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Is Apple Losing Interest in OS X?

The launch of Mac OS X as a Public Beta in the fall of 2000 signified a sea change for Mac users. Coming four years after the purchase of NeXT, it represented the vindication of that deal, which also meant the return of Steve Jobs to Apple. Here it was, the long-delayed industrial strength replacement for the original Mac OS.

Completing OS X wasn’t quite as easy as it first seemed in 1996. In 1998, Apple demonstrated the initial concept, a server version code-named Rhapsody that was essentially the NeXT OS running on a Mac with modest interface alterations. Crafting a desktop version meant tons of work on the part of developers to migrate to the Cocoa frameworks, and they balked. So Apple went back to the drawing boards to make the migration easier — but it was no cakewalk. Apple crafted something called Carbon that simplified the porting process. The new interface was very much a prettier version of the Mac OS with loads of eye candy, and loads of missing features…

And no functional Apple menu.

Yes, if you recall the original Public Beta, the Apple logo was in the center of the menu bar strictly as window dressing. It didn’t do anything. By the time the official release of OS X appeared in March of 2001, Apple had listened, more or less. They delivered an Apple menu that kind of, sort of, resembled the Mac OS version. During his keynote presentation, Jobs hinted at further changes, but, by and large, they have been extremely minor over the years.

Indeed, despite ongoing refinements in the general user interface, and the addition of a few features or functions derived from iOS, it’s not that OS X has seriously changed on the surface. It may not seem that way when you look at lists exceeding 200 changes or enhancements for many OS X releases, especially recent ones. They mostly improve the OS around the edges, making things work better, or at least different.

Sometimes they take things away.

So with Mail, once upon a time you could change the order of accounts in the app’s preferences. Now you can’t. It has to be done by moving accounts and mailboxes in the sidebar, but at least you can move them. Microsoft’s Outlook 2016 only let’s you do some of that with difficulty. You can change the sort order in Outlook by designating an account as the default, which lists it first, or change the account description in a way that is alphabetized differently.

Removing an account in Mail depends. You can click “minus” under Accounts and it’ll work, unless the account is shared in your iCloud keychain, in which case you have to visit Internet Accounts in System Preferences. But when you go there, you’ll find that you can otherwise change only the Incoming mail server. Outgoing has to be done in Mail.

Are you dizzy yet?

Some features barely get attention at all, not even to mess them up. So the Open/Save dialogs, as I mentioned in this past weekend’s newsletter, are hardly changed over the years. The clever functions of a third-party app, Default Folder X, which provides a host of great features, aren’t even being considered. Even though Apple is notorious for “borrowing” the features of third-party apps, they haven’t paid much attention to doing anything new with Open/Save.

Maybe they are considering offering a deal to St. Clair Software to acquire the app, but it got lost in accounting. I’m kidding. I suspect Apple has looked at the user base and can’t make a case for adding features to match or exceed Default Folder X, or to buy up the rights. Maybe only a few percent of Mac users would care about an Open/Save dialog on steroids, and thus Apple isn’t giving it much attention.

Over the years, there have certainly been lots of under-the-hood improvements meant to enhance performance and stability. OS X El Capitan brings something called “rootless” or System Integrity Protection that limits access to some processes and apps in exchange for greater security. As a consequence, it has caused misery for some software developers since they have to overhaul their apps to work differently to compensate.

Regardless, I do think Macs are getting a fair amount of attention from Apple. Adding Force Touch to several models and the Magic Trackpad 2, and revising the wireless keyboard, reborn as Magic Keyboard, represent deliberate investments. The same is true for the amazing 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display, which is, when you consider the cost of competing third-party monitors, a real bargain. It required devising new manufacturing techniques, and the enhanced color palette of the 2015 version represents a huge improvement over what other PC makers are offering.

Some might suggest the MacBook Air is ready for a Retina display, and I agree. I suspect Apple is probably working on a way to do so without a price increase. Remember that the 5K  iMac now costs no more than the previous versions with regular displays, and I suspect all 21.5-inch iMacs will have a 4K display in a year or two, not just the higher-priced spread, though admittedly more powerful graphics hardware isn’t cheap.

As Mac sales continue to grow, outpacing the PC industry for several years, I am certain Apple has no intention to wind down the platform. But it would be nice to see some enhancements to OS X that range from restoring a few more lost capabilities from the Classic Mac OS to fixing odd interface choices and adding features that are sorely needed.

And, no, I don’t see any immediate plans to merge OS X with iOS, even though they share so much in ways that you can’t see.