Quarter Life Crisis

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Lamenting about bugs and design flaws in the Mac OS X Finder are as old as Mac OS X itself. And people who actually liked the Finder have been constantly disappointed because of the Finder’s failure to meet their expectations in each version of Mac OS X that has been released so far.

From time to time discussions come up where people suggest that we, who are not happy with the Finder’s behaviour, should try and point out the problems to Apple in bug reports. And I am sure that many of us have done exactly that for the most blatant shortcomings – despite the frustrating feeling that Apple’s bug reporter leaves with people and Apple ignoring the main issues year after year.

When being in such a discussion recently, I had the feeling that it was essentially hopeless to try and solve the Finder problems we have by specifying a few ‘issues’. The impression you get is that whoever is in charge of the Finder at Apple just doesn’t get the point. The Finder feels like its behaviour is designed by and for Unix geeks. The key word here is ‘browsing’.

The browser is the new feature the Finder gained in OS X . And in some situations it is a great tool to – erm – browse things. Need to dig through the depths of your System folder? Or some programming resources? I.e. places where gazillions of files are distributed across loads of folders. A browser is what you want in that situation.

But what about normal people? People who work on relatively well-defined sets of their own files? People who know where they placed those files and repeatedly access them? People who want to be able to access their favourite folders and files quickly and conveniently? For them the whole ‘spatial’ interface was great. It’s a bit like when you are cooking. When doing that you want to be able to just grab the pepper when you need it from the place it always stands at. Imagine you’d have to go to a special corner in your kitchen in which there is a nice hierarchical and alphabetical list of everything you have and navigate to ‘spices/pepper’ to get what you want. You don’t want to browse things. You want to use them.

As long as this browsing mindframe dominates at Apple, I doubt they are even able to understand why using the OS X Finder is an experience of pain and suffering to others.

And sometimes I have the impression that even assuming this pro-browsing bias at Apple is an optimistic approach. As even the browser suffers from the same amnesia that affects all the other Finder windows suffer from. You can adjust the column widths in the browser, for example, but it doesn’t remember them on a per folder basis. E.g. when browsing folders containing files using somewhat backwards naming conventions – like a Preferences folder, say – which require you to have a really wide column just so you can read the relevant part of their names, the Finder will (a) keep the column you made wider at that width for other folders you might browse to afterwards and (b) not remember the width for the Preferences folder the next time you browse to it.

Screenshot of a narrow column browser in a Preferences folder with mainly 'com.apple....plist' being visible of the file names

March 20, 2007, 0:57

Tagged as Mac OS X.

Comments

Comment by Fred Blasdel: User icon

I actually despise spatial file browsing. It’s especially bad on larger screens and in poor implementations (namely Nautilus). Just because I put that window in a certain mode in one place doesn’t mean I want it that way again. I generally don’t. Just the view options in list mode, and which mode I had it in if I have write access.

I used to hate .DSStore shitting, but now as an administrator enjoy being able to tweak permissions so that random users can’t force their weird preferences on everybody else using the “scratch” network shares. When they can, it gets really _really annoying. Saving the window size and position means that going from a large widescreen LCD to a CRT means that the window is now mostly off the right side of the screen, in list mode, with some random person’s folder tree expanded.

The one-folder-one-window mantra breaks down completely when browsing is made possible by having something as daringly modern as column browsing — how do you handle the metaphor maintenance?

As for column width, try double-clicking the grabber. It expands the column to be as wide as the widest name, and then you can crank it back down again if one of the names is ridiculously long. I find that the green ‘expand’ button works best in column mode.

I find that the ‘spatialists’ just end up keeping most things on their desktop (with auto-arrange turned off) in little piles. These people also tend to be the only ones who use color labels.

March 20, 2007, 7:43

Comment by ssp: User icon

I don’t see how double clicking the column width ‘grabber’ solves the problem of the Finder not remembering my preferred column width for that folder the next time I go there.

March 20, 2007, 14:00

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