About 14 months ago, I purchased a MacBook Pro at the Apple store. I was travelling and needed to be able to do my work on the road, and had little to no experience with OSX. I figured this would be a good way to learn more about the OS and how it differs from Windows.

Immediately there were a lot of things that I liked and a lot of things that I didn’t like so much. In the short-term, it was easier to focus on the things I liked, and even today I do have a positive overall perception of OSX. However, it’s my firm belief that the job of an operating system is to get the hell out of the way of the user, a requirement which I think OSX fails to meet in a number of areas.

First of all it seems that a lot of the decisions made when designing OSX were made by visual designers and not engineers. Take, for example, the primary way that the user manipulates and interacts with all of the processes running on the computer: the dock. The dock is beautiful to look at, so much so that windows users have designed several applications that attempt to mimic its behavior. But after having used it now, I can see two glaring flaws:

  1. It gets in the way. You can either show the dock all the time, in which case it reserves the entire width of the screen for the height of the dock (which does not need anywhere near that much space), or you can hide it when you’re not using it, in which case there is an unacceptable split-second delay after you have moved your mouse to the area of the screen where the dock is, but before the dock actually appears. Contrast to Windows 7’s taskbar, which has many useful tools and features that occupy its space — tools which, in OSX, occupy additional space at the top of the screen — and when you auto-hide it, it always pops up the way you expect.

    I think the main point here is that OSX’s dock is not useful enough to justify the space that it takes if I do not auto-hide it. Windows 7’s taskbar is.

  2. Its functionality is unintuitive. Suppose I want to move an icon off of the dock and onto my desktop. I click and drag the icon from the dock to the desktop. What happens? Well, that depends on whether the app is running.

    If it’s not running, it disappears in a cloud of animated smoke. Wait, where did that go? Now, if I want it back, I have to find the application on the hard drive, and drag it back to the dock, and I still need to take another action if I want it on my desktop.

    If it is running, then after dragging the icon to the desktop, the icon stubbornly moves back to the dock, and then when the application quits, the icon will disappear. Kinda makes sense, right? Here’s the problem: there are no visual cues that anything has been done. I initially thought nothing at all had happened. Which means if you drag an icon on accident and don’t know which one, then one of your programs is going to disappear from the dock sometime in the future when you’re not using it. Of course, Windows offers this functionality as well, but it takes two clicks — right click the icon, and then click “Unpin this application from the taskbar”. Not something you are likely to do on accident.

    In my attempts to determine whether there is a way to move the dock shortcut to the desktop, I tried many things. None of them worked. Worse, one of them appeared to work. If you hold Command and drag the icon to the desktop, it creates a copy. Sounds good, right? The problem is, it is a copy of the Application, not a copy of the shortcut. If I copy (for instance) Mail from the dock to the desktop, and then open the Application on my desktop, a NEW Mail icon will appear in the dock in addition to the one that is already there. Sorry, Mac fans: this behavior is not intuitive.

If that weren’t enough (it is), I have a variety of other complaints about the operating system:

  • USB mouse moves too slow. Oh, that’s no problem, just adjust the settings until you’re happy with it. Unfortunately the problem is not the speed per se, but the acceleration curve. If you move your mouse a normal speed, the cursor saunters across the screen at a snail’s pace. If you move your mouse a little faster, the mouse zips way past what you’re trying to click. The problem is so severe that there is an extremely popular software package called USB Overdrive that is designed specifically to solve this problem. Without USB Overdrive I would have switched back to Windows 13 and a half months ago.
  • There is no reliable “maximize” functionality. I’ve heard plenty of explanations for why OSX’s “zoom” button is useful or appropriate. I don’t necessarily insist that it isn’t useful to someone. What’s useful to me is being able to fill the screen with whatever I’m working on. There is a small green button (or under Snow Leopard, it can be blue-greyish) that contains a + icon, which to me appears to be a maximize button. Sometimes, it is a maximize button. Sometimes it’s not. In iTunes, as I’m sure most mac users know, it changes the player to compact mode. In most (all?) web browsers it maximizes vertically – or as far as it can, without going underneath the dock – and resizes the horizontal width to… the width of the content? But different pages have different widths! Do they really expect me to click the green + every time I go to a new page? Just fill the screen! Yes, your UI design looks beautiful, now please give me a way to fill the whole damn screen!

    Many websites have accounted for this and actually contain code that makes the browser fill the screen. Ironically, apple.com is one of them. Apple knows that we want our browser to fill the screen but they refuse to actually do it. A perfect example of Apple doing something different not because it’s superior, but because it’s different.

  • The good old select-typeover bug. I don’t know why this happens, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced it. When I select a bunch of text, usually in a browser, and then start typing to type over the text, something very strange happens. The first character appears and the selected text disappears as expected. But instead of deselecting the text, the selection moves to a different portion of the text, which is typed over by the second character. The process can repeat itself another time or two before the selection disappears. Typing more slowly does not resolve it. Very irritating and of course it interrupts my workflow. I have no idea why this happens and frankly it doesn’t matter much — it only happens on the Macbook.
  • Home and End functionality. Oddly, Mac users defend this one. On every other consumer operating system on earth, the “home” key takes you to the beginning of the current line. On Mac OSX, I believe there is a key combination that does this, I want to say Command-Shift A. But if you press the actual “home” key, you are taken to the beginning of the document.

    Tell me, what do you think the typical computer user needs to do more often: move the cursor to the beginning of the line, or move the cursor to the beginning of the document? Which one should be a 3-key stroke and which should take only one? Furthermore, why not ease the transition from windows by making this basic functionality consistent? I typically used Command-Left Arrow because it’s more logical and easier to reach, but unfortunately not all applications support it, and worse, now I find myself using alt-left arrow on Windows (which, in a browser, is the “back” command)! Are the developers of OSX really so arrogant that they think none of their customers would find kinesthetic consistency between OSX and Windows to be helpful? (The copy and paste shortcuts are equally baffling for this reason.)

    There is actually a way to modify the key binds at a low level such that “home” does return the cursor to the beginning of the line, but not all applications respect that, either. It’s truly a lost cause.

All of these things combined are enough “getting in the way” that I have to say goodbye to some of the best software I’ve ever used. Much respect to Adium, Coda, Transmit, and Versions: you will be missed.

Categories: Opinion

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