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Out with the old, in with...?

By Jeff Cooper (, April 18, 2001

[We’d like to welcome a new guest contributor, Jeff Cooper, to the column. This article about the transition to Mac OS X is from the perspective of a Mac user first and foremost. This may cause some “cognitive dissonance” for readers with extensive Unix experience who’ve also made the transition. Just remember the adage “don’t shoot the messenger!” Particularly when they’re being candid and honest —Ed.]

I am a plain old customer. Old in that I’ve been using Macs since 1985. Plain in that I tend to use my Macs for fairly basic tasks: principally word processing, e-mail and online research at work, with some light digital video and graphics editing and far too much Internet use at home. As a Mac user, I have always let the interface do a lot of the work for me. I’ve never used Unix or Linux or any of those other things that end in “x”, until Mac OS X. Command lines are completely foreign to me. On the other hand, based on 16 years in the Mac world, I know my way around the Mac OS. I can troubleshoot my mother’s Mac problems over the phone and fix things about 90 percent of the time. I do my own tech support at work because I’m one of only two Mac users in the building. In other words, I’m a plain old customer, but I’m a reasonably sophisticated plain old customer. And I have to say that, right now – two weeks after installing Mac OS X on my PowerBook – I’m not happy.

Let me be clear about the source of my unhappiness. It is not simply due to the unfinished state of OS X. I understand that drivers remain a work in progress, and that if I can’t currently use my scanner, or sync to my Palm, or burn CD-ROMs, or watch my DVDs under OS X, I will be able to do so soon. Despite the four-year wait for what was originally going to be Rhapsody, I’m willing to be patient a bit longer. And my problem certainly isn’t that the Mac OS has been moved to more stable underpinnings. Like most Mac users, I’ve had far too many freezes and crashes over the years.

What upsets me about OS X is that I no longer feel like I am using a Mac, thanks to drastic changes in the user interface and in the methods of troubleshooting and problem solving. First, Apple has changed many of the ways in which users interact with the GUI. Indeed, to the extent that continuity exists, it is largely because of the protests of experienced Mac users – the initial iterations of Aqua represented an even greater break with the past than does the present version. And yet, despite Apple’s modifications to Aqua since the public beta, my first thought on attempting to work in OS X was that nothing was where it was supposed to be. Even after two weeks, I constantly find myself pointing to the wrong menus or, worse, searching for menus that no longer exist. Using Classic applications is even more disorienting, because suddenly the menus and commands are back where I expect them to be.

On top of these inconsistencies, OS X also demonstrates some truly odd and un-Mac-like behavior, which can only be the result of its Unix-based, network-oriented underpinnings. Let me provide an example. I’m currently using AppleWorks 6.1 Preview 2 for OS X. When I updated AppleWorks from 6.0.4 to 6.1.2 under OS 9.1, and simultaneously installed the OS X preview version, the installer created a SimpleText document titled “AppleWorks Updater Log” (or, “AppleWorks...pdater Log,” in the absurdly truncated version of the name that appears in the OS X Finder) and placed the document in the first-level window of the hard drive. Let’s suppose that this is a useful document to keep, but that I want to keep it in my “Installer Logs” folder, which is inside the “Documents” folder. I move the document’s icon over the folder icon. Under OS 9.1, as in every version of the Mac OS since 8.0, the folder would spring open, and I would then be able to deposit the document into any folder that appeared inside the newly-opened folder.

But this time, no go. Okay, maybe the problem is that I need to switch out of single-window mode. No, still no spring-loaded folders. So I open the “Documents” folder, which opens a new Finder window. I move the new window so that I can see the file’s icon in the original window. I drag the document’s icon to the “Installer Logs” folder. This is a maneuver that has worked in every version of the OS since Apple first introduced nested folders way back in System 3.0.

Under OS X, however, I get an alert box, which states: "The operation cannot be completed because you do not have sufficient privileges for “AppleWorks 6 Updater Log.” This baffles me. If anyone has privileges on my PowerBook, I do – I’m the sole user, and I set myself up as the administrator when I installed OS X.

And yet I can’t accomplish the seemingly simple task of moving a document into a folder. I can’t move the document to the Trash, either – I get the same message. So the ugly, unimportant document with its ugly, oddly foreshortened name remains prominently in the Finder window for my PowerBook’s hard drive. There must be a reason why I can move other documents into other folders, but not this one. And yet I am given no useful information about what the reason might be. I’m stymied. A Unix user no doubt would know immediately what to do. But then, if I’d wanted to learn Unix, I’d have done so already.

This gets to the deeper problem. Unix provides OS X with the stable core that it needs, but Unix is also profoundly user-unfriendly, and Apple has not done enough to change that basic fact. Under the classic Mac OS, troubleshooting was not exactly an intuitive process, at least at first, but the steps were relatively straightforward, if sometimes time-consuming. Now, short of reinstalling the OS (which I’ve already done once), those steps are anything but straightforward. Old-time Mac users are used to the old days of laughing at PC users struggling to edit their config.sys and autoexec.bat files. Well, Mac users, here’s the Terminal – welcome to the 1980s.

Apple has managed previous transitions well. The release of System 7 in 1991 required users to learn new procedures, but most of these genuinely made life easier – would anyone willingly return to the days of Font/DA Mover? The transition from 680x0 processors to the PowerPC in the mid-90s represented a dramatic technological shift, on par with moving the Mac OS to a Unix base, and yet because of Apple’s successful emulation software, the change was largely invisible to users – they gained the benefits of a new family of processors without having to abandon any learned skills. The transition from System 7.x to Mac OS 8 was also relatively straightforward: a few items were moved within the menus, and a few new tools were created; for the most part, users could pick up newer, and quicker, ways of doing things while remaining confident that the old ways still worked.

Not so this time. Apple is undergoing a technological revolution while simultaneously asking users to relearn deeply-ingrained ways of working – and the seams are showing all over the place. Apple apparently couldn’t decide whether OS X was to be geared to the home environment or to networked settings at the office; as a result, no one is going to be truly satisfied. Newcomers may appreciate the pretty interface, and will no doubt benefit from the enhanced stability, but they will be stunned if they ever have to confront the command line and will certainly be as baffled as I was by unmovable files and folders. Experts and network administrators will be pleased by the added control that the command line provides but will be frustrated by the rigidity of Aqua’s interface and the huge speed hit it imposes.

And those in the vast middle, like me, may well be troubled on all fronts, forced to abandon our hard-earned experience and ways of working and start over with a whole new set of skills.

Jeff Cooper is Assistant Professor of Law at Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis. He can be reached at

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