The Personal Computing Paradigm
Tuning Mac OS for the Future—Part 3
Mac OS 8, formerly known as Tempo, will be released soon after you read this, but there are still quite a few areas of the Mac OS to be improved. I’ll mention a few here.
One of the best features of Mac OS is drag and drop. Direct manipulation has always been an important concept in the Macintosh world, and dragging text and graphics between applications and onto the desktop has become an important paradigm. There are countless uses for desktop clippings files, and I’m continually finding or reading about new and interesting ways of using them. Clippings are great a place to store data for a project in an easily manipulated form, but they would be even more useful if they were editable. There was something like this on the old and venerable Apple IIGS. Its purpose was providing an easy way to edit bits of text without having to open a separate application. RAM was scarce in those days, remember? More importantly, though, the mini-editor was convenient.
Being able drop pieces of a project onto the desktop and work with them there would allow you to take advantage of the Finder’s already good — and soon to be improved — organizational features. It’s silly to have open an application, drag the clipping into an empty document, make the changes, and create a new clipping every time you want to edit it.
I envision an editors folder inside the System Folder (possibly by a different name if OpenDoc and its editors persist) that holds plug-ins for viewing and editing files from within the Finder. Text, Styled Text, PICT, and the other clipping types would be supported by default, but the architecture would be extensible so that support for other, more complicated, file types could be added. For instance, Aladdin Systems could create a plug-in for viewing and manipulating Stuffit archives within the Finder, much the way their True Finer Integration works now. Utilities such as Stuffit TFI and Aladdin’s CyberFinder will need a way to interface with Rhapsody, since the Yellow Box will not support Mac extensions as we know them, and this seems like a natural way of doing it. It also promotes, somewhat, the task-centered rather than application-centered philosophy that OpenDoc was supposed to bring us.
I’ve previously written that a useful improvement for Mac OS’s basic text handling capabilities would be support for recognizing URLs in text. Such a feature would be very valuable if it were available to all Macintosh applications that use text. I also think that Apple should expand the user’s options when selecting text. NisusWriter, a powerful word-processor, allows users to select text in non-contiguous blocks. For instance, when you “Find and Replace”, you can have all the words matching your criteria selected at once. This makes it very easy to make font and style adjustments, since a single action will now affect all the selected text.
The user can also make non-contiguous selections manually, by selecting while depressing a modifier key. I don’t use NisusWriter much, for other reasons, but I keep it around specifically because of this feature. If it were available as part of Apple’s standard text tools, all applications could take advantage of it with almost no extra effort on the part of the programmers. NisusWriter and the other Mac program that supports this (Is it Mariner Write?) would lose one of their claims to fame, but Mac users would gain lots of functionality.
Another excellent way of selecting text, which, as far as I know, is only supported in Microsoft Word, is rectangular selections. There are so many times when it’s useful to select only a column (or other rectangular-shaped block) of text in a document, that this should also be a regular part of the Macintosh experience.
File Types And Creators
One of the great technologies employed by the Mac’s early designers was type and creator codes. Each Mac file has a four character type code such as ‘ttro’, ‘CARO’ or ‘SIT!’ which tells Mac OS what kind of document (or file) it is. A four character creator code such as ‘8BIM’ or ‘R*ch’ or ‘Dk@P’ allow Mac OS to keep track of which application created a given document so that it can be launched when the document is double-clicked. Together, these two codes help Mac OS decide which icon to show for a given file in the Finder.
The great thing about these codes is that, most of the time, users don’t need to care about them. They’re almost invisible, in contrast to the even more cryptic three-character suffixes that DOS (and Windows) use. So what’s the problem, then? Well, sometimes a document doesn’t have a valid creator code. This can happen if a file becomes corrupted. Sometimes all the Mac OS has to go on is a DOS-like three character suffix. This usually occurs when a file downloaded from a network was originally stored on a machine that doesn’t use the Macintosh file system, and wasn’t properly translated after being downloaded. Finally, if the application used to create the file isn’t available, it won’t be opened automatically when it’s double-clicked. This can happen even if there is an installed program that knows how to open the file.
There’s a handy little control panel called Mac OS Easy Open. When you double-click a file whose creator you don’t have, Easy Open lists programs able to read a file. However, it’s slow, and doesn’t always work. Furthermore, I don’t always want to see a list of able applications. When I double-click a mysterious text file, I always want to open it with BareBones Software’s BBEdit. Period. Easy Open will let you set this kind of preference, in a limited way. I’d like a control panel that allows the user to select his or her preferred applications. It would also be nice to be able to override the type and creator codes of a file. I always want to open graphics files I receive with Adobe Photoshop, even if they’ve been created by another piece of software I happen to have installed.
Right now, the closest work around I’ve found is to use Binary Software’s KeyQuencer to create an “Open With” macro. If I want to open a text file with BBEdit, I can click on it in the Finder and press control-b. Perhaps in the future there will be a way to choose general preferences for opening documents. There might also be commands in a contextual menu for choosing an application to open the document. Holding down a modifier key could determine if this application assignment were permanent, temporary, global, etc.
On The Horizon
Rhapsody, when it ships to the general public next July, will include lots of features that Mac users have been wanting. We’ll finally get windows with proportional scrollbars (available on the IIGS for years :P), where the length of the scrollbar thumb is proportional to the amount of the window’s content currently being displayed. If you’ve never used a machine with proportional scrolling, you’ll like it. It’s especially useful when live scrolling, which will also be present in Rhapsody, is present. Live scrolling allows the contents of the window change as you drag the scroll thumb, not just after you release the mouse button. With proportional scrolling, the size of the thumb is generally larger than it is now, so you are saved lots of mouse movement. Hopefully, Apple will not follow Microsoft’s lead by allowing the scroll thumb to shrink to only a few pixels high when the window has lots of content.
With live scrolling will also come live dragging: when you drag window, the whole window will move, not just its outline. Live resizing means that when you change the size of the window, it updates before you release the mouse button. This is the kind of stuff Be has been wowing us with for about a year.
While these interface niceties may seem frivolous, they will be a sign that everything “under the hood” is finally modern. Current PowerMacs have plenty of horsepower to do live scrolling and dragging now, but Mac OS isn’t quite up to the task. Remember the days when you could pause an AOL download by holding down the mouse button?
Another nice feature of Rhapsody will be refinement of the Mac windowing model. Currently, when you click on a window owned by an application which is in the background, all that application’s windows come forward. This helps to reinforce the notion of an application switch, but also can be inconvenient if the user wants to look at windows of two applications simultaneously. Also, computing is moving towards a document-centric world, rather than an application-centric one. In Rhapsody, selecting a background window will bring only that window to the the foreground — not the entire application. Currently, Mac OS is one-up on Windows in this area because applications don’t have their own global windows (with menubars!), which obscure things behind them. Adopting the NeXT/X windowing methodology will further strengthen the Mac user experience, and if users want to bring an entire application to the font, they’ll still be able to.
Finally, Rhapsody’s UNIX base promises another excellent feature: the ability to log into your networked Mac from across the hall, across the street, or across the ocean. Imagine having access to your files and applications from any wired hotel room or public terminal. It wouldn’t be like carrying a Zip drive or laptop containing a small subset of your Mac. You’d actually be using your very own Mac. How’s that for personal computing?
It’s also probable that Rhapsody will make network disks and FTP servers first class volumes. If all your Mac applications — even those running in the Blue Box— could read from and save to severs through FTP (using the proper encoding when necessary) as though they were normal Mac disks, it would greatly strengthen the Mac’s role in internet content creation. Hopefully, these dreams will eventually become realities.
Contest: The first person to correctly identify the types and creators mentioned in this article will get something for free, such as mention in next month’s Personal Computing Paradigm.
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