Articles In Category Mac OS X
Remember my angst about whether I should migrate my computing life to Mountain Lion? Well, that story's now over, and Mountain Lion has won.
One of the main reasons to upgrade is to take advantage of iCloud, which has become a more serious need now that Apple took MobileMe away from us. I can no longer sync my Safari bookmarks automagically, for example. However, I'm still pissed that Apple hasn't made a version of iCloud available for the many folks still on Snow Leopard.
Speaking of which, what exactly is the breakdown of Mac users in August 2012? It's only been a month since Mountain Lion was released, but clearly upgrading is happening pretty quickly. According to the stats from NetApplications.com, Lion users account for about 35% of the market, Snow Leopard users about 34%, and Mountain Lion users about 20%. There are still about 10% of users hanging on to Leopard. That Snow Leopard figure is pretty damn high considering how long Lion has been out, and is one that Apple should be paying more attention to.
CrystalClear Interface and Crystal Black are marvelous, foolhardy, and frivolous experiments in theming the Mac OS X user interface. As they were in the beginning, so they remain today: Elegantly imperfect software products, which will always be buggy. It's just the nature of the experiment. Why? Because they try to do something Apple works hard to prevent, and therefore are outlaw apps: Only able to pop up here and there with a sparkling, think-different approach that just isn't meant to be.
I am the foremost user of these two themes, and I continue to develop them because (1) it's still possible and (2) I really like them. As the author, I'm tolerant of their occasional misbehavior, but I understand that not all observers are so patient. Nobody likes a screaming 3-year-old while enjoying a quiet evening at one's favorite restaurant. I'm no different in that, but I do try to make sure my children learn how to behave as new situations arise that cause them to flare up.
Still, there are always new situations, and, well, children will be children. My children are still quite young, but the day may come when either they are banned from new restaurants for their behavior, or I become too exhausted from apologizing for them to take them out in public any more.
With each release of its operating system, Apple drives me one step closer to that edge. It's not intentional, I'm sure... In the interest of providing a safe OS environment, Apple continues to tighten the knot around inter-application interactions — especially those that allow third-party software, like CrystalClear Interface (CCI), to load itself into other applications, such as the Finder or TextEdit. And yet, without that kind of interaction, CCI and Crystal Black (CB) could not function.
For now, it appears that CCI will survive the transition to Mountain Lion (Mac OS X 10.8), but as with every release of Mac OS X since Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4), the amount of effort to do so is greater. And I fear that as the technologies introduced by Apple for increased security in Lion and Mountain Lion are more widely adopted by software developers, the number of applications that won't run CCI properly will increase.
In some future update, Apple could introduce a change that will turn off the lights for CCI and CB for good, as well as those for AppMenu Magic and my freeware Text Tools. Such a change would mean I could no longer develop the software, let alone support it.
As anyone who reads any of my voluminous writing on the subject over the years can attest, I am a big admirer of Apple, Steve Jobs, and Mac OS X. This is one of the only negative articles about Mac OS X I've ever felt need to publish. (The only previous one I can think of was about Spaces, which is still a flawed implementation of virtual desktops.)
However, as much as I've tried to, I just don't like Mac OS X 10.7 ("Lion") — certainly not enough to upgrade to it from Snow Leopard. Unlike every previous update to Apple's Unix-based operating system, there's really nothing in Lion that's truly compelling or will make me more productive on my Mac, and lot that isn't and won't.
Some variation of these text tools have been included in CrystalClear Interface, as well as Crystal Black, since those applications were first released. However, the tools have nothing to do with the theming of buttons and windows, or with the general appearance of Mac OS X. I added them because they address a real need of mine, which no other software could do.
As a writer, I need ready access to a range of text functions, and I need them in whatever application in which I happen to be writing. In most of the rich text editors I use, those functions are available somewhere in the app’s menus, but typically they're in different places within each app. Some apps don’t include one or two key functions at all.
Mac OS X has a rich text framework that provides just the set of editing tools I require, and it would be extremely handy to be able to access those tools consistently across apps. This is precisely what the MarsThemes Text Tools do: Grant easy access to the key Cocoa text tools that writers and editors need but can’t find.
I've observed that one of the most intractable problems bedeviling computer users, which makers of operating system software never seem to solve, is that of "Window Clutter." The inability to …
- Stay focused on the window you're working in, while
- Keep auxiliary windows handy and visible when needed,
- Avoid confusing any of these windows with those of other running applications, and
- Maintain some reasonable level of aesthetic quality to your computer desktop.
… is a nettle that keeps on pricking. At least, judging from continued user grumbling about it and the continued, less-than-satisfactory, though often valiant, solutions that user-interface experts keep offering users as the final salvation from this longstanding hindrance to productivity, I conclude that the nettle is alive and well.
That Window Clutter should still be a topic of conversation among engineers at Apple (I don't think Microsoft has any high-level staff who really care about or understand the issues surrounding interface usability, and Linux developers don't have the time to do so) is testament to their failure to stamp out a problem that appears from Mars to have a fairly simple solution, namely:
- Make it so that only one application's windows are visible at any one time.
Affectionately referred to as Single Application Mode, or SAM, this is the default desktop environment on Mars. It's also widespread on Earth, though its human adherents often practice SAM quietly or even in secret because it's not an official, supported Mac OS X desktop environment.
Still, we find SAM the best way of dealing with today's large monitors, huge RAM capacity, and equally huge software options—all of which spell Window Clutter at a scale never before experienced.
In Praise of Third-Party Mac OS X System Enhancements: Hats Off to Mighty APEs, Incredible InputManagers, and Satisfying SIMBLs!
I’ve been intrigued by the concept of virtual desktops since encountering them in a Unix system many years ago (I think it was an SGI Irix system), and then later when I set up Linux about 5 years ago to play around with that OS firsthand. Then, a couple of years ago I saw an early build of Virtue Desktops and thought it was pretty cool. I really loved the nifty transition effects and all the desktop customization you can do with Virtue.
However, Virtue seemed pretty flaky at the time, so I looked around to see what other virtual desktop environments there were for Mac OS X. To my surprise, there were several in addition to Virtue… including some commercial implementations. After trying all the free ones (I wasn’t interested in paying for this feature, since I didn’t even know if I’d like it), I decided Virtue was the best of the bunch.
But I also decided that Virtue’s flakiness was simply adding more time to my routine rather than helping me organize my work, and I finally broke down and decided to try You Control Desktops. Now, it may be a total coincidence, but just after I installed Desktops and restarted my system, the whole OS began to flake out, and I ended up having to trash my hard drive.
Needless to say, whether that was You Desktops’ fault or just a bad hard drive kicking in, it soured me on the whole idea of virtual desktops for awhile.
Then, when Apple announced in August that one of the premier features of its forthcoming Leopard OS would be a virtual desktop system called Spaces, I thought that maybe someone would finally get this thing done right on Mac OS X. Maybe the problem has been that the implementations I’d tried just weren’t intuitive enough, or right-featured enough, to be useful to me. I even said this out loud in an article of video snippets from the WWDC keynote that I published in mid-August.
Apple’s initiative with Spaces also made me question my previous conclusion that virtual desktops were not worth the effort. If Apple is investing the energy to bring virtual desktops to “the rest of us” someone at Apple must believe that they are a user interface enhancement that will really benefit “us.”
So, I opened my mind once again to the idea of virtual desktops. As a member of the select Apple developer group, I’ve been getting the Leopard “seeds” as they’re released, and I’ve taken the opportunity to try out Spaces along with other new features of Leopard. Given my nondisclosure agreement with Apple, I’m not going to say anything about Spaces that isn’t revealed in Apple’s own presentation of it on the Leopard website. Instead, I’m going to spend a few minutes sharing my impressions of virtual desktops in general and of four other specific VD applications that are already available for Mac OS X:
At the outset, I’ll confess that my note-taking for this exercise wasn’t as rigorous as usual… I didn’t test for the same set of features in each application. Unfortunately, I can’t go back now and refresh my memory for the commercial products, because their demo licenses have expired. The reason for my relatively sloppy approach probably reflects my renewed conviction, after thoroughly testing Spaces, that for most computer users, virtual desktops are a waste of time and effort. Simply put, they’re an idea whose time has passed.
That’s a pretty harsh judgment, I realize, and one likely to make a good number of fellow geeks stop reading right here. After all, some users of virtual desktops feel strongly that they are highly valuable and necessary—for them. And I suspect that’s true. Given the probability for misunderstanding when expressing an opinion on a topic like this, I want to begin by exploring why virtual desktops arose in the first place and what benefits users get (or believe they get) from them. I also want to explore the expectations users have of virtual desktops like Spaces, in the very likely event that they’ve never actually used such a system themselves.
If you’re a Mac user who’s wandered in to this article and don’t know what Growl is yet, you might want to stop by that essential open-source project’s home page to get acquainted. Once your Mac starts Growling, you’ll understand how fitting it is that Apple’s naming all their OS X releases after large cats.
If you’re a Windows user, you’re still welcome to read up on Growl and why it’s become a standard component of so many Mac users’ desktops even though it’s still only at version 0.7.4. If you find Growl cool, too, you know what to do.
This article isn’t about Growl, though. It’s about Growl displays—the part of Growl you actually see when an event occurs you’ve asked to be notified about. You see, like many other cool apps nowadays (Adium, Synergy, Menuet, etc.), Growl is “skinnable.” Part of the fun—and the utility—of Growl is that users can customize the appearance of different kinds of alerts. In fact, Growl provides you with an astonishing degree of control over your customizing, and this flexibility is one of Growl’s coolest aspects. Using the Growl Preference Pane, you can:
- Set a default Growl style as your starting point.
- Customize certain aspects of each Growl style. Some styles let you set different attributes for up to 5 different priority levels.
- Assign a default style to each different application that’s registered with Growl. (Here’s a growing list of Mac OS X applications that now include support for Growl event notifications.)
- Override the default for any specific notification event, or for a given event priority.
With so many options, it’s no wonder that Growl users collect Growl styles like some Mac users collect system icons or desktop pictures!
Growl notifications can take several forms: Email, speech (using the Mac’s built-in vocal chords), or visual displays. The visual display types are roughly broken down into two kinds:
- Displays you build with AppleScript or xCode (those with the extension .growlView), and
- Displays that are basically just little web pages (those with the extension .growlStyle).
It’s the latter type I want to briefly shout about today.
You’ve heard about one or two of them, and you may even have seen a YouTube video of Safari 3.0’s tab tricks. But let me tell you, as part of my Building Leopard project, discovering Safari 3.0 has left me with an insatiable desire to work in Leopard full-time. There are three standout features that I really miss when I “degrade gracefully” to other modern web browsers on my Mac—and that includes Firefox 2.0x, Opera 9.x, and Safari 2.x as my regular web companions.
Even though Firefox has enough cool extensions to keep a software addict fed from now until next year, none of them match the upcoming features Apple has cooked up for Safari 3.0 in Mac OS X 10.5 (”Leopard”). Likewise, Opera and its talented development team is going to be left behind the curve for awhile, as are better-than-Safari wannabes like Shiira and OmniWeb on the Mac. (It took Microsoft 5 years to add tabs to its browser, and from the way they’ve implemented them, I still don’t think they quite get it. So, no, I’m not expecting any innovative new ideas in web browsing from Redmond any time soon.)
Ok, with a buildup like that, I can hear you Safari naysayers out there beginning to clear your throats in preparation for throwing out some canned dissults about Safari. Save ‘em.
I’m not sharing these in order to put down anybody else’s browser of choice (well, IE is so far down it’s hard to do anything else!), and I’m not suggesting they are going to revolutionize web browsing, even remotely. The ideas Apple has implemented are not so unique that the company should have taken out patents or anything. Rather, these are incremental innovations of the sort that keep the art of web browsing moving forward. It’s ideas like these that could potentially jog the minds of other creative programmers, who will then go off and imagine some other cool new enhancements for Firefox or Opera or Shiira or OmniWeb.
In the end, it’s all good for web surfers like you and me. (Hey! Are humans and martians who browse the web “web browsers”? If so, when do we get new features?)
I didn’t intend to write this article today… In fact, I’m right in the middle of three others that I want to finish. However, it just leaped at me from the front page of today’s Washington Post Business page, and I couldn’t resist. In an article called Access Denied, the writer bemoans the many passwords and PINs and such that the modern, web-connected human must juggle in daily life. People today have so many passwords to remember, they simply can’t, and this undermines the very security the passwords are set up to ensure, since companies will typically allow a shortcut to someone who claims to have forgotten a password—for a bank account, for example.
When I forget a password, I launch Keychain Access, which is a surprisingly sophisticated application that I use in a very simple way. Namely, I enter a search term in the search field, which invokes a live search on the Keychain database and displays matching results below. Each result shows the username associated with the website or application, so it’s easy to find which Key I’m looking for. Double-clicking on the Key brings up a dialog panel that gives me some management capability on the particular key. I’m sure this is cool and significant, but I go straight for the “Show password” checkbox.
The worst problem, of course, is the amount of time my addiction consumes… But I don’t want to talk about that, thanks.
When my addiction was just beginning, I forgot that if I told an installer I wanted the software available “for all users” on my Mac, it would put the pieces in the top-level Library, rather than in my home Library. So, as my Mac has aged and gone through, now, four different versions of Mac OS X, I’ve felt a great need for doing spring cleaning to tidy up a bit. Earlier this year, I bought AppZapper, which I really like. It helped to clean out a ton of preferences, application support, and other files for software I had long ago decided I didn’t want. But that was, unfortunately, just scratching the surface of my depraved software addiction.
When the preview build of Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) came along recently, I decided to do a completely fresh installation and start over. At first, I assumed Leopard would be too unstable to form a base for this new start—after all, it’s still in an Alpha stage. However, so far I’ve been quite impressed with its degree of stability. With only a few exceptions—mostly in some of the newer functionality—Leopard has proven very reliable indeed. Some of the new features are so compelling for me—particularly the enhancements to Safari, Preview, Mail, and Automator, and the wonderful new DashCode tool—that I decided to try to move as much of my current production environment to the Leopard “fresh slate” as I could.
Having decided this, it seemed logical to turn my housecleaning project into a baseline configuration project. In other words, I would start with nothing but Mac OS X and the Apple apps, and I would move to Leopard all of the software I need for the various projects I’m engaged in, as the need arises. I would document each change to the baseline configuration and note what kind of software or configuration change I was making. This way, I’d end up with a complete software inventory, including all of the various bits that make up my rich Mac OS X environment. In the process, I’d clean out software I don’t really need, which can only be a good thing.
Thanks to an article on the Rixstep blog (”The Object Oriented Cake“), I took the time to listen to Steve Jobs introducing NeXTSTEP 3.0 back in 1992. As Rixstep points out, in 1992 Microsoft was just introducing Windows 3.1 and was still trying to build Windows NT. The hardware it ran on was unbelievably weak. As an example, consider that it wasn’t until early 1993 that Intel introduced the Pentium, which ran at an astonishing 66mHz!
Meanwhile, in 1992 Apple had just introduced System 7 the year before, which turned out to be the last truly significant upgrade the company was to make until OS X was released in 2001. Even so, among the “innovations” in System 7 was color computing. (Can you say, “take me for granted”?) Apple had also just introduced the first Macs powered by the new RISC-based PowerPC chip based on their collaboration with Motorola and IBM.
In the Unix world, Solaris 2.0 was just a baby that year, FreeBSD was gestating for a 1993 birth, and Linux was still reaching for a 1.0 release.
Ponder these few moments from computing history as you watch a very youthful Steve Jobs dazzle us with the remarkable achievements of his company’s operating system, NeXT, and its new application development tool, NeXTSTEP 3.0. Truth is, NeXT was so far out there in 1992, a lot of the folks in his audience probably couldn’t believe it was real. After all, these marvels were running on hardware that was only somewhat less puny than the day’s most powerful PC’s, and some of the features he demonstrates are ones we’re still waiting for today!
It should really make you wonder what went wrong after 1992. Why don’t we have PC’s, applications, and development platforms today that fully match the power of NeXT and NeXTSTEP? Mac OS X comes close, but it’s still hobbled with remnants of the Classic MacOS. Besides, the Mac hardly represents “mainstream computing” in 2006.
I know I’m gonna get it from the “never say die!” Microsoft fans out there, but it’s clear to me that the major villain in this story is none other than the company formerly led by Bill Gates. If you want an example of why monopolies are bad for the economy and bad for consumers, just watch this 14-year-old demo of an operating system that you can’t buy anymore. When brilliant technology like this can die stillborn–and no one notices–something is definitely wrong with the marketplace for new technology.
For my own convenience, and therefore yours, I’ve split the video (previously disseminated through YouTube and Google Video) into six parts, each corresponding to one of the major themes in Jobs’ talk.
I admit I was skeptical when Yahoo took over Konfabulator last year.Â Apple had released Dashboard for Mac OS X 10.4 (”Tiger”), which had some clear advantages over the old Konfabulator widget model.Â The first time or two I tried the Yahoo widgets, I was singularly unimpressed not only with the performance of the widgets but also with their quality. They reminded me of why I had never been impressed with Konfabulator, although I’m sure Konfabulator’s wanting money for their product had something to do with that, too.
Also there was Yahoo! itself… a company that until the last 12 months or so had been growing more conservative, more commercial, more corporate, and less fun than the Yahoo I started loving 10 years ago. Not only that, but Yahoo appeared to be less and less friendly toward the world’s Mac-minded minority. I had grown so disenchanted with Yahoo mail that I finally gave up last summer and packed my bags for the terrific IMAP mail service called Fastmail. So it was a bit of a surprise when Yahoo wandered into territory that originally had been 100% populated by Mac-type aliens. Clearly, the visionaries had regained some influence at the company, as other recent smart moves testify (see all the cutting edge Yahoo goodies at the Yahoo Developer Network).
So, when I downloaded the Yahoo Widget Engine (YWE) 3.0 in December, I was pleasantly surprised to notice that things had changed quite a bit.Â Setting it aside until last month, YWE 3.1, the latest release as of this writing, confirmed my first impressions. YWE widgets are now very well behaved, for the most part, and take no more system resources than Dashboard widgets do.Â Plus there are actually some widgets that don’t have good Dashboard counterparts.
But finding more great widgets isn’t the only thing that’s made YWE a standard part of my desktop.Â What I really admire is the YWE implementation of widgets, which has firmed up my longstanding view that Apple needs to modify the Dashboard concept to make it more flexible, if they want Mac users to truly embrace widget-dom.Â The particular traits I admire are nothing new… they were standard in Konfabulator, and there’s one application for Mac OS X called Amnesty that will emulate the concept. I have stubbornly refused to pay the $20 that Mesa Dynamics wants for Amnesty, especially now that I use YWE, which does most of Amnesty’s tricks for free.Â So what exactly are those tricks?
- Run widgets like normal applications outside of Dashboard
- Easily change a widget’s “window level”–meaning, where it resides starting from the desktop itself up to a window that floats persistently above all regular windows, with several layers in between.
- Ability to lock a widget in place
- Ability to set transparency for a widget.
- Ability to access widgets–and their preferences–from a handy menubar item.
- Ability to stop and start the widget layer as the need arises.
With growing interest and amazement, I read the back-and-forth argument between two long-time, highly respected Mac nerds yesterday on the subject of Mark Pilgrim’s decision to abandon Mac OS X for Ubuntu Linux. John Gruber is simply one of the best Mac writers there is, and regardless of what he has to say on a particular subject, you have to admire the elegance, precision, and logic of his writing. So when Gruber raised questions about the wisdom of Pilgrim’s move in a recent blog post, his large readership weighed in, and Pilgrim responded, you can be sure that a great many Mac users like me paid attention.
As usual, I agreed with nearly everything Gruber had to say, and the couple of niggles I have are not worth mentioning here since they would distract from the purpose of this article. And what is that purpose, you are wondering? Before I get to that, let me briefly summarize (if I dare) the exchange so far between Gruber and Pilgrim.
- Pilgrim has become fed up with Apple’s “closed”-edness. After 22 years as a sophisticated, high-end user, he’s decided Apple’s “closed” ecosystem of software and hardware is too closed for him. His primary concern is that the integrity of the data he stores in that ecosystem is at risk, because Apple doesn’t always document its data formats and doesn’t respect for long the proprietary formats it develops for storage. Pilgrim feels jerked around from one closed format to another and is tired of the data conversions and consequent data loss they inevitably entail.
- Gruber is surprised and a bit incredulous that Pilgrim would have suddenly been bitten by this bug. He agrees that closed formats aren’t good for long-term archival purposes, but questions whether losing his iTunes metadata and other format problems is worth chucking his expertise with the Mac operating system for something completely different. He points out that a good backup strategy is part of the solution to preserving precious content. He also devotes a large part of his response to criticizing the Mac blog writers who had knee-jerk reactions against Pilgrim’s decision, and who cited old “Mac is better than Windows because…” arguments without realizing the advances Windows has made since Windows XP (or 95, or whatever). Gruber argues against black-and-white thinking in general and for the very reasonable position of respecting other people’s choices even if you don’t agree with them.
- Pilgrim replies that Gruber missed his point and reemphasizes that his feeling “closed in” by proprietary formats has been coming on for a long time. Apple’s decision to abandon the widely used and understood mbox format for Mail was just the last straw. He feels betrayed that Apple switched formats in Tiger without informing its users, without providing them a way to back out, and without documenting the new format.
So why do I want to wander into this disagreement between two Macintosh heavyweights I don’t know, but greatly admire and respect? As I read their separate articles, I saw something with my Martian eyes that may not be clear to them. What I saw wasn’t an OS switch story, but rather a love story.
3. Use Real Productivity Applications To Get Work Done Faster, Easier
As inventors of new tools have done throughout human history, the visionaries who designed and built the first personal computers saw them as tools that would provide an immense boost to human productivity. And they weren’t just thinking about business productivity, folks. They were also thinking of personal productivity: Getting more things done faster so we’d have more leisure time.
Today, in our Microsoft-Windows dominated world, we use the term “productivity application” to refer to Microsoft Office, and we think of the personal computer as a business tool. (Quick: Do a Google search for that term–”productivity application”–and see what you get.) But has Microsoft Office provided us with more leisure time? Of course not. Microsoft Office is a business tool that replaced prior, non-electronic tools like the typewriter and pencil. If it has enhanced productivity at all (and that is arguable), the productivity gain has come in the form of more output per worker… not more leisure time for the individual. In any case, whatever productivity impact Microsoft Office and its ilk had on the business world was completed many years ago. Yet even for businesses, productivity didn’t stop with improving our ability to prepare reports and memos, or compile numbers in spreadsheets, or do overlays for a presentation in PowerPoint.
Productivity goes up whenever you can suddenly do a task in less time than before, either at home or at work. Since its beginnings with the original Apple computer, Apple has appeared to be pursuing a vision that steadily expands the personal computer’s potential to save you time… to do complicated things simpler. Apple’s operating system recognizes that this kind of productivity gain begins with the simplest interface to the computer: Finding things, opening applications, printing, opening documents, organizing information, and the like. As a result of this vision, Mac OS X has two built-in features that are simply lacking in Windows, and they enable “productivity” applications that are truly the envy of the Windows world:
PC Mag’s Michael Miller has written what I’m sure he believes is a reasonable comparison of the state of things with Mac OS X versus Windows. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s full of B***hit, ensnared in a system he thinks he understands but is really merely apologizing for. In doing so, he adheres to old Mac myths that he’ll probably believe till he steps over that final cliff.
Miller tries once again to make the case that Macs are more expensive than PC’s and that they don’t have enough software. If I weren’t so irritated by this, I’d simply yawn. In one case, he writes of visiting the Dell store and buying an E1505 notebook for only about $1,300, while the entry-level MacBook Pro with roughly the same specs is $1,999.
It’s interesting that 2 months after an Adaptive Path essay coined the term “Ajax,” Apple released Mac OS X 10.4 “Tiger”, with its amazing and powerful dashboard widgets system. Within a couple of months, there were over 1,000 widgets available on the web, and these little babies were capable of completely replacing (almost all for free!) a number of system utilities, menubar items, and whole applications on the Mac. I’m tempted to think that awareness of Apple’s widgets helped promote awareness of, and interest in, what could be accomplished with rich Ajax/DHTML toolkits. After all, widgets are simply little Ajax/DHTML programs running in a special layer of Mac OS X called the Dashboard… They use exactly the same technologies as all of the Ajax/DHTML libraries, and in fact you can run them inside of Safari outside of the Dashboard.*
And so, it was fitting that when I finally found time to work on a widget I’d been planning to build since last summer, I decided to use one of the leading Ajax/DHTML toolkits rather than Apple’s own, for most of the widget’s functionality. Having done most of my recent DHTML web work with Prototype and its light-hearted, freewheeling sidekick, Script.aculo.us, I naturally turned to those libraries to help me out.
2. A Freakin’ Awesome Dictionary
I’ll bet those of you who read my first article in this series last spring are either Windows fans who have been chuckling, “See, he could only think of one thing!” Or you’re Mac fans who are disappointed that I started in strong to give the other side “what for,” but then left the match just when it was getting interesting.
Although you’d both be wrong, you have to understand that here on Mars, time moves at a somewhat slower pace than it does on Earth. You see, here it’s only been a month since I wrote that first installment, and I thought I was doing pretty good to be getting a second one in already. Then I realized how it might look from down here, and, well… I’ll try to get the third article done in a time frame that will make more sense to you folks.
Now, you ask, “Exactly how could something as mundane as a dictionary possibly induce envy in a Windows user?” Ah, I see you’re one of those who still hasn’t fully appreciated the awesome Dictionary.app built into Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4). It’s already been highlighted in all the Mac news magazines, glorified in all the Mac blogs, and praised endlessly in the Mac discussion forums. Yet I still encounter good, hardworking Mac users who don’t know about it yet. How could that be?
Well, the Tiger Dictionary ain’t exactly a flashy product, for one thing. It doesn’t sit in your Dock, so it’s easy to not realize it’s there. I don’t think Steve included it in any of his Tiger demos. And, well, it’s just a Dictionary, after all.
The first instance I knew of this was the new Grants.gov website that OMB commissioned last year as one of the Federal Government’s well meaning e-Gov initiatives. A good idea in theory, the site would consolidate all grants throughout the Federal Government into a single portal, letting citizens do one-stop shopping and use one standard form whenever they wanted to apply for a Federal grant. In practice, though, the Feds were in a hurry to complete the work and were able to be convinced by the IT contractor in charge to make a system that could only be used with Windows systems….
OK, I thought… surely this will be an isolated incident…
In August came news that the U.S. Copyright Office of the Library of Congress was planning to change their system for online submissions to restrict use to Windows users only, and even worse, to only those using Internet Explorer…
Just today I learned that FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Agency)–in the midst of its greatest crisis ever with Hurricane Katrina–somehow built a public-facing web system that can only be used by citizens using Windows and IE.
Wow! This project really took me back a few years… and forward a few years as well.
The project took me forward a few years as well, since I got a clear glimpse of what life beyond browser-based HTML will be like a few years from now. I was skeptical at first, but because of both the explosion of Dashboard widgets since May 1 and the amazing usefulness of many of them, I’m now convinced that this new way of getting web information is the future. It’s really the next step beyond Sherlock, and in some ways is just an extension of RSS and an easy way of leveraging web services on your desktop. If I needed any confirmation for my gut feeling on this, Yahoo provided it this week by gobbling up Konfabulator (before Microsoft could get to them, I’m sure)! (More on that later…)
Every time I encounter this challenge in person, I’m so overwhelmed by the magnitude of my possible reply that I end up being totally inarticulate. I typically begin with Mac OS features whose benefits are pretty intangible, and which only become obvious after you have to live without them. As wonderful and essential as these are, they are things unlikely to resonate with a Windows user who’s just asked you to give him some practical benefit he or she would gain by using a Mac. Things like
- Clearer, crisper, resizable, 3-D icons
- 3-D window shading
- Superior navigation options, like the numerous ways you can customize the Finder and the Dock
- Much more readable text, due to the system’s advanced graphics engine
- The menubar, which is much more useful and customizable than the Windows taskbar
- Drag and drop, which is an integral Mac feature that too many Windows users just won’t get until they try it
- Colored folder labels, which again don’t become essential until you’ve grown to rely on them
- Spring-loaded folders
- Eye candy like the Dock poofs and genie animations
- The services menu, which for all its power is still a mystery to many Mac users, and whose benefits are not immediately obvious
Mind you, these are all near the top of my list of reasons why the Mac OS is superior to Windows, but they’ve never shown much power for persuasion in a discussion with a Windows user.
So, I’ve decided to start documenting specific, unambiguous, practical tasks that you can only do with a Mac. Perhaps one or two of these will impress that smug Windows user you know enough to take a Mac for a test drive…
I’m starting with one of my favorite features from Apple’s latest operating system–Mac OS X 10.4, “Tiger”: PDF print/workflow services. Now, for heaven’s sake, don’t call it that when you talk to your Windows friend, but that’s the technical name for it. These services were actually enabled in Panther, but you had to configure them manually. They were such a hidden feature that only the truly geeky would seek them out and make use of them.
Essentially, with PDF services, you can combine multiple steps of handling a PDF file into one quick action. By default, Tiger comes with several new, built-in PDF services, which you access from the print menu.
It’s hard for me to see choosing Apple over Microsoft as striking some great blow for populism just because Apple is a smaller company… In my mind, choosing Apple is substituting one greedy corporation for another.
It’s a sad commentary on my peers when I hear them voice opinions like this. What it means is that they think Microsoft’s behavior is the norm, and that all companies would behave like Microsoft if they could. This is the same cynical view that destroyed our faith in politicians after Richard Nixon’s crimes. For some reason, rather than understanding that Nixon was a political outlier, we adopted the view that all politicians would behave like Nixon if they could. And many people appear to be making the same mistake with Microsoft.
Good grief, to a man from Mars this looks like mass insanity. Microsoft is no more the norm than Richard Nixon was. But what they have in common is substantial:
- A total disregard for the truth
- A willingness to engage in dirty tricks against enemies
- Corrupt management from the top down
- A paranoia about–and intolerance of–deviations from any standards they have set for the world.
If you’re a Microsoft fan who’s just wandered into this article, you’ll no doubt think this is pure hyperbole. And though nothing I can say is likely to convince you otherwise, I do intend to try.
My third reason for sticking with Windows at home (and, for me, this has been the most significant consideration): It is in the job description of my organization’s 2 IT staff guys that they will do all desired maintenance/troubleshooting/upgrading of our home computers if we bring them into the office. They have installed memory for me, new drives and cards, a wireless network, and remote access software. … Our IT staff doesn’t maintain Macs.
I had to laugh when I read this one… It just goes to show you how absolutely brainwashed PC users are about their computers. Since most (if not all) PC users started interacting with a computer at work, where you come to rely on a Help Desk for support, they naturally assume that unless you’re a technical wizard you’ll need such support for your PC at home, too.
Now, my friend has it extra bad, since his Help Desk support guys come for free with his home PC–a situation that I don’t think is all that common. If those tech support guys come for free–I mean, if my company thinks it’s worth the trouble to pay for this service so I can be productive at home, why it must be because it’s necessary… right? And as long as he has a Windows PC, he’s probably right! I mean, in addition to Windows’ long-standing usability problems, there’s this whole world of hackers and viruses that have turned from a bad nightmare into an even nastier reality over the last 5 years. If I were in charge of IT for a company these days, I’d lock those Windows systems down so tight the user couldn’t install any of their own software or anything else. All it takes is one little virus getting loose, and you’ve lost another day of productivity in corporate America. But that, of course, will be the subject of another little essay. The point here is that a company can justify giving free tech support to its employees’ PC’s nowadays–and not because they’re being nice. This isn’t an employee benefit… it’s a PC desktop management necessity.
Of course, this is only true if we’re talking about Windows systems. My friend’s default assumption is that his experience with a Windows computer at home will be the same as with a Macintosh when it comes to technical support. And that’s the crux of the problem… It’s not the same. In the Mac world, things have always been a little different. (And that’s not just a marketing slogan… honestly!)
I don’t question that Apple is great for multimedia applications… However, I don’t do video or photo editing, compose music on my computer, make graphics, do desk-top publishing, or design web pages.
Yesterday I had a major epiphany* about what to get my Dad for his 86th birthday this weekend. Until yesterday, I had bought into his belief that he would never learn how to use a computer, because he found it too confusing. The implication of this, of course, is that he was never to experience the many positive enhancements to his life that email and the Web could bring. Yesterday I realized there was a great solution, thanks to Apple’s new Mac Mini.
Some background will help explain my thinking…. You see, for years after the Web and email became a standard part of the life of working folks in America, my Dad has poo-poo’d their value. Left out of this huge communications revolution, he had to be content ranting about the negative side of the Web… namely, increased access to pornography and other forms of “dangerous” information (some of legitimate concern, I might add, like how-to sites on building bombs). As far as email goes, he couldn’t see how email would improve on old-fashioned print communication or on the good old telephone. And what about all that spam he keeps reading about? Lucky for him he doesn’t have to deal with it!
So, a couple of years ago one of his wife’s children had the bright idea to buy him a computer and set him up with internet access. They did, and the computer has sat virtually unused on a small table in their bedroom ever since. My Dad says that whenever he tried to use it, he could never figure out what to do.
OK, so he’s had a computer for 2 years and hasn’t used it. What makes me think giving him a Mac Mini will help?
To answer that, let me get back to the title of this essay, which is also related to the quote that opens it, from a friend of mine who doesn’t understand how a Mac would be any better than a Windows system as a personal computer, unless you’re doing multimedia work.
You see, although IBM coined the term “personal computer” when it rolled out its DOS-based systems back in 1981, it has never been marketed at “people”, really. (For an excellent history of the IBM PC, check out this article at about.com.) Instead, the PC was aimed squarely at the business world, which is one of the main reasons for its success over Apple’s computers.