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Apple or a Third Party?

Since my recent column, “Does Windows 7 Make a Difference?,” was published, there has been an active debate about a new Microsoft window management feature, where a document is pinned at the edge of the screen a grabs half the display. You can place a second document on the other half of the screen to allow you to conveniently compare and edit both documents. This may be a useful productivity enhancer.

The window organization component is duplicated in large part with Cinch, a shareware utility for Mac OS X. But that raises the larger issue, which is whether Apple should provide a feature or leave it for independent developers to address.

Certainly there’s no way that Mac OS X can possibly cater to everyone’s needs. Among all the possible functions, Apple will pick and choose what they think works best and can be implemented with a typical degree of efficiency and elegance within a reasonable timeframe, and what’s best left to others to figure out.

Indeed, you probably realize that there are preferences for Mac OS X that remain hidden within the confines of the command line. If you’re skilled at working in the Terminal, or just copying and pasting the appropriate commands, you’ll find a rich repertoire of possibilities.

If you’d rather not mess with such things, there are also a number of utilities harness many of these hidden features, such as pinning the Dock on the top of the screen and in other locations other than centered on the left, right or bottom. In contrast, Microsoft will often add so many control panel functions in Windows that it becomes difficult for most users to figure out what works best. Some of you might feel that extra flexibility is a good thing, but most Mac users would rather just keep it simple.

At the same time, I’m sure most of you have a wish list for features already available from third parties that should have been in included in the Mac OS long ago, such as a less minimalist Open/Save dialog. Jon Gotow’s Default Folder X has been adding a host of essential functions for years, such as the ability to have the dialog rebound to the last opened file, and perform such Finder-related tasks as renaming a file.

However, the audience for Jon’s app is extremely limited, mostly to content creators who appreciate the added capabilities. Apple has made the Open/Save dialog more Finder-like in its behavior, up to a point. But if you want to take it any further, Default Folder X is essential. But at the same time, you wonder why Apple hasn’t waved a big check in front of Jon’s eyes and acquired the product. Yes, they will sometimes crib features from a third-party product, but they’ve also been known to acquire software that helps them reach a strategic goal more quickly. A legendary example is SoundJam, from Casady & Greene, the progenitor of iTunes. Indeed, one of SoundJam’s authors, Jeff Robbin, is now an Apple VP.

When Mac OS X arrived, Apple got seriously attacked by many long-time Mac users because so many features were lost in the transition. Indeed, the original Mac OS X Public Beta put the Apple logo in the middle of the menu bar, and it was only restored with limited functionality in the 10.0 release. Unfortunately, it hasn’t changed all that much since then, although again third parties will provide all or most of the flexibility of the Classic Mac OS version.

What makes this all the more difficult to consider is the simple fact that most of today’s Mac users never used any version of the Mac OS prior to 10.0. Classic is a relic of history, and Mac OS X’s Classic compatibility environment was discontinued long ago. Apple isn’t a company that looks back, witness the fact that they totally ignored the 25th anniversary of the Mac.

In all fairness, the original Mac OS and today ‘s version may share a number of basic features, but they are otherwise totally different animals. Whereas Microsoft has a difficult time dropping support for old products and making game changing upgrades to its software, Apple isn’t afraid to throw an entire platform or generation of Macs by the wayside in order to innovate and, frankly, to sell you brand new gear.

There are already predictions, for example, that the first generation Intel-based Macs, with 32-bit processors, will not be supported when 10.7 arrives. Such an approach would simply keep the three to four year compatibility cycle active, since Snow Leopard’s successor is not apt to arrive before early 2011, although it may be unveiled this summer during the WWDC.

In architecting 10.7, Apple will probably want to look to adding lots of flashy new features, the better to entice you to upgrade. At the same time, they will confront the inevitable dilemma about whether they should be restoring old features, embracing new ones, or just finding a good balance.