is just the sort of thing I want to avoid.

      Every article I’ve read about the Terminal reads like it was written for those who already have nearly expert experience with it. I’d like to find something for the utterly complete newbie, something where the instructions are absolutely clear about what has to be done at every step along the way.

    7. James Lee says:

      The Terminal rules/the Terminal sucks is a religious war I will stay out of. But I will add one reason that Apple does things that seem overly simple is support expense. If the Dock is always, or even usually, in the same place, it is that much easier to explain “click the iTunes icon in the Dock” to a new computer user. I know this seems absurd but some of the most time consuming support calls Apple handles involve getting the new or very inexperienced customer to do the simplest thing. The more options there are in UI layout the longer this can take and the more it costs to support. It may or may not apply here, but Apple’s support gurus have a strong voice on some of these issue.

    8. @ James Lee: Apropos of nothing, I use Terminal on a regular basis, but not for Mac OS X. It’s employed to connect to our Web server via SSH so I can perform a command line function or two. The server is running a Linux distribution, CentOS 5.2 (64-bit) if anyone cares.

      Peace,
      Gene

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