My last 2 hours enduring Mac OS 9

Friday, 2004-02-20; 14:35:00

In response to Mac OS X usability complaints...

(Originally posted on AppleXnet)

Tipped off by John Gruber at Daring Fireball and inspired by Matthew Thomas at his weblog, I finally tried out this "Mac OS 9" thing (even though I've had my iMac for a year and a half, now). After doing all the software updates, this is what I found.

  1. Applications can cause crashes by overflowing their allotted memory space. In simple terms, this means that a problem in one application can affect other applications, leading to a complete computer crash. Mac OS X doesn't have this problem, since it uses protected memory, which essentially contains an application crash.
  2. Applications can completely control the computing power of a Mac OS 9 computer, making other operations stall until the application itself lets that CPU power go. In other words, it's the applications that determine which process has priority, not the system. Mac OS X fixes this problem by having the system take over in what's called "pre-emptive multitasking". In Mac OS 9, try initiating an action in one application, then switch to another application and click and hold on a menu -- nothing is allowed to happen in the other application.
  3. When one application crashes and doesn't overflow it's allotted memory space, there's no easy way to force quit that application if it's in the background. A hung application often doesn't come to the front, and force quitting in Mac OS 9 only affects the frontmost application. This means that functioning applications need to be force quit first in order to arrive at the offending application, losing work in the process.
  4. Apple sanctions the use of "extensions", which modify the use of the operating system in unintended ways that often lead to conflicts with other applications and extensions, one of the worst usability problems of Mac OS 9. Troubleshooting extensions is one of the worst things to have to diagnose.
  5. In Mac OS pre-X, Thomas says that "an ellipsis following the label for a button or menu item means further information is required to carry out the command implied by the label." He further goes on to state that every "About" menu item in any application is a counter-example to this rule. In reality, Mac OS 9's convention of putting ellipses for about box menu items is flawed: no additional information is required to open a window displaying the credits for the application. Furthermore, Apple's "Help Center" menu item in Mac OS 9 applications also doesn't contain an ellipse, but Thomas fails to point that out, and instead marks down only Mac OS X.
  6. For disabled users, there is no way in Mac OS 9 to click any menu item or drop down any menu without using the mouse or buying additional software. This makes using the operating system very difficult out of the box for many disabled Mac users.
  7. Multiple user functionality in Mac OS 9 is horribly flawed, because it is possible to turn off the right combination of extensions to disable multiple users while still having access to the system -- the system will throw up an error, but will let the user in anyway.
  8. There is no inherent security in Mac OS 9. Without special additional software, there is no way to distinguish between multiple users of the same machine, despite the fact that Mac OS 9 added multiple user functionality: there are many problems with this feature since it was just "tacked on". In Mac OS X, SINGLE-USER mode is in "afterthought", as it should be: security on Mac OS X is much higher because of the assumption of multiple users.
  9. Resizing windows in Mac OS 9 will not live-update the contents of the windows, so resizing a window to make the contents appear as desired is a difficult affair: the user has to guess an initial size, then let go and check how the content changes. Then the user has to guess again based on the changes, and let go again to see the content change again.
  10. Open & save dialogs across all Mac applications is inconsistent. Some applications, including Apple's, use the old System 7 style file pickers, while others use the Mac OS 8.5 navigation services dialogs. This is inconsistent behavior. In contrast, old applications made for previous releases of Mac OS X still inherit the new Panther-style open and save dialogs.
  11. Apple has two sanctioned places for browsing network servers: the Chooser, and the Network Browser. These are redundant uses for the same thing, causing confusion on when to use the two.
  12. While admittedly minor, some applications' menus are white colored, from the System 7 days, while other ones are gray colored, the new color scheme adopted by Mac OS 8 and later. See Netscape Communicator 4.7 for an example of the white menus. Again, this is a minor, inconsistent appearance.
  13. The Apple menu appears to be a dumping ground for menu items that should not exist. Instead of only allowing the "About" menu item for the specific application, Apple allows other menu items to be thrown into the Apple menu, which confuses the user when looking for commands that may be stored in this menu. Mac OS X fixes this problem by allowing users to change the application menu (which is a dumping ground precisely because it's for commands related to the CURRENT APPLICATION), but not the system-wide Apple menu.
  14. To shut down the computer, the user has to switch to the Finder to access the "Special" menu. Why does one need to start browsing the computer contents in order to shut down the computer? Mac OS X fixes this problem by putting the Restart and Shut Down commands where they should be -- in the system-wide Apple menu.
  15. Thomas makes the complaint that in Mac OS X, the application menu doesn't have a fixed width, so it constantly moves the menus around. But this is a problem in Mac OS 9, too: there's an option to display the name of the currently running application in the menubar, which makes the menus on the right side constantly shift (like custom-installed menus that are sanctioned by Apple, and the date and time indicator). But to stop this annoying problem, it is necessary to stop displaying the application name, which simply trades one problem for the other.
  16. Software Update in Mac OS 9 is a joke. When installing software, Software Update will force the user to quit all other applications, and in the process, it will often quit the application that is maintaining the connection to the internet. Thus, using Software Update will terminate internet access, thus making Software Update useless.
  17. In addition to the aforementioned problem with Software Update, installing ANY piece of software often necessitates the quitting of all applications, even though it is often unnecessary. This makes working while installing software impossible, because one will lose valuable time if an install takes a large chunk of time. Unfortunately, that ridiculous requirement carries over into Mac OS X, because Mac OS 9 installers that run under Classic actually require the quitting of all Mac OS X applications as well.
  18. In Mac OS 9, when alert sounds are played, they are played in their entirety before playing the next alert sound. So, for example, if a new folder is created, and then the user mashed on the keyboard for a while, the user would be stuck listening to a minute of beeps just because the system requires the alert sounds to be fully played. Under Mac OS X, this isn't a problem -- when a new alert requires the playing of the alert sound, Mac OS X stops playing the previous alert sound. So at max, an alert sound's delay from the actual offending action is at max a few seconds.
  19. Just like Mac OS X, some applications in Mac OS 9 have a metal appearance, while others do not. See Sherlock 2 and Quicktime Player in Mac OS 9: the brush metal revolution came BEFORE Mac OS X.
  20. When switching to different applications, ALL the windows of that applications come to the front, when clearly only one window was requested to come to the front (the one that was clicked on). That hampers the precise spatial arrangement of windows and especially hampers usability when two windows from different applications need to be frontmost. In Mac OS X, both ways are available: clicking on a window brings only that one to the front, and clicking on the application's Dock icon brings all of that application's windows to the front.
  21. Finding a window in Mac OS 9 apps is a chore: one has to remember exactly where windows are in their spatial arrangement, and there is no consistent way to quickly find one just based on its title. While Exposé in Mac OS X is a revolutionary feature in finding windows, a simple addition of a "Window" menu (like in Mac OS X) would allow users to easily find windows without messing with their position, just their interleaving. Apple added this menu to the Finder, but they didn't add a system-wide menu that comes with all applications.
  22. Type and creator codes under Mac OS 9 are really convenient, but there is no very easy way to change these codes so that files will open in a different application by default. Either one has to use ResEdit to change the type and creator codes manually (assuming, of course, the type and creator codes are known), or the APPLICATION has to change the type and creator codes, something that can't be taken for granted. Under Mac OS X, any file can be associated to a specific application using the Get Info window, and all files of a SINGLE TYPE can be specified to open with a specific application as well -- much more power and usability with Mac OS X's way of doing things.
  23. File Sharing under Mac OS 9 is a pain to turn on. The more files on the hard drive, the longer File Sharing takes to start up. In some cases, it takes several minutes. Under Mac OS X, however, File Sharing takes a couple seconds (at the maximum) to start up, no matter the number of files on the hard disk.
  24. Mac OS 9 has no standard shortcut for accessing an application's preferences, which is probably one of the most important parts of any application. Furthermore, the normal placement of the "Preferences..." menu item (under the Edit menu) doesn't make sense at all. Mac OS X's "Preferences..." menu item always sits in the application's menu (where it makes sense because it deals with the application), but it also has a default menu item of Command-Comma. An example of Apple violating the usual guidelines in Mac OS 9 is in Quicktime Player, where Apple makes the Preferences menu item a submenu instead of a menu item.
  25. Many preferences are not live updating. An example is the Mac OS 9 Finder's "View Options" panel. The window needs to be closed for changes to take effect, and if the changes aren't satisfactory, the panel needs to be opened again to change the preferences back.
  26. A remnant from earlier systems from Mac OS 9 is the desk accessory, which violates many of the regular human interface guidelines (even though it's usually just a small application). For example, the Calculator has a black menu bar, doesn't respond to windowshading, and has a one-pixel drag handle in the lower-right corner of the window -- the normal place for a resize handle.
  27. Just like the Dock in Mac OS X, the Control Strip in Mac OS 9 also obscures window controls. Applications don't know that this is off-limits, so one is forced to drag a window out of the way or hide the control strip, both of which are workarounds. In addition, the Control Strip can completely hide pop-up windows if they are closed.
  28. Dialogs in Mac OS 9 completely hamper the operation of any other application without first dismissing that dialog. That means that if a webpage constantly throws JavaScript dialogs under Mac OS 9, the user would essentially be blocked from doing any other work until the rash of dialogs stopped. Poor Thomas, then, for having to endure those sheets that block him from viewing his document, when he would have already known what document he was working in the first place!
  29. Putting a computer to sleep when running Mac OS 9 takes a few seconds before the computer actually goes to sleep. Similarly, waking up from a Mac OS 9 sleep takes a couple of seconds.
  30. After putting a computer to sleep and disconnecting a FireWire device, upon waking the Mac, it presents an UNINTERRUPTABLE dialog saying that the device shouldn't have been disconnected. That dialog STAYS ONSCREEN until the same device is reconnected: in the case of having an iPod, this will happen every time if it is left connected to the Mac, since the iPod automatically wakes itself after putting a computer running Mac OS 9 to sleep.
  31. The Apple menu and application menu under Mac OS 9 are curiously not located at the top-left and top-right corners of the screen, respectively. For some reason, Apple decided to put about 10 pixels between each menu and the side of the screen, violating Fitt's Law in the process. (Admittedly, Mac OS X does not improve in this regard.)
  32. The menu item to close a window is called "Close Window" in the Finder, but just "Close" in other applications like SimpleText and the Chooser. This distinction exists for no apparent reason.
  1. Filenames under Mac OS 9 are limited to 31 characters. This stringent requirement doesn't allow users to use incredibly specific names to identify their files.
  2. Names of disks under Mac OS 9 are limited to 27 characters. Not only is this a stricter requirement than normal files and folders, but it also introduces inconsistency.
  3. In addition to the character limit, filenames from other file systems that allow longer filenames are truncated with a suffix of a pound followed by 5 or 6 letters or numbers. This exacerbates the problem of short filenames, because 6 of the 31 character limit is eaten up by garbage characters, making the name of the document in the Finder further obscured.
  4. Long filenames under Mac OS 9 are displayed all in one line in the Finder. This hampers usability in some cases -- when the desktop is arranged by name, most of the right half of the filename is cut off if the file is on the extreme right side of the screen. Long filenames also interrupt the normal grid in the Finder, making placing inconsistent.
  5. Immediately after startup after a crash, the Finder often places "rescued items" in the Trash. This is wrong for multiple reasons: first, the user didn't put the "rescued items" there, so the trash will be full even if the user emptied it before shutdown. Second, if the user really wanted to "rescue" those items, why would they be put in the trash? Lastly, this annoying "feature" can often spawn 20 or so folders in the trash, especially when using multiple partitions, necessitating a lengthy look through all the folders to see if the items really need to be rescued.
  6. Apple sanctions the use of menus not only on the right side of the menubar in Mac OS 9, but also on the left side! Certain applications like Stuffit Deluxe can place menus right between the "Help" menu and the "Special" menu in the Finder. This gets even more complicated when switching applications: those menus often disappear in non-Finder apps, making the Help menu (perhaps one of the most important menus for an application) move around.
  7. Pop-up windows violate most of the normal expectations that a user has when interacting with them. It has not one but TWO resize widgets. Dragging a pop-up window directly to the left or right when it is open results in the window not becoming a pop-up, when would expect that the window would remain a popup but just change its position. Finally, trying to drag a pop-up tab to the extreme corners is prohibited, because this was a "no-tab" zone: tabs can't be dragged to the left or right-most 3 pixels of the screen -- obviously, this is a violation of Fitt's law, because the corners are the easiest to get to, but are precisely off-limits for no reason at all.
  8. Pop-up windows in the Finder can have their tabs truncated if they are too large to fit into a given space. This is similar to how the Dock automatically resizes all icons when it is full and another icon is dragged to the Dock. But this produces a severe usability problem since the pop-up tab IS the folder's title bar: the name of the popup folder can be obscured even when it's open!
  9. The Mac OS 9 Finder has an interface abomination: buttons. The Finder can set items to be displayed as buttons. While this might be useful for some people, it creates horrible interface problems. First, how are items selected to be targeted them for Finder operations? The user has to click the name of the button. However, clicking on an button, holding, and dragging off of the icon will actually select the icon as well! Another problem with buttons is that they need to be dragged around by their filename, which can create problems if the filename isn't visible.
  10. The desktop under Mac OS 9 is a pain when dealing with everything on the Desktop: it combines the trash, hard disks, and desktop printers. To copy everything on the desktop to another drive, how is this accomplished? Everything on the desktop that ISN'T the trash, the hard disks, and the desktop printers needs to be selected first, and THEN they can be copied to the external hard disk by the normal mouse-drag operation. In Mac OS X, how do is it done? Just go to the home folder, and drag the "Desktop" folder over to the external hard disk: much simpler, much less hassle.
  11. Selecting an item in the Finder will make it's icon appear darker. But this method is unreliable when presented with certain kinds of icons: if an unselected icon is composed dark colors, the same icon but selected will produce practically no difference in appearance. In these cases, one will have to rely on looking at the filename to see if an item is selected, which is difficult if the filename is obscured.
  12. Labels in the Finder have a similar problem: they only affect the color of the item's icon. Having a dark icon will severely hamper the ability of a user to distinguish the item's label, ESPECIALLY since the label doesn't affect the appearance of the item's filename at all.
  13. For no reason at all, the icons of desktop printers cannot be changed.
  14. In the Finder, Mac OS 9 provides no feedback as to whether or not a drag operation is permitted. If something is dragged to a locked volume, it will appear to be allowed; however, once the mouse is let up to try to initiate the drag operation, the Finder THEN notifies that's the operation is prohibited. Mac OS X solves this problem by introducing the "not permitted" mouse pointer, in addition to the "make alias" and "copy" mouse pointers.
  15. In Mac OS 9, finding files on the hard drive is actually a feature that's part of Sherlock, not of the Finder. It's puzzling why an application called "Finder" doesn't contain a feature that does what it's name implies, instead relegating that to Sherlock. (Earlier versions of Mac OS X also carried over this problem, but it has since been rectified in Jaguar and improved in Panther.)
  16. The Finder's "Get Info" window has two sections: the "General Information" section and the "Sharing..." section. However, File Sharing must first be activated to go to the "Sharing..." section, and neither the Get Info window nor the Finder's "Sharing..." menu item (under the "Get Info" submenu) disable themselves when File Sharing is turned off, as they should -- they simply notify the user AFTER THE FACT that File Sharing must be turned on first. In addition, it would make much more sense if it allowed the changing of File Sharing permissions without having to turn on File Sharing.

But you can fix problem X by installing hack Y!

Sure, and where I can, I probably will (or already have). But I shouldn't have to. The problems shouldn't exist in the first place.

So, smartypants, why don't you report these bugs to Apple?

Because in the long run, that would be a waste of time. Apple could employ their own quality assurance people and programming people and project management people into creating an operating system that doesn't have a dead-end future like Mac OS 9 does. Indeed, they are doing that now: Mac OS X is an enormous leap in terms of usability and stability, and it provides some revolutionary features (like Exposé) that never would have been possible with Mac OS 9.

My point is that the quality of Apple's human interface hasn't declined at all, and actually continues to improve. All too often, Mac OS 9 users go into Mac OS X expecting that they can do everything just like they used to, when in reality, an expectation of having to change one's habits would be more appropriate. Indeed, when one adopts such an attitude, refusing to let go of one's old habits, it's obvious that such a person is going to be frustrated with a radically new operating system. Many of the habits that such users think are "more intuitive" are actually less to do with "intuitivity" and more to do with ingrained habits.

Many diehard Mac OS 9 users that I've met seem to adopt an attitude of thinking that Mac OS 9 is perfect and should be Apple's current operating system, when Mac OS 9 was full of more usability problems than the current version of Mac OS X. The only reason why Mac OS X endures the brunt of "usability" attacks is that Mac OS X is obviously the future of the Mac, so it's useless to go back and look at problems with an old operating system. Apple is trying to push the traditional limits of an operating system, but along with that comes the necessity of breaking old guidelines.

Not only that, but an operating system cannot be everything to everybody. There will always be complaints about how something should work. So, sometimes old "features" of Mac OS 9 are very confusing to Mac OS X users, and therefore Apple changed the functionality in order to appeal to new Mac users. Mac OS 9 users need to realize that in many cases, their view of a good feature is biased by familiarity.

Don't construe my argument as saying that we shouldn't bash Apple at all, or that Mac OS X is perfect. On the contrary, I realize that many of the complaints lodged against Mac OS X are valid. John Siracusa of ArsTechnica fame does an admirable attempt at covering all the nooks and crannies of the usability question in Mac OS X. And he does this for EVERY major Mac OS X release! I admire that kind of dedication to usability.

But where John Siracusa is objective and realizes that Mac OS X is clearly the future of the Mac operating system, many Mac OS 9 users don't have this objectivity. Ingrained habits and a refusal to change them only leads to frustration with Mac OS X, instead of giving the new operating system a little leeway since you've been using and have become familiar with Mac OS 9. Pointing out the smallest little details and then complaining that Mac OS X has a horrible interface, that Apple's attention to usability is going down the tubes, and refusing to report them as bugs just smacks of Mac OS 9 elitism, especially when some of the complaints are unfounded (e.g.: the iChat buddy list scroll bars are small in order to save space, whereas in message windows they aren't small, because space isn't as crucial in those windows; the application menu houses menu items that are actually carried over from Mac OS 9, and putting them in the application menu actually makes sense).

So to all of those who have yet to make the switch to Mac OS X: instead of comparing it to Mac OS 9 immediately, take a month to get used to it. Keep an open mind about Mac OS X, because it does introduce some jarring changes with which you won't be familiar. Start doing everything in Mac OS X so you force yourself to get used to the new interface. But once you've used it a bit and you know where everything is, most things will start to feel intuitive again, and you'll wonder how you ever got around in Mac OS 9. Case in point: exposé. Once you start using it, you'll cringe when booting into Mac OS 9 because of the lack of that feature.

-- simX

Technological Supernova   Publications   Older   Newer   Post a Comment