The Personal Computing Paradigm
Tuning Mac OS for the Future—Part 1
More so than the software packages available or the power and value of Macintosh hardware, the consistency and elegance of Mac OS have been the reasons people choose it over the competition. Ironically, while Apple has continued to add new technologies such as QuickTime VR, QuickDraw 3D, and OpenTransport to Mac OS, the basic user interface has remained much the same. The Finder, in particular, has begun to show its age. Of course, the reason Apple — and Mac users — have allowed evolution of the Mac interface to stagnate is that it was, and is, the best in the business.
However, the competition has gained ground, and Mac OS's advantages are now less obvious than they once were. Apple's belated response to Windows '95 will come this July. Mac OS 8 (code-named Tempo) includes many enhancements to the Finder. These new features will once again make the Finder undeniably superior to the competition. In addition, Tempo will introduce contextual menus, similar to those found in OS/2, Windows '95, and X-Windows. However, the core of the Mac user interface will remain the same. For a screenshot of a beta version of Mac OS 8, see http://www.macos.apple.com/macos8/index.html.
This month's column and subsequent ones will present some aspects of Mac OS that could stand improvement, in my opinion. Today's Mac OS has withstood the test of time; the only major changes required are currently being worked on by the "Rhapsody" team. Many of the improvements I'll suggest are details that don't radically change the operating system. However, attention to detail is what has always made Mac OS consistent and easy to learn and use. When hundreds of little details are added together, the end result is greater than the sum of its parts (no Symantec product pun intended).
Cleaning Up The Controls
Let's face it. The current control panel situation is a mess. How is a new user to know that the color depth is changed in the Monitors & Sound control panel and not in the Color one? Why isn't the window appearance set in the Views control panel? Why are there so many Apple control panels? The concept of a control panel is sound, but its implementation is not. For instance, Monitors & Sound are grouped together, but controls for mirroring a PowerBook's display are separate. There should be one control panel (perhaps called "Output") that includes all the options for monitors, speakers, MIDI, and video-out.
Likewise, a single "Appearance" panel would be an improved interface for customizing all aspects of desktop appearance (e.g., interface theme, font options, current Color control panel settings, and current General Controls settings). From the screenshots I've seen, it appears that the Mac OS 8 Appearance control panel will customize accent and selection colors, but some of the other General Controls and Views remain segregated in their own panels. Hopefully, the Icon and List controls, currently found in Views, will be moved to the new Finder Preferences dialog (at the bottom of the Edit menu).
In addition, all the input control panels (such as Keyboard, Mouse, and Trackpad) should be grouped together. The resulting "Input" control panel should be extensible to make it easier for a user to configure third party add-ons such as a trackball, mouse (with extra buttons that need to be configured), or a tablet. Grouping these options with the Mouse controls makes sense from a common function standpoint - most users would expect to find them there.
Finally, the Map control panel is closely related to Date & Time, but from its appearance, Map looks more like a neat little Desk Accessory than the place to set the user's time zone. These should be consolidated into one control panel. And yes, this is one idea Apple should pick up from the Windows '95 interface. Microsoft had the good sense to "borrow" many ideas from System 7. Apple should recognize a good idea when it sees one, too.
A Little Bit Of Organization Goes A Long Way
I've always thought that the System Folder (soon to be called Mac OS Folder) was a good idea. It just seemed to be an intuitive way of viewing (and changing) installed software — especially when compared to the command file approaches of DOS and UNIX. When the number of items in the System Folder became overwhelming, Apple gave us System 7, which introduced the Apple Menu Items, Control Panels, Extensions, and Preferences folders to facilitate organization. Over the years since then, the System Folder's contents have grown to include the Fonts, Control Strip Modules, and Desktop Printers folders as well as the Disabled folders used by the Extensions Manager. It's tough to imagine how we got by before these organizational folders, but we managed because most people didn't use many extensions. Now, a vanilla install of System 7.6.1 brings with it enough extensions for an entire row of startup icons — on a 17-inch monitor.
For one thing, I believe this is bad interface practice. The original idea was that Extensions (or INITs, prior to System 7) were supposed to enhance the original system software, not to be part of it. Apple has decided that it's better to modularize components of the system software. I agree that this is a good idea, however, Apple-standard extensions and control panels should not show icons during boot-up. Those icons should be reserved for informing the user of "extras" he or she has installed.
Secondly, there are just too many items in the typical Extensions folder now. Rumor has it that Mac OS 8 will include the following folders: Application Support, Contextual Menu Items, Help, Internet Plug-Ins, Printer Descriptions, Printer Drivers, Scripting Additions, Shared Libraries, and Voices. This is exactly what is needed, and has been for at least a year. In addition, I think Apple should give its extensions and control panels unique type codes so that parts of the standard system software are grouped when the user views by kind. This would make it easy to distinguish an "Apple Extension" or "Apple Shared Library" in a list view from a 3rd party "Extension."
More Internet Support
Apple claims to have an internet strategy, but has very little to show for it. The recently-introduced Personal Web Sharing, which lets any Mac act as a simple web server is a step in the right direction, but long overdue. So was Open Transport PPP. What we desperately need now is an Internet control panel. Such a control panel would contain options similar to those in Peter Lewis and Quinn's InternetConfig such as e-mail addresses, mail and news servers, and signature files.
It would also keep track of the user's preferred e-mail, news, FTP, telnet, and web applications, and remember which helper applications are assigned to each file type.
Support for InternetConfig is almost ubiquitous now, so most applications can now import a user's internet settings from InternetConfig. However, not every user has InternetConfig or knows what it is, and it doesn't appear in the Control Panels folder — the most logical location for it. There's no reason why Apple couldn't include an OpenTransport savvy Internet control panel with InternetConfig's features (or simply buy InternetConfig and modify it) in a future version of Mac OS. It could also support OpenTransport's Configurations and User Mode features so different users of the same Mac could each have their own preferences, and administrators could prevent users from changing important settings.
Another Internet aspect that begs for improved handling is URLs. Mac OS should understand what a URL is. If the user moves the pointer over a URL, such as http://www.atpm.com, that's in a document, he or she should be able to click on it (perhaps with a modifier key held down as in Peter Lewis' ICeTEe) it to open the URL in the appropriate application, set in the Internet control panel. Likewise, if a URL is dragged to the desktop, a special kind of clippings file, perhaps called a URL Clipping should be created. Opening such a clipping would open the URL with the appropriate application. Getting info on the clipping would allow the user to view and change the URL, its title, and comments associated with it.
This approach makes sense because there is no universal bookmarking feature built into the current Mac OS, aside from the now-discontinued Cyberdog. The Finder is already a tool with which most users are comfortable, and it is excellent at sorting, displaying, and manipulating different file types. New installations of Mac OS could include a bookmark folder with URL clippings for preselected Mac sites such as www.apple.com, MacInTouch, and Info-Mac. The bookmark folder could have an alias in the Apple menu, for quick access anywhere, or could be viewed as buttons (a Mac OS 8 feature) allowing single-click access à la the Launcher.
The ideas I have suggested in this column have dealt mainly with updating the organization of Mac OS for today's programs and for the internet. Next month, I'll focus more on user interface enhancements: windows and scrolling, application switching, and others. If you have any specific improvements you'd like see, don't hesitate bring them to my attention. If I mention them in this column, you'll receive appropriate credit.
Also in This Series
- How Cool Is Your Mac? · May 2012
- Mac OS X’s Increasing Stability · August 2006
- Coping With Mac OS X’s Font Rendering · January 2006
- E-Mail Archiving with Eudora and Mail.app · January 2003
- Grab Bag · October 2002
- Mac OS X 10.2—First Impressions · September 2002
- Mac OS X 10.1—First Impressions · October 2001
- Mac OS X Tips · June 2001
- Mac OS X—Finally · May 2001
- Complete Archive