Mac OS X: Don't fix what ain't broke

A Mac diehard looks askance at Mac OS X's GUI moves.
Written by Adam Gillit on
When it comes to explaining the Mac's enduring appeal, Apple's ad campaigns have been memorable and accurate: The Macintosh is the computer for the rest of us; it allows us to think different.

Why do those marketing slogans resonate so strongly with Mac users? Simple: We feel like we're part of a club that is held together by what is known as the Macintosh Experience.

The Mac pioneered the GUI for personal computers when it launched in 1984. Users instinctively understood the icons and the layout of the desktop. Artists flocked to the Mac and were inspired to launch a new era of digital art and design. Schools set up labs where many students' first computer experience was on a Mac.

Despite frequent declarations to the contrary, the Mac's influence can be seen throughout the computer industry and society. From first popularizing the mouse and the GUI, spawning a revolution in desktop publishing; the colorizing in translucent hues of every available product; and most recently the rise of desktop video, there are few people who aren't aware of the Mac.

Sixteen years after the original 128K Mac was introduced, people are still as passionate about them as ever. Reading some of the TalkBack threads to recent Mac-related articles on ZDNet News shows this clearly. Mac fanatics show great pride and demonstrate a willingness to fight to the death to back their views. Consumers flock to Mac trade shows such as Macworld Expo and the Apple Expo currently taking place in Paris, in ever-increasing numbers.

Why? It's the Mac Experience.

What you learned on your trusty Mac SE running System 6.0.7 works almost exactly the same way as it does on your new G4 Cube. What kids learn at school on a venerable IIsi, they can apply to their iMac at home. Commands are located in the same menu in OS 9.0.4 as their counterparts under 6.0.7 and earlier. Window widgets are in the same place, even though they gained a third dimension with introduction of the Platinum Appearance.

Overall, there is a remarkable consistency to the Mac OS that users have come to depend upon. We know where to find our control panels and system settings; we get to choose where we locate our applications and documents; features like the Control Strip and the Apple Menu are practically taken for granted.

Apple (aapl) faces a battle in convincing users that they must leave this level of comfort behind to embrace the future embodied by OS X. Apple's first public release of the OS at Apple Expo early Wednesday marks the beginning of a necessary new era for the Mac OS -- and the Macintosh Experience.

In the interest of modernizing the Macintosh, Apple has constructed a powerful new operating system that is unlike any previous version of the Mac OS. It promises to be more powerful, more stable, and (according to Apple's promotion on its Web site) "the most advanced and intuitive operating system in the world." It also marks the first public release of Aqua, the highly animated and colorful GUI that CEO Steve Jobs demonstrated at January's Macworld Expo/San Francisco.

This is a bold move for Apple to make: For the first time, the end user's experience with one Mac may be entirely different from his or her experience with another. The change here is revolutionary, not evolutionary.

A few examples:

Interface elements are gone: the Apple Menu, Application Switcher and Control Strip have all been eschewed in favor of the Dock.

Commands that every user takes for granted have changed: Quit is now in the system-wide Application menu rather than the File menu.

The desktop has changed from the primary disk/file/folder location and starting point to an auxiliary resting place; now the "Computer" directory is where users begin.

Although there are plenty of adventurous types out there who relish the challenges of remembering all these new locations and commands, the majority of users will take some time to adapt to these changes. Imagine if you will, if someone offered you a new home, much like your old one, with some major improvements. Now suppose, although you had all your old stuff, accessing it was entirely different -- instead of going down the hall to your bathroom, you have to go to the kitchen; or if you hit what you thought was a light switch, your TV comes on.

It would strike you as bizarre and would lead you to make many mistakes. You could adjust to them, naturally, but that adjustment takes time. Anyone who uses more than one operating system regularly finds himself or herself looking for a command or feature only present on his or her other operating system. But no one expects that competing OSes should work together to standardize their interface.

In the case of Apple and Mac OS X, these differences seem somewhat capricious. Apple engineers have access to all the specifications and code of the OS 9 UI and are well-aware of how things work under it.

When OS 9 programs run under the Classic environment of OS X, they still provide all of their commands, menus and interface items in their original places. Why, then, would Apple choose to break with these standards in its delivery of OS X?

The first possible explanation is that the choices were dependent on the BSD Unix/NeXTStep underpinnings. But programmers I have talked to say that it's just as easy to write the code to work one way as it is another. Another possible argument is that the modifications to the UI are to make it simpler. Perhaps for someone with no previous Mac OS experience, it would be easy. But for my stepfather, who got his first computer, an iMac, last year at the age of 80, it would be a difficult transition.

Perhaps Apple is trying to woo enterprise/server users to the OS. With NetBoot, remote administration, multiple-user support, Web/FTP-serving capabilities and other features, OS X can provide a secure, scalable experience that many administrators will welcome. Some power users I have talked with, however, aren't so sure about the overhead of the Aqua GUI.

Despite these possibilities, to make OS X a success, Apple needs to recognize that its current installed user base will continue to comprise the majority of Mac users.

Apple has made some concessions to those users: Between Developer Preview 4 and the public beta, the company responded to graphics pros by adding a Graphite version of the Aqua interface. Certainly, as OS X makes the rounds and programmers write utilities and applications for it, shortcomings will be patched.

There's a program that works as an Apple Menu under OS X. Nevertheless, it wasn't so long ago that clever shareware utilities were incorporated into the Mac OS rather than orphaned UI elements becoming shareware utilities.

By releasing a beta publicly several months before the final version, Apple has a chance to take its powerful new OS to new heights by listening carefully to user feedback and acting on it.

People work and play on their Macintoshes, and they want to feel comfortable with their computer of choice. OS 9, as familiar as it is to users, lacks several important features that are addressed by OS X. The introduction of fully protected memory partitions, symmetrical multiprocessing and pre-emptive multitasking are features Mac users have been awaiting for years.

The Macintosh Experience is what keeps the core faithful returning year after year, and it has sustained the company through some of its darkest days.

Apple will do itself a great disservice by alienating its current users with features that are unnecessarily different from previous norms. All of the features packed into Mac OS X ensure that it will be a powerful and stable operating system. If it combines the power of its Mach/BSD/NeXTStep core with the ease of use and comfort level we have all come to expect from the Macintosh and its operating system, then Apple will have a real success on its hands.


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