August 8th 2006 Stop Ruining My Operating System!

Probably a scant few (read: none) of the people reading this post followed Apple’s announcements at yesterday’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference, but Apple gave a sneak peek of Mac OS X 10.5 (aka “Leopard”), the next version of Mac OS X. A lot of Mac users are pretty excited by Leopard’s new features, but personally, I’m rather ambivalent about them.

In my mind, operating systems are becoming entirely too complex and bloated. Most of my opinions stem around the design of the Mac OS in this regard, but I think most of my opinions are easily applicable to Windows as well (Windows certainly has at least as much bloat as OS X).

I don’t mean to be a stick-in-the-mud, but I’m just not terribly impressed by Leopard. A lot of my discomfort with the direction of the Mac OS was emphasized over the weekend. A few years ago, I got a free iMac at work. It was nothing special, just one of the early iMacs with no upgrades. Didn’t do much with it (I actually had the PowerPC version of Ubuntu running on it for a while). I was digging through my old boxes of software from a Performa I had a few years ago, and I found some cool games: Lode Runner, Power Pete, Spycraft, Buried in Time, Strategic Conquest, a bunch of games I played as a kid but haven’t played in years. I also found my Mac OS 8.5 install CD. I had nothing to do, so I installed 8.5 on the iMac, and the games, and had pretty much a whole weekend of fun reliving the glory days, back when I still thought computers were magic boxes.

I’m digressing and getting nostalgic, but here’s the point: I forgot how simple the Mac OS was at one time. Okay, sure, maybe not all that simple—I didn’t manage to get this iMac connected to my router/cable modem assembly yet, but for the most part, it was simple. I installed it in around 120 MB of disk space, and it runs in probably around 32 MB of RAM. Granted, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of OS X, but compare that to OS X: My install takes up 1.7 GB of space, and it’s hard to have a usable Mac with less than 512 MB of RAM.

Now, granted, OS 8.5 wasn’t fancy, but in my opinion, an OS shouldn’t be: It should provide a mechanism for basic computer functionality, and a solid framework on which to build apps. I think Apple was right in switching to a Unix-based OS X, and “under the hood” I love, love, love OS X, but I don’t like a lot of the glitzy, glamorous stuff Apple tacks on. I don’t use Dashboard, and its role was previously filled by Konfabulator anyway, which I could at least quit when I didn’t need it. I don’t use Spotlight a whole lot, either; in fact, I prefer the old way of searching for files in the Finder, and I almost fear where Apple is taking this metadata search thing. And I miss the simplicity of the old Finder. New Finder windows, by default, take up a lot of screen real estate (which, as a 12-inch iBook user, I don’t have much of). I don’t even display the sidebar and I constantly have to resize windows to make them smaller.

Really, I’d rather see Apple focused on improving performance and usability in the system (although the interface is definitely leaps and bounds above anything on other platforms), and leave “fancy” features like Dashboard and Spaces to third-party developers. Maybe it’s just the “developer nerd” in me, but I’m much more impressed by Apple’s additions and improvements to the various APIs with each OS X release, rather than the resource-hungry features. The problem is that everytime I buy a Mac, I have to spend time removing all the bloated crap I don’t need or want: GarageBand, for example. Of course, I also realize it’s hard to sell an operating system based on “UI improvements” and “performance boosts”, especially with Microsoft breathing down your neck. Most users aren’t wowed by performance and behavior improvements, and the never-ending corporate software release cycle mandates that you have to keep adding flashy bloat to attract users and their dollars.

I do realize some people love Dashboard or the iLife stuff, so I’m not saying to get rid of it entirely; it would just be nice if this extra stuff was an optional install.

Big thing I’d like to see is UI consistency. I loved the Mac OS before because it had a solid, consistent UI. But for the last few years, Apple has had this weird crisis deciding between brushed metal and untextured windows, and doesn’t even seem to follow the Human Interface Guidelines that closely in its own software. (It does seem that Apple is moving towards a more unified interface with newer releases of the OS, so I’ll give them that.)

In general, more and more, I’ve been wishing I could just turn back the clock and go back to using an OS as simple as Mac OS 8, but with the stability and foundation of OS X. I wish that hardware improvements translated to performance boosts on a system, rather than sitting idly by as software developers take advantage of every performance boost to ultimately build a machine that is somehow slower and less responsive that that old iMac sitting on a card table in my basement.