The Adventures of Joshua Judson Rosen
(action man)

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Sun, 23 Oct 2011

20:15: The Mac OS X Look & Feel: so... chintzy?

It seems like every time someone expresses any sort of dissatisfaction with some aspect their operating system--for example esr's recent complaints that he doesn't like Ubuntu Unity or the new GNOME 3-- the Mac people come out of the woodwork and start chiding "get a Mac!"; that "`the GUI done right' already exists--it's called Mac OS X!".

After a recent weeks-long stint with Mac OS X..., I have to disagree with the Mac proselytizers.

People like to talk about the Mac `look and feel' as defining the platform, and this is usually done in adulation, but the more time I spend with it, the more I find that Mac OS X really just feels... like a cheap knock-off of a GNU/Linux desktop.

The Mac people will say `it's not a knock-off at all! Its lineage goes back to NeXTStep! And BSD! Before Linux even existed!'. But I'm not talking about lineage, I'm talking about refinement--it doesn’t matter whether Mac OS X actually is or isn’t actual a copy of GNU/Linux by lineage--it still feels like a cheap one. And pedigree is no excuse for a poor showing--actually, it just makes it all the more damning.

What's perhaps at least a bit surprising is that most of my complaints are actually with the much-vaunted GUI--for example...:

  • Why do I have to go find the tiny little title-bar to move a window instead of just grabbing the window wherever's convenient like I've been able to do forever in `the other X'?

  • Why do I have to go find one specific little corner of a window to resize it? And why can't I make a window grow to the left or upward? Why do I have to do a series of move-then-resize steps instead of just pulling the top half of the window up further like I've been able to do forever in X?

  • Where's the `roll-up' or `shade' feature like I've been using forever in X?

  • In the `scaled window previews' mode, why can't I filter the view instead of having to pick through all of my windows manually?

  • Maybe this isn't strictly a GUI complaint..., but it's definitely a UI complaint: where's my Compose key!? If I want to, for example, type a smiley--why can't I just type it with something obvious like "<Compose> : )", instead of having to go find it in a character-picker or memorize arcane keystrokes that bear no obvious relation to what I'm actually trying to type?

  • Similarly, where's CircularScrolling? Why do I have to keep pawing at the touchpad to scroll from one end to the other?

  • And where's LockedDrags? It's physically fatiguing, that the only way to drag beyond the length of a single trackpad-swipe requires holding down the springloaded trackpad (though I note that this might not be as bad if the physical `click' mechanism in Apple's trackpads wasn't as awkward as it is--with the touch surface itself doubling as the (giant) button instead of having a defined button area outside of the touch surface, and with the spring resistance increasing exponentially as the fingers move from bottom to top).

Yes, I do also have complaints that aren't with the GUI--like the fact that the Mac laptop goes to sleep when closed ("even if plugged into the wall", most critics say; though my criticism is more that it immediately goes to sleep even if it's not plugged into the wall, because I'm much more likely to close a laptop and want my computations to keep running if I'm walking to another room with it). It's vexing that there's no apparent way to remedy that as a user. It's also vexing that so much beyond mDNS actually goes through mDNSResponder--and that it just spontaneously stops working and requires a sudo killall -HUP mDNSResponder (if you're suitably savvy, or a reboot if you're not; just like the bad old days, a decade ago, when we nscd used to cause the same problems).

But those are nits compared to the GUI problems--because the GUI is a constant source of frustration. And the Mac `whoosh factor' doesn't even begin to make up for it--because even that is lacking: you want `whoosh'? Where are the `wobbly windows' with the sense of mass and... palpability that I've had on my desktops for years?

And, oh--what really cements the "cheap Linux clone" image? That, when Steve Jobs first announced Mac OS X to the world, the best thing that even he had to say about it was, "it's very Linux-like".

Given how much work from 10 years prior Apple apparently got to reuse in building Mac OS X, it seems surprising that, almost another decade in, they still hadn't found the resources to actually polish it to the level of the open-source systems.