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Marc Wandschneider is a professional software developer with well over fifteen years of industry experience (yes, he really is that old). He travels the globe working on interesting projects and gives talks at conferences and trade shows whenever possible.

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Jun 16, 2006 | 06:51:45
The End of Mac OS X
By marcwan

Today I had a glimpse into the future of Apple’s Mac OS X, and I was more than a little frightened.

When I think about why I use my Powerbook so much and shun Windows whenever possible, the reasons are not what most people might think. I don’t care about the cost (okay, 200$ USD for Windows is a bit much, but I happily paid 130$ USD for the 10.4 “Tiger” Upgrade to OS X on our 12” Powerbook), and while I’m more than a little alarmed by the security problems endemic in Windows, I can avoid many of them by using Firefox, and Microsoft is slowly learning how to do the automated patching game.

No, the things that annoy me the most are those that you encounter when buying a new PC running Windows these days, turn it on, and …. you have at least ten things on your Windows TaskBar at the bottom of the screen. You have dozens and dozens of programs in your Start Menu, each of which has paid the hardware vendor money to be included on your PC, and does additional work to get your attention, such as popping up windows and more. The shiny new zillion mega-giga-hertz computer (usually with not nearly enough memory, of course) that comes out of the box has so much crap running on it that the machine grinds to a halt the first time you turn it on.

Instead of a nice clean computer with an operating system to which I can add the programs I want to use, I have:

  • Far too many icons on my desktop, most of which I will never use, or that control programs in a manner just different enough from all the others in the system to alarm the average new user.
  • Tonnes of programs running in my tray, including customisation and configuration utilities for every single third-party driver in the system.
  • A Start Menu/Programs folder so full of junk that I just want to ignore it.
  • Many new items in my Control Panel that don’t actually seem to have anything to do with really running my computer.
  • Little windows that pop up in the lower right corner of the screen (often called “Toast Windows” on account of the way they pop up) every 10 seconds telling me something I don’t want to know or really don’t care about.

So, only through completely erasing the hard disk and reinstalling the operating system myself (which assumes that your hardware vendor trusts you enough to actually give you the media to do so) and then re-installing all the drivers myself and adding back only those programs I truly want, can I get a usable computer. For users such as your average parent or other non-power users, they are largely stuck with a very, very annoying system.

Thus, as both Samantha and I moved to Powerbooks as our primary computers, we’ve been more than a little relieved at how consistent things are, and how simple the Applications folder/menus typically are. System Preferences is nice and simple, with only QuickTime seeming out of place and something that should really be in a Preferences Dialog instead. Instead of the disastrous mess of C:\Windows\System32, applications are largely self-contained in their Application folder, and only sometimes add some goonk to the /Library folder, which largely seems to be manageable. Many of our friends, also moving to various iBooks and PowerBooks are finding the same—things are just easy to find.

Today, however, I installed the latest DivX codec for OS X, listed as version 6.5 It installed, in addition to the DivX codec (the only thing I really wanted):

  • An updater application that phones home regularly to check for updates (and who knows what else).
  • A Player Application
  • A 15 Day FREE TRIAL of some converter application
  • A System Preferences Panel for two little integer values that 90% of users aren’t going to understand or ever look at.

Fortunately, they couldn’t come up with a reason to add an icon in the menu bar. Note to application authors and vendors: Just because a software feature is available does not mean you should actually use it. After a few minutes of scrounging around the hard disk in sudo’d shell, I found I was able to just delete the Updater and the other two Applications that were installed. You can also remove the System Preferences Panel without much hassle.

With Apple clearly on the upswing, and others clamouring to get their hands on the operating system and include it on their hardware, the pressure to add more software and make additional money will be immense. The only way to avoid having the OS X experience become every bit as annoying and aggravating as the Windows one will be to either force the vendors to agree to terms preventing them from doing this or to change the way in which OS X applications are written and certified by Apple.

In the latter case, for an application to be “approved” by Apple, the following rules might be enforced:

  • Icons in the menu bar should be 100% optional and configurable by the user, with the application asking users before displaying it for the first time.
  • Applications should be entirely contained in their .app folder or in /Library for those applications which share. Application suites should have one .app folder for the applications and then maybe one additional folder for suite level stuff (read: Adobe, please don’t create SIX folders, each with sub-folders and their own crap, in addition to all the .app directories in my /Application folder).
  • This is bound to be a bit controversial, but System Preferences Panels should only be approved for true system wide functionality. Hardware drivers should use the regular configuration panels. If a piece of hardware supports something truly different, such as a video card with some features configurable for games and rendering, they should have separate configuration applications or a separate “Extra Options” area in the System Preferences. Things such as QuickTime or DivX should be moved to a “Codec” panel.

The last suggestion comes directly from my having spent nearly an hour on a friend’s laptop, trying to figure out why the network was not working. It turns out that the network hardware vendor had included a driver that replaced all Windows configuration for the network with a simple hardware configuration screen, and then created a new network device through which all traffic was routed. While I’m sure there is some situation where this would be extremely cool, in the 99,9% scenario, it’s gratuitously different and annoying.

Up until now, the best part of using OS X was that it was never that popular, and if a company did bother to release a piece of software for it, it was minimal and merely functionally adequate. Otherwise, there was probably great open source software to do what you wanted (i.e. Adium and VLC) Ironically, this basic functionality is pretty much all you really wanted. Now that the operating system is becoming more popular, people are starting to try and figure out how to make more money with it. Let the annoying begin.

Comments (3) Add Comment | Tags: osx mac apple operating system annoying windows
Where this road ultimately leads...
Posted By: Jerry Kuch Jun 18, 2006 16:17:54
Here's a link to an interesting article on the sort of place that such market dynamics ultimately lead:

http://davidbau.com/archives/2006/05/24/owning_the_experience.html

The punchline of this story is so appalling that it's hard to believe at first that it could be true, but the existence of the forces that pull relentlessly in that direction is undeniable.
This has always been true
Posted By: Andrew Carter Jun 18, 2006 23:12:20
I'd argue that this has always been true. There are plenty of examples of apps that aren't "mac-like". Take anything Microsoft has released in the past 5 years on the platform as an example. But the good thing is that the core Mac user base has a strong sense of what "mac-like" means and responds when it doesn't fit. I think that the strong independent developer community will keep this from spinning out of control like you describe. If Apple were doing it, I'd agree. But realistically, many mac users use 75% or more Apple software. They will still have the true mac experience.
The times they are-a changin'.
Posted By: marcwan Jun 20, 2006 19:49:43
I've read the David Bau article in the past, and agreed with it wholeheartedly. Windows has only ever been usable for me via the ability to completely control how the machine is set up. I've never really needed to worry about that level of control on OS X.

As for Andrew's suggestion that the OS X community has a strong sense mac-ness, I agree with that also -- but only for NOW.

My concern is that as Apple looks to expand and grow its user base, more and more people without that strong mac-sense (is that like Spidey-sense?) will slowly overwhelm the alert users, and the operating system begins the long slow decline that windows has.

Unless somebody steps up and to prevent it. Which would be conflict directly with making more money.
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