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Mac OS X.5 Leopard

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Like it or not, today many Mac users were keen to learn about or even use Mac OS X.5 which has finally become available. I will cover the areas I find particularly interesting in more detail in the future but to begin with, I’d like to give a general overview of what I find remarkable, promising or questionable.


My total impression about this update is that it is at the same time big and small. A lot seems to have changed behind the scenes, things seem to be more Unixy in some sense, but the update is somewhat lacking in big new features, features that might give normal and sane people to urge to buy it. My parents’ answer to most of them would be ‘Huh?’ – which isn’t exactly the best thing if you want to tease 130 to 200 Euros out of them.

Personally I am biased in favour of X.5 not only because of a few neat changes but mainly because frigging Spotlight stopped working for me in X.4 more than a year ago and the re-engineering in X.5 seems to resolve that as a side effect, so unless anything totally unexpected happens, I will upgrade sooner rather than later. (As Mail’s database is upgraded in a non-backward-compatible way, I really have to decide when to make the definite upgrade or things will be really messy.)

The Good

There’s plenty of good stuff in X.5. In the long run, the backup technology Time Machine may turn out to be the biggest advance. Not that I’ll claim that Apple has the track record to suggest that they’re the people who’ll deliver a fail-safe backup solution in a .0 release, but because this is a bold move which will make many people aware of the issue of backups and which – once you forked over the cash for that extra drive – will be so easy to operate that people will actually use it.

Another feature that could be big is Quick Look. Not because I think it’s all that essential to have a quasi-immediate preview of some files or because I need icons and slideshows all over. But rather because Apple seem to have implemented a simple and clean API here to provide previews for files. Developers can – easily even (send a message if you want a fun demo) – implement their own plugins which will be used. And thus, creating images for files on-the-fly and just at the right size will become a non issue. While I’m not a believer in Cover Flow, I hope that this will enable developers to come up with many cool new ideas.

Then there’s iChat. While its UI is as close to a mess as Apple will ship things, it got yet more features. Particularly screen sharing could turn out to be useful. Other nice things include the Dictionary with wikipedia support, the improvements to Quartz Composer which finally seem to give text rendering that isn’t blurry on Intel’s crappy graphics hardware along with a UI to the Quartz Composer application that has been greatly improved (Undo!) and numerous improvements to the system provided patches.

Of course Safari 3 will be great, if only because it has a decent Find feature and better PDF support now; iCal got a facelift which does away with the clumsy inspector windows (but almost compensates for that by new records in wasting space); and, it seems that OS X isn’t completely crap at handling unreliable network resources anymore. Most, if not all, of the situations where you get the spinning beachball of death in various applications, most likely the Finder, seem to be resolved now.

Goin on to the obscure: On the UI level one of the greatest improvements is the GUI for networking. While OS X’s old Network preference pane wasn’t bad, the new, completely reworked, version demonstrates the detail and attention which I’d like Apple to use on all their software. They started with something decent and then stripped it to the essentials, cleaned it and came up with something that’s even better and easier. And I really like the new Airport menu as well. Small details for sure, but those details are what puts a smile on my face. And the mysterious Internet Connect application seems to be gone as well. Likewise Printing can be almost completely managed from a cleaned up panel System Preferences now and there is no more need for the Print Center.

Spotlight has also been improved. Not only in that it actually works for me again, but also in the power it has to do searches and in the UI that you are offerend by defautl. It’s close to becoming usable as an application launcher, even. Party like it’s 2004! And likewise party like its 1992 or so! The Finder finally offers a simple checkbox to enable sharing of a folder again.

Finally, there are also the Developer Tools. They aren’t relevant to many people but XCode has been greatly improved in many places (IB seems heavily reworked but possibly worse, though). And that new Instruments (née Xray) application just looks tremendously tempting and powerful. Now I’d just need to know what I could use it for.

The Bad and the Ugly

The bad frequently is the ugly for Apple. Steve Jobs claimed long ago that the problem of Microsoft was their lack of taste. And congratulations, right away from their promotional materials with the geeky space theme Apple now proved that they caught up with their friends in Redmond. The system’s default background is just tacky and ugly and you’ll find numerous other instances of that same problem throughout the OS.

And, yup, pseudo-transparent menu bar: crappy, wannabe 3-D Dock: crappy, Time Machine browse and restore UI: tacky, Time Machine setup UI: Leaving out essential setup for a huge icon and an ugly button. WTF?!

And of course the new sidebar concept that Apple implemented throughout the OS is horrible. While all sidebars get a new look, there still don’t seem to be two sidebars which work in the same way. And while I didn’t check religiously (yet), it might be a safe be to say that there is not a single sidebar which is an improvement on the one it replaces. They all seem to be larger without containing more information. They all seem to be harder to read. They all seem to have pointless headings – sorry: HEADINGS – which never seem to be entirely correct. So things just look and work worse IMO. And that’s the politest way I can put it.

Fake politeness is also needed when talking about the Finder. While, once again, quite a few defects of the Finder have been fixed, using it pretty quickly shows you that it remains a hopeless piece of software. Many things aren’t just right. And in many places you can literally feel how things are not working well because of the application’s design problems which just cannot be solved by simply fixing bugs. I have given up on this application. And while I was never one of the people crying for an all-new Cocoa Finder, perhaps those people were right. Not because of Cocoa but because some clean new thinking might have automatically resolved many of the problems that the Finder still has.

Localisation remains a painful point as well. Sure, OS X comes with many localisations, even some new eastern and western European ones now, and it probably makes localising easier for developers than most, if not all, other operating systems. But still Apple are solidly an American English company. The dictionary gained a Japanese section. Which is cool. But doesn’t help me for most European languages, say, which OS X is presumably localised for. And, just as ever, the same holds true for Dashboard widgets. Apple got a good start on localisation but they really need to work harder on this. They sell their product as a localised one and even charge a premium if you buy it outside the US, so they should make their OS fully localised and not just in the places that were convenient.

As you can see my impressions are mixed. There is interesting new stuff. But Apple also leaves the impression that they are not totally devoted to creating a great OS. Instead it looks like they are following some strange art and UI ‘direction’ in various places. Stuff which I don’t understand. And stuff which I consider to be detrimental to the experience.

October 27, 2007, 0:43

Tagged as X.5.


Comment by Dave2: User icon

Yeah… try working with the tragedy that is Windows Vista for more than an hour and see how your attitude about Mac OS X changes! It may not be perfect, but things could be worse. Things could be a LOT worse.

There are parts of the Mac OS that I dislike, but overall I am thrilled that there is a viable alternative to being stuck with a Windows POS all day. Oddly enough, some of your opinions as to what is bad are things I like, so it’s all subjective anyway. :-)

October 27, 2007, 6:28

Comment by Carl: User icon

I always find it odd when you bash Apple’s UIs. Not that those criticisms aren’t true, but are you ever going to fix the UI for UnicodeChecker? I mean, it’s an incredibly useful app with a basically terrible interface. Seriously, a “utilities window”? Why not be honest and call it the “let’s-jam-everything-besides-character-lookup-in-one-spot” window. And exactly how many localizations do you have? These days, open source apps like Adium and Smultron have localizations for a dozen languages. AFAIK UnicodeChecker doesn’t even have a German localization! And you know native German speakers. For example, you!

Which isn’t to say that you’re not allowed to criticize Apple before you fix your own app, just that you really ought to include more disclaimers along the lines of, “Of course, I myself know how hard it can be to find the resources to do X, Y, and Z…”

October 28, 2007, 1:59

Comment by ssp: User icon

Carl, including such disclaimers all over would make me even more verbose. Of course writing operating systems or building computers isn’t trivial. But that doesn’t make things better.

On Apple’s level, there seem to be two problems. One of them, like the background pictures or the new folder icons would be labelled bad taste (although I think the latter are also a usability problem in an obvious way). So there’s a huge company which has shown that they in principle have people employed who are very skilled at graphics and UI work. But you get a results which show none of that.

While it’s charming that you compare earthlingsoft to Apple, please let me point out a few small differences: earthlingsoft consists of two enthusiasts working on software in their free time for what essentially is nothing. Apple, however are a huge corporation of thousands. They also seem to be quite profitable. There are orders of magnitude between the numbers of users earthlingsoft have and those Apple has.

Another big difference is that we don’t claim that UnicodeChecker is fully localised to German when it isn’t. And usually we also try to be truthful with our other claims. Apple, however, don’t list notes of incomplete localisation in their ‘new features’, just as they don’t list other shortcomings of updates.

So, if you studied the feature list of OS X.4, you wouldn’t have known that it stopped supporting file sharing over AppleTalk. You would have forked over the cash and that joke would have been at your cost. Compare that to UnicodeChecker. If you downloaded it in the impression that is was localised, you could just curse earthlingsoft and delete your download.

There are of course reasons for UnicodeChecker not being localised. They mostly boil down to it being a lot of work, particularly to get the Help in a readable shape. All that while it seems safe to assume that UnicodeChecker’s users whose mother tongue is German are capable of understanding English as well. Particularly as I doubt that you could belong to UnicodeChecker’s target audience (Unicode, web design, programming) without understanding English.

As far as localisations of applications are concerned, I’m split. Many open source applications are localised but quite a few of them quite badly so. The open source thing means that people feel compelled to throw in their own localisation. And the people responsible for the release may not be able to judge the localisation’s quality, so this is very tricky.

Finally I think that you underestimate UnicodeChecker’s ‘Utilities’ window. These are all tools which process a string by converting or analysing it. They are even implemented as a plugin architecture to which you can add your own plugins. If you have a better idea, please let me know.

October 28, 2007, 10:24

Comment by Carl: User icon

I’m not underestimating the utility window. It’s very powerful. That’s the problem. It’s become more powerful than the main window, but the UI doesn’t reflect this. On top of that, (on my system at least) it opens up with the window too narrow to show all the icons in the toolbar, so it has a chevron instead with the last two icons hidden behind it.

How I would redo the UI would be to re-prioritize its functions by disassembling things. Right now, the main windows does three things: it lets you pick out characters, it shows you what text you’ve entered, and it shows you the properties and fonts of whatever the last characters in the box are. These things should be split up.

On the character selection side of things, the long scrolling window on the side of the main window is basically useless except as a way to waste time looking at what other characters just so happen to be near the character you’re actually interested in, so it should be broken out into its own floating inspector instead with a Cmd-# toggle. The search function in the main window is too useful to be buried under a magnifying glass, so it should also be broken out, but while you’re doing that, you may as well combine it with the long character list. The number input box is actually useful, but it’s also basically a variation on searching for a character to insert into the main window. So, those three things should go together. The character list window should do live searching and be resizable, so that if you want to see the names of the characters in the list, you can (as is done with the find box today). If you want to get really fancy, you could have sortable column headers at the top, so people could look at thing ordered by name instead of by code point.

Similarly, on the properties side, the random bits of info character underneath the main window can be put in a floating inspector, just as is done every other application. One other thing you can do is have the properties floater reflect whatever character the cursor is next to, instead of whatever character is last in the list. Maybe trigger it with Cmd-I instead of a number. You could do Cmd-T for a font box, or you could put the font info as a list in one tab of the properties inspector. That would be a bit more convenient, since you wouldn’t have to click to pop up a list of the useable fonts each time you inspect a new character.

All of the utility window functions have a box labelled input. That should be dropped, and they should all just reflect what’s in the main window, which we may as well rename the “input window”. While this is done, you might want to also move the icons for the different kinds of text transformations from the top of the window to a source list on the side, since there’s already more than be easily fit onto the top of the window. Doing that would let you break out the various sub-functions that are now hidden in there, by giving eg. “HTML → Unicode” and Unicode → HTML” their own source list entries, as well as the sub-parts of IDNA and the various Normalization modes.

Of course, I only want these radical changes to the UnicodeChecker, because it’s such an awesome, useful app. I’m just not convinced that its UI lives up to the expectations you put on others.

November 4, 2007, 0:53

Comment by ssp: User icon

Thanks for the feedback Carl.

I think I disagree on many of your points, particularly the use of floating windows which I just consider to be messy and of which I wouldn’t want more than one if they cannot be avoided at all.

Obviously everyone’s use of the application differs and personally I find the main window still the most important one. Browsing and exploring Unicode is our main idea for UnicodeChecker. And the main window offers exactly that.

Most of the Utility window’s conversion features are also provided as Services and to AppleScript (as well as in our Framework which could be used from your own application). So if you need some of them repeatedly, you’d probably be better off not dealing with UnicodeChecker’s UI at all. At least that’s our idea of the application: you can explore and look things up and you have a number of tools up your sleeve which you can invoke from outside UnicodeChecker, i.e. right where you need them. That’s our idea of not getting in the way.

As for the Utility window’s toolbar, just turn it off. It shouldn’t be there. In my opinion, anyway.

We discussed a more prominent Find feature, but issues there remained both with the UI (having another text field around would be more confusing plus the difficulty of implementing a graceful inline display of and the underlying software (with the Unihan file installed, activating search can take a moment and consume quite a bit of RAM, so you don’t want to accidentally do that). We currently don’t have improving this as a high priority.

Particularly as UnicodeChecker offers support for Spotlight which lets you query things from anywhere in the system, thus necessitating even less interaction with UnicodeChecker itself. With the improved speed of Spotlight and the (upcoming) Quick Look support in X.5, this method should become a viable alternative to in-UnicodeChecker finding.

November 4, 2007, 1:32

Comment by Mike: User icon

Finally someone talking about Mac OS X localization. We here in europe pay 50% more, at least, than americans, for any Apple product and what we have? a “fully localized” OS in english. What about Mac ability to speak in other languages? what about voice recognition? dictionaries in Portuguese, spanish, german, etc.? American companies generally do not care with other languages but english, most american companies not even realize that there are other countries outside the USA. I love Apple, but they produce american products for american people even after Steve Jobs saying that 40% of Apple’s revenue come from outside the USA…

November 8, 2007, 7:18

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