OS XI: what we'd like to see
10th Nov 2012 | 12:00
The features we'd like in the next, OS X 11, generation of the OS
Every major new version of the Mac's operating system brings with it a slew of changes. Sometimes, these are for the better.
We remember when Quick Look first arrived and how comparatively naked a Mac felt that had yet to be updated to Leopard.
However, there's also the dark side to operating system upgrades. Occasionally, things will change and you'll prefer how they were before. In part, this will be due to getting stuck in your ways, but sometimes it'll be because Apple's new way of doing things is actually a bit rubbish.
Now and again, you'll also discover that Apple's entirely removed a feature that you loved using, turning your upgrade into something more akin to a 'side-grade' or even a step backwards.
In this feature, we explore the ten things we think Apple could do to OS X that would make it a better operating system as we - presumably - move towards the 11th version of Mac OS. However, some of these enhancements could, of course, appear in OS X 10.9 and so this feature could equally be called OS X 10.9: what we'd like to see.
We've included changes to existing features, entirely new ideas and the return of some old favourites, plus the opinions of two interface experts.
Make a better Finder
The heart of OS X's interface is in dire need of a makeover
Finder is an application so invisible that many Mac users forget it's an application at all. And yet you'll use it daily to find and manage documents and files.
Finder used to have a reputation for being unstable and buggy, but those problems have largely been dealt with as OS X has matured. However, Finder remains a fairly basic file-manager, offering a handful of views and a sidebar that rapidly fills with items, the icons for which are all the same colour, making it difficult to tell them apart at a glance.
Despite those issues, Finder nonetheless remains a suitable (if uninspiring) file manager for the majority of people who own a Mac. But it could be better, especially if Apple embraced features that add-ons and alternatives offer.
Both TotalFinder and Path Finder provide tabbed browsing and dual-pane views. Tabbed browsing is a great way to reduce Finder window clutter - you can have every open window within a single tabbed pane if you like, or work with multiple tabbed windows, perhaps defined by context.
For example, if you're working on a few projects, you could have a tabbed Finder window for each, so locating related files is easier.A dual-pane mode then makes it simpler to move files between folders.
Such changes would benefit Finder but should be optional; relative novices would never have to see them, but 'power users' could revel in the increased functionality. We also wouldn't say no to cut-and-paste, file tagging, and a drop stack for temporarily holding a file during move actions.
It's time for this Jack of all trades to be master of some
We remember how revolutionary and exciting iTunes was when it first appeared, back in 2001. Over a decade ago, digital music was still a novelty and apps dedicated to playing MP3s were aimed at the geekier end of the market. But when iTunes arrived, it was simple and elegant, enabling you to rip, mix and burn. (Now we just activate 'Shuffle' mode.)
Fast forward a few years and iTunes gained support for Apple's new iPods and smart playlists, and an integrated music store was added. The problem is, these additions never stopped.
Today, iTunes is a bloated monster, tasked with too many jobs and dealing with too many media types. It's still a jukebox but also houses TV shows, films, podcasts, ebooks and apps. It's used for managing iOS devices and has a rather naff social network, Ping, lurking like a bad smell.
The one-size-fits-all interface is the antithesis of Apple's own design and UI ethos, requiring plug-ins to add functionality and tutorials so people can actually use it properly. The single search engine can be frustratingly obdurate unless you know the precise name of the thing you're looking for and, let's be honest, even the name iTunes is now hugely inappropriate.
We'd like to see Apple take a leaf from iOS here (as it appears to be doing elsewhere, judging by Lion and Mountain Lion) and break iTunes into individual apps: Music, Videos, iBooks, iTunes (the store), and so on. It wouldn't be an easy task, and Apple having to support Windows as well suggests it won't happen, but we can dream…
Revamp the desktop
Why not make the desktop more like a real desktop
The OS X desktop is an oddball. It's really a folder inside your Mac's file system, living at /Desktop, and yet you can put hard drive links on it, along with aliases to folders, and pretty much anything else. It's all too easy for the desktop to become a dumping ground for anything that's not been filed; we regularly make such a mess that unearthing any one file is nigh-on impossible, especially once there's not enough space to display all of the file icons.
With the advent of Spaces and latterly Mission Control, you do have some flexibility over how you view your applications, and store files for easy access, but it still feels like there's more to be had from the basic desktop paradigm.
We're not sure what we want Apple to do here, though. Part of us wants it to just go whole-hog with Launchpad and make that the desktop, while another part of us wants Apple to make the desktop more intelligent. Instead of it being a flat area to randomly dump files and folders, Apple could provide user-definable areas akin to an in-tray and an out-tray. Each area would be 'rubber-banded' so you'd need a distinct effort to move a file to a different area (but without the need for a dialog box).
This would turn the OS X desktop into a digital equivalent of piles of stuff on a real desk, but with the ability to move things around without the hassle of real-world folders. With Quick Look and a 'mini' Exposé, this could be a great time-saver.
In the meantime, Hazel offers some solace, sorting any folder's content through user-definable rules.
Add more colour
Apple's interfaces appear to be heading towards two extremes. On the one hand, you've got the kind of thing you see in Finder and iTunes - a sea of blue and grey. And then at the opposite end of the scale, you have iCal with its fake-leather toolbar (complete with fake stitching) and Address Book, which is a prime example of how making an application that looks like a book but isn't a book, really isn't a smart move.
Colour is useful for differentiation, but apeing real-world objects in a computer interface - termed 'skeuomorphism' - distracts from the content. We'd like to see Apple aim for something of a happy medium in future, bringing back a little life to Finder and iTunes, but not turning them into another iCal.
In some ways, Spotlight is great. It provides a central location for finding pretty much anything on your Mac. The big problem with Spotlight is its randomness. You'll type in a search term and, if you're lucky, get what you're looking for as your first choice and click to open it.
But often, you'll click a nanosecond after Spotlight 'helpfully' reorders the list, causing you to launch something else, slowing down your entire Mac while the weightiest application you own grudgingly lurches into life.
What we really want is Siri for OS X, but some kind of super-intelligent version, like a benign Skynet that would instantly know what you meant by "that Pages document I wrote about that thing for John" but wouldn't on a whim decide to eradicate the human race.
Enhance full-screen mode
You've given it to us, now make it work properly
In a world that boasts distractions by the bucketload, we're grateful for anything that helps us focus. Even if it reminds us a tiny bit of something Windows has been able to do since day one, full-screen mode, introduced in OS X Lion, does this, blocking out everything apart from the front-most app.
It's now an essential part of our Mac experience, especially when working in iPhoto and apps for writing. Full-screen mode wasn't much use in OS X Lion when you had a multiple-monitor setup, as all but one of your displays showed what amounted to a blank screen, but this annoyance was fixed with the release of OS X Mountain Lion.
But there are still many apps that don't make use of this brilliant feature - including some of Apple's own programs like App Store. If you'd like to use the full-screen feature on more apps, you can do so with a SIMBL plug-in called Maximizer. SIMBL - or SIMple Bundle Loader - is a system for loading custom code into Cocoa applications.
Then you need to download Maximizer, decompress the file and then put the Maximizer.bundle in the SIMBL plug-ins folder which resides at: /Library/Application Support/SIMBL/Plugins.
To take things further in the next OS X we think that a split-screen mode would be really handy (for example, to have a writing tool and browser side-by-side), although such functionality can at least be approximated by window managers like Moom.
Give us a media centre
Bring back Front Row - or preferably something better
There's pretty much no chance of this happening. We're sure if we went up to Tim Cook and demanded media-centre software from Apple, he'd tell us to buy an Apple TV, while scowling angrily - and Tim usually seems like a laid-back guy.
And yet we can't help thinking Apple's missing a bit of a trick here, in not enabling any Mac (such as the svelte Mac mini) to become a home media centre. Of course, Apple used to ship Front Row, which was essentially a front-end for your iTunes content that provided access to your music, videos and photos through an Apple remote. The interface wasn't a million miles away from what you get on the Apple TV either, making it all the more surprising Apple axed it.
Now, your best bet is some flavour of XBMC Media Center, Plex, a Boxee unit, or biting the bullet and buying that black box that is the Apple TV. We can sort of understand Apple's decision to remove Front Row, when they're keen to push Apple TV for your media needs, and the idea of a 'media hub' is being phased out in lieu of streaming and cloud storage. We also suspect not a lot of people used it and were merely perplexed when they hit Command+Esc by mistake, only to find OS X replaced by giant icons.
But given that today's Mac still plays host to the majority of your photos, music and home video, it seems odd to have removed a fairly innocuous piece of software that made the viewing experience slightly less arduous.
Revert to 'Save As'
In OS X Lion, Apple integrated versioning into the heart of the OS. Regular copies of any file you work on are automatically saved, enabling you to go back to an earlier version, or compare versions and copy content from one to the other.
At the same time, Apple drastically changed the save system on the Mac. Instead of the default Save command and Save As…, you now have Save and Duplicate. Some people like this new workflow, but old habits die hard and after much grumbling, Apple has relented: Mountain Lion reintroduces Save As… to OS X but the option only appears in your File menu if you hit the å key.
We think most people won't know this and it should become the default view.
Apple only provides a limited amount of control over sound in OS X. You can control input and output devices, and there's a global volume control, along with volume level settings in sound-oriented apps like GarageBand and iTunes.
But apps are increasingly noisy, especially web browsers, and there's no easy way to silence them. We'd love to see something like Prosoft's SoundBunny (prosofteng.com/products/soundbunny.php) built directly into OS X, providing the means to adjust the volume of any open application, and, preferably, individual browser pages.
This would clearly be more complicated than the standard controls, but Apple is not averse to providing more advanced controls 'under the hood'.
WindowShade started out as a third-party utility, became an add-on to Mac OS 7.5 and was later merged into Mac OS 8's Appearance Manager. It was a handy tool for peeking at whatever was behind a window.
A quick double-click on any window's WindowShade widget would collapse it to just the title bar. The WindowShade concept bit the dust in OS X, presumably because windows could be minimised to the Dock, and newer versions of the operating system provide Exposé and Mission Control for quickly viewing open windows and moving between them.
For a while, you could at least install Unsanity's WindowShade X 'haxie', but even that's not an option if you've upgraded to OS X Lion or the new Mountain Lion.