2014-05-19

Co.Labs

What's Wrong With Mac OS X?

Apple's desktop OS has fallen into disarray as the company shifted focus to iOS. Four major Mac developers say its time for that to change.



If the rumors are to be believed this year’s Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, which begins on June 2nd, will be the first WWDC since the launch of the iPhone that won’t have the next version of iOS as its focal point. Instead Apple is reportedly giving screen time to the next major version of OS X (called OS X 10.10--sorry, OS XI fans).

If that happens it’s something which can’t come soon enough according to four developers who make some of the most popular Mac apps. OS X, they say, has taken the backseat to mobile in the last several years, leaving it stunted in the innovation and design departments. Here are the major problems Apple needs to address.

Where’s The Simplicity?

“If you compare the last three major OS X versions, the only way most people can tell them apart is by the default wallpaper,” says Adrian Thomas, project manager of Equinux, maker of popular OS X apps like Spot Maps, VPN Tracker 7, and Mail Designer Pro.

“As a result we’ve increasingly moved to creating entirely custom UI elements in our products in order to offer interesting UIs and to keep up with evolving design tastes,” he says.

This lack of progress in OS X’s UI is particularly troublesome because over the last five years users have gotten used to simplified interfaces thanks to mobile OSes like iOS and Android. But while Thomas acknowledges it's understandable Apple focuses on the tens of millions of iOS devices it sells annually instead of the Macs, which sell only a fraction of that, he stresses that desktop innovation still matters because there are some needs that can only be solved by desktop apps.

“There is a lot of space for innovation on desktop operating systems. This starts with new ideas and concepts for user interfaces. If you watch consumers--our users--struggling with tasks which should be easy for everybody, the stagnation in desktop OS development becomes very apparent. Desktop organization, file management, app management, all these things still have to become much more intuitive. The recent OS X releases have made weak attempts to tackle some of it via file management, tags, Finder tabs, and the like, but there was clearly no innovation in any of those releases regarding how we use our desktop OS,” he says.

A new approach to some of those age-old problems could help alleviate a lot of the complexity that all users struggle with on desktop computers, argues Thomas.

“Very often it boils down to the simple things that consumers struggle with. Things such as disk images, zip files, and desktop organization are a big problem for lots of users. The current state of the art in all the major desktop OSes is still not at a level that would allow everybody easy access to the power of desktop computers.”

For a company known for its powerful simplicity, Thomas’s assertions may sound like an outliers perception, but another major OS X developer agrees. Simonas Bastys is the head of development at Pixelmator, one of the most-praised OS X apps of the last five years. Its design, power features, and simplicity have led many to call Pixelmator the only graphics editor most would ever need (sorry, Adobe).

Bastys says the most salient problems for developers are the non-customizable OS X Aqua interface, the outdated colors and fonts palettes, and an OpenGL Profiler that is “simply outdated.” But those developer problems are just symptoms of the more systemic issue Thomas pointed out.

“The even bigger issue with OS X is that it’s a huge and complex product, which could become a little simpler and easier to get around to the end user,” Bastys says. “Pixelmator is deeply integrated into OS X and has many its native features, like Colors and Fonts palettes, Full-screen, iCloud, keyboard shortcuts, and more. Sometimes while helping our users to do certain tasks in Pixelmator, we end up teaching them how to use OS X-wide features. And there’s nothing wrong about this, but I think that in terms of user interface, OS X has still a lot to learn from the simplicity of iOS.”

Inconsistency In OS X

But the lack of continued refinement in the look and simplicity of OS X hasn’t been the only problem Apple’s desktop OS has suffered from in the last several years. Matter of fact, instead of just stagnating, some developers say the operating system has actually taken a step backwards.

“One of the joys of the Mac is that Apple has always provided clear Human Interface Guidelines along with everything developers need to abide by them,” says Keith Blount of Literature & Latte and developer of Scrivener, perhaps the most well-regarded word processor on the Mac ever. “This has resulted in a consistent user experience across applications--users know where to expect to find certain menus, what specific controls do no matter where they find them, and so on. This sort of thing isn’t just polish, it enhances usability of individual applications and of the platform as a whole.”

The problem, according to Blount, is that this polish has steadily been eroding over the past several iterations of OS X.

“Over the past few OS X releases various inconsistencies have been creeping in,” says Blount. “A trivial example is the View menu that you can find in many applications. The HIG state this should be next to the Edit menu and that all application-specific menus should be placed between the View and Window menus. But several Apple applications--Pages and iPhoto, among others--have started placing the View menu over on the right next to the Window menu--while others, such as Safari and Mail, don’t.”

Is this a new standard and should developers follow it? Blount doesn’t know, nor do other developers who I spoke with. But menu arrangement aren’t the only inconsistencies creeping into OS X. Apple introduced the black translucent HUD panels in Tiger, which are used for floating panels that contain controls. Though Apple provides these panels for developers to use, they don’t supply white variants of the controls to place inside them, meaning that every developer using these panels has to roll their own controls for them, leading to an inconsistent experience across the platform. Further inconsistencies include application icons, some of which are glossy, others flat, and sidebars, some of which are colored, others are monochrome.

“Each of these issues is trivial in themselves,” Blount says, “but taken together, I think they show that some tidying up is in order. It’s always been normal for Apple to experiment with new design standards in their own applications, and then roll out those new standards across OS X and as part of the developer toolset in the next OS X update. But over the past few years, Apple seems to have been experimenting but never quite rolling back their experiments into the developer tools, the OS as a whole, or into the HIG. Now that Apple has made the move away from skeuomorphic design, I’d like to see its engineers go over all their interface experiments and come out with a strong, unified design across their entire suite of applications and the OS in general, along with clear guidelines for developers.”

There’s Been A Lack Of New Features That Excite Users

While it seems the user experience of OS X has been eroding over the last several years another glaring example of how Apple has relegated OS X to a second-tier citizen is in its lack of major new features--ones that are visible to the end user anyway.

It used to be that every major new version of OS X had highly visible, radically new end-user features. But since Apple switched to a yearly update cycle and made the OS free, those radical features have been scaled back. One could argue that this is a trade-off for getting an OS for free that used to cost $129, but developers like MoneyWiz’s Iliya Yordanov argue that these minor--and sometimes almost invisible--new features have killed user excitement about OS X, which in turn hurts sales of third-party apps--and developers’ pockets.

“It’s obvious that Mac OS X has taken a hit in terms of development progress over the last few years,” Yordanov says. “Except some minor UI refreshments, the only thing of any positive significance that comes to mind is the 64-bit architecture, which is barely something most people can appreciate--although kudos to Apple for doing it.”

Yordanov also says that OS X has become significantly buggier and less stable. He says five years ago getting a crash was unseen, while it’s now an “everyday occurrence.” But the main problem, he argues, is the lack of new features, and the ones Apple has introduced, like documents versioning and “natural” direction scroll, have been received poorly by users.

“My personal opinion is that Apple introduced some ‘innovations’ in the recent years that only made Mac OS X more difficult to use. People are confused by natural scroll, documents versioning, the ‘new’ iTunes look, et cetera,” Yordanov says. “They experimented with a few technologies that got poor adoption and from my experience with users these contribute to frustration with the OS.”

The Mac App Store Is A Mess

With the iPhone, the iOS App Store has been wildly successful and praised by both users and developers. Not so with Apple’s Mac App Store. There are many drawbacks to Apple’s OS X App Store solution--one of the biggest being no paid upgrades--but developers argue there are other significant issues with the Mac App Store that affect both them and users.

“As OS X developers we are interested in reaching as many OS X users as possible, without wasting resources by having to build multiple versions of the same app,” says Equinux’s Adrian Thomas. “But Mac App Store and Gatekeeper-signed apps don't offer the same user experience. The current Mac App Store restrictions and sluggish MAS user adoption are just one reason why we also offer apps in our own store. However, certain functionality is only available to Mac App Store apps.”

The functionalities Thomas is referring to are features like the ability to store documents in iCloud and Push Notifications. These are only available to apps sold in the Mac App Store. However, some external apps have features that Apple doesn’t allow in apps that are sold in the Mac App Store. This means developers often have to build two versions of their apps with different feature sets.

The solution Thomas and the Equinux teams says, is to “unify the feature set available to Mac apps and offer Mac App Store-only functionality to all Gatekeeper-signed Apps. We believe there are still a lot of arguments to be made for apps outside of the Mac App Store and would like to see Apple enable us to offer an equal user experience to both universes. If we could offer an industry-leading product such as VPN Tracker 7, which isn’t available on the Mac App Store, but still integrate features that give users the full benefit of Apple's ecosystem, we believe it would be a win for Apple as well as Mac users.”

MoneyWiz’s Yordanov agrees and also points out that the Mac App Store has many other problems that affect both developer and user, including the slow approval process for apps wanting to get into the store.

“You can’t release an update once a week with the most recent bug fixes,” Yordanov says, “because by the time it’s approved you’ll have another one to release. And if it’s rejected and you have to re-submit you go into a mess with merging code from different branches, so the risk is not worth it. For that reason we have a very rapid development cycle on Windows and Android, and very slow one on Mac OS/iOS. That’s a big negative for our users.”

Inter-app Communication Needs Major Improvement

In 2014 it’s weird to think that a desktop OS still has work to do in allowing apps to talk to each other and share information, but this is very much a problem with OS X, according to multiple developers--and one which has only begun to rear its ugly head in recent years, signaling yet another area OS X has taken a step backwards in.

“Sandboxing has arguably improved security on OS X and iOS, but it also threw us back some years in terms of the way that apps can communicate with each other” says Equinux’s Thomas. “Some of our products such as Mail Designer and Stationery Pack rely on inter-app communication to offer improved integration and additional features to customers that have both products. Some of that functionality is severely restricted by the new rules. There are some limited workarounds, but on the whole Apple has not delivered appropriate concepts for how to make up for this.”

This lack of communication also expands to file formats, as Scrivener’s Keith Blount explains: “Currently, the text system Apple provides to developers can import and export Word documents, but has no support for Pages documents--and Pages is a closed format, so developers can’t write their own importers or exporters. Naturally, new users of Scrivener are often baffled that it can import Microsoft documents but not Apple ones!”

Blount points out that Apple used to make it a point to show off that they were actively improving inter-app communications.

“Back when Tiger was first shown at WWDC, we were told that the new ‘To Do’ lists that were being added to Mail would be available as a framework, so that they could be made available in any application that supported that framework. Write a To Do in Mail, and have it appear in your own app. Nothing ever came of that, sadly, but I think something like that sort of integration would be incredible if it provided for Reminders, Messages, Mail, Notes, and so on. That way, you could type a note in Notes.app on your iPhone, and have it immediately available to you not only in Notes.app on the Mac, but also, say, in Scrivener, or in a sidebar in Pages for reference. Or maybe you could use your email to send a note directly to an application. There are all sorts of possibilities I can imagine if I could have Scrivener connect to all these other applications,” says Blount.

Blount notes that there would be security concerns, but Apple already has a mechanism in place. For example, users can currently selectively determine which apps have access to their Contacts in OS X.

Ultimately, Equinux’s Thomas says, the solution is simple--because it already exists in iOS. “The Multipeer Connectivity framework is an exciting framework that enables new classes of apps on iOS. An OS X equivalent would help to solve multiple inter-device communication issues we face in OS X today.”

iCloud Needs To “Just Work”

In a list of things that is wrong with OS X it’s perhaps no surprise to see iCloud mentioned. Apple’s cloud storage solution has been a mess since the beginning and pales in the simplicity and ease of use found in other cloud storage solutions like Dropbox or Google Drive. It’s something that frustrates both users and developers as when iCloud syncing goes awry, it’s usually the developer the user blames for their lost or corrupted files and not Apple.

“At the moment, iCloud works wonderfully for flat file formats--our program Scapple works well with iCloud, for instance,” says Scrivener’s Blount. “But Scrivener uses a ‘bundle’ format--essentially a folder of files, which it loads and saves independently so that it can work with a lot of data without having to store all of that data in memory at any one time. iCloud so far doesn’t work well with this sort of file format or setup. I’d like to see the API enhanced and expanded so that iCloud could be used with bundle file formats and also used more easily with individual files within a project.

Blount says users expect applications to have synchronization capabilities more and more, but at the moment developers have to fall back on a mishmash of solutions. “iCloud has made a really good start on making this easier for developers, so I really want to see it developed further to allow for more possibilities.”

The Future Of Apple’s Desktop OS

Despite his legitimate gripes, MoneyWiz’s Iliya Yordanov acknowledges that Apple was probably right in shifting its primary focus from OS X to iOS as the mobile market grew. If Apple hadn’t done that they would have missed the biggest technological boom of the last 20 years.

“Mobile platforms are cheaper, more portable, easier to use, and provide the same functionality for the average user,” Yordanov says. “The average user wants social media, video, music, web, games, books, et cetera. Before the iPhone and iPad we needed a computer for that. Now we don’t.”

But Yordanov and other developers point out that there will always be a need for desktops and laptops and continued innovation still matters heavily in those areas--and it’s about time Apple returns to its roots. As Scrivener’s Blount says, “To a Mac developer such as myself it feels as though OS X has too long been a second-class citizen on the Apple campus.”

In this case, one can only hope the rumors are true and in a few short weeks we’ll see a returned focus to OS X at WWDC.

“Despite the issues,” Equinux’s Thomas says, “we're excited about the future of OS X development and believe strongly in the Mac as a third platform alongside the iPhone and iPad. Some people compare iPads and Macs to cars and trucks, but it looks like an awful lot of people still want to drive a truck.”

[Image: Flickr user William Hook]




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1 Comments

  • Michael W. Perry

    I'd add these:

    1. Built in support for epub that's as good as that for pdf.

    2. Text app support of paragraph and characters styles--something Microsoft added to Word in the late 1980s.

    3. System-wide GREP search & replace.

    4. Make spelling suggestions work more than about 2/3 the time.