StuffIt? Stuff it!

Monday, 2003-11-10; 21:22:00

A new compression format is taking the Mac by storm.

(Originally posted on AppleXnet)

When you say "Mac" and "compression", the first word that comes to most Mac users' minds is "StuffIt". That's the compression format that Aladdin Systems pioneered way back in the Classic Mac OS days, and it has stayed pretty much ubiquitous ever since. The free utility StuffIt Expander can expand a wide range of compression formats (even from other platforms), and DropStuff handles the actual compression side of things. Of course, Aladdin has always made money off of StuffIt Deluxe, the very handy program that allowed you to browse StuffIt archives without actually taking the time to expand them, and it also offered integration with the Finder (something that not all people seem to like).

But I believe that it's time for StuffIt to go. Not the StuffIt Expander application -- that will always be useful for unstuffing the wide variety of already existing compression formats. But StuffIt needs to be kicked out of the position of king of compression. Already many Mac OS X developers are delivering their software on disk images. That's because disk images (or .dmg files) are better and much more convenient.

But disk images have been around for a long time. So why is it now that disk images should reign? Because of one reason: user comprehension. Disk images in Mac OS X now have two more advantages over StuffIt archives: background images and internet-enabled disk images.

Background images, a concept new to Mac OS X when it was first introduced, allowed any window to have a background image. That's a boon when you're a developer and want to use a disk image, because disk images are a bit confusing to users. They don't understand what the new disk is when they haven't physically connected anything. With background images, a developer can easily instruct the user how to install the program by just creating and setting a custom background image. Before Mac OS X, the only way to do this was to create files or folders with blank icons, and arrange them in the window (which could easily be moved around, making the instructions illegible). StuffIt files, in contrast, can't preserve background images.

Internet-enabled disk images came along when Safari was introduced. Basically, an internet-enabled disk image makes a disk image act like a compressed archive. When an internet-enabled disk image is processed, the contents of the disk image are copied to the desktop, and then the disk image file is placed in the trash. The disk image doesn't even mount on the desktop. Whereas previously normal users might run an app from a disk image and freak out when the disk image unmounts (due to a restart or other such action), disk images can now be transparent to users. But, if you prefer, you can still use disk images normally.

With these two features, users that encounter .dmg files will either 1) be instructed on how to use them, or 2) not have to deal with them at all. So the main barrier to using disk images as a compression medium has been overcome. That means that they can no longer be considered harmful. But why use a disk image anyway?

As opposed to many compressed formats like StuffIt (.sit files) or .zip files, a disk image has one supremely important advantage: you don't have to fully expand a disk image to natively browse its contents. When you mount a disk image, its contents are actually being expanded: but only the exact data at the exact time needed. As opposed to StuffIt archives or .zip archives, you can simply mount a disk image, which just shows the archive as a virtual disk on your desktop. Then you can browse the hierarchy of files, get info on files, and copy them to your hard drive, if needed. It's all immediate.. you don't have to wait a minute or two for the whole disk image to be expanded. So the result is a much faster experience with disk images.

With StuffIt, browsing archives is much more cumbersome. That's because you have to have StuffIt Deluxe, which is $79, in order to browse archives and avoid the expansion lag time -- there may be an analogous piece of software for .zip archives. Without it (and many users of the Mac probably will not have StuffIt Deluxe), the only way to get at the files in a compressed archive is to wait for the whole archive to uncompress. And if you have a 100 MB StuffIt archive, well, then, you'll be waiting for quite a few minutes. Plus, even if you do pay the $79 for StuffIt Deluxe, you have to learn a whole new application in order to browse your files! It's much easier just to use the Finder, since it's already a familiar application.

Granted, StuffIt still has a few advantages over disk image files. One of them is that you can add files to a compressed archive using StuffIt Deluxe without recompressing everything. With disk image files, you either have no compression and the ability to change the archive, or compression and a read-only disk image. Compression and mutability are mutually exclusive. It would've been nice if Apple had added the ability to modify compressed disk image files in Panther. However, it's worth pointing out that without StuffIt Deluxe, StuffIt archives also behave in the same way -- you actually can't even create StuffIt archives without StuffIt Deluxe or StuffIt Standard Edition, which costs $49.

But disk images have other advantages: you can have agreements, and you can password protect disk images with keychain integration. These are minor features that only developers are likely to appreciate, but they are improvements nonetheless. Given that many Mac users don't have StuffIt Deluxe, however, disk images would seem to be a better compression option on the whole.

With Panther, Apple added native .zip compression into the Finder. While .zip files are great for cross-platform use, it would have been nice if Apple also added a "Create compressed .dmg file" option from contextual menus in the Finder. At least for distributing between Macs, disk images are much friendlier to a larger base of users than zip OR StuffIt files. And since .zip is the ubiquitous compression format on Windows, it stands to reason that StuffIt is the format that should go.

-- simX

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