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Butch Finnie & the Mingis Kid II.

A closer look at Scot and Ken's list of undesirable features in Vista and OS X.

The Technological for 20061216,00 reported on ComputerWorld's Scot Finnie and Ken Mingis' list of undesirable features in Vista and OS X. Scot is a long time Windows user and Ken is a long time Mac user. The list of features in Vista is longer than that for OS X and of a different nature as well, although the content of both is largely superficial - not at all that technological.

The countdown for Vista.

20. Minimum video system requirements are more like maximum. Oh yeah. It takes about twice the video hardware to run Microsoft's attempt at copying Quartz. Quartz is based on PDF much like NeXTSTEP used the forerunner EPS; they're both more efficient.

If you want to see how Quartz works you can either use the dedicated ADC tool or run the following from the command line. You can't do anything equivalent in Windows what's known.

/Applications/Safari.app/Contents/MacOS/Safari -NSShowAllDrawing YES -NSShowAllViews YES -NSShowAllWindows YES &

17. Two words: Secure Desktop. Yes, this is a big issue. Microsoft, tasked with securing an endemically insecure system, are now with their backs to the wall and have no alternative but to call almost all user operations into question. As Scot and Ken and many others point out, this reduces usability to near zero.

A silent reflection of course is that if the system is endemically unsafe then usability is already at near zero.

Secure Desktop inexorably dims the screen, locks things up, and demands approval of the user to proceed for a surprising number of seemingly innocent operations. But that just goes to show how insecure Windows really is. It's just that this is something punters haven't understood - or wanted to understand - up to now.

Now they will finally understand. Painfully.

10. Where are the file menus? Scot's comments on this are classic.

OK, this is smart. Take a primary interface structure in use for more than 20 years and already known to hundreds of millions of computer users worldwide, and hide it from them. This appears to be a Microsoft-wide strategy, since Office 2007 also does away with the classic File, Edit, View, and other menus in favour of relocating many of the same functions to other places in the user interface. What, are they nuts?

9. Windows Defender Beta 2 is buggy. More than the bugginess is the need for the application in the first place and the final effect of using such a product even if it's not buggy. And this points once again inexorably to the difference between Windows and any other personal operating system out there: it's INSECURE. Endemically. And it cannot be secured. And this - things like Windows Defender - is the best both shops and home users are ever going to get.

It's not going to get better. This is not a question of Microsoft improving their code. This is a question of Microsoft already doing all they can. And the results are both expected and obvious. Shops and home users both should take this opportunity to get out before things get even worse. With time they'll only get locked in even more. And the professional hacker gangs are not going to stop. Windows Defender or not they're going to keep on because Windows still represents a pond of ducks. And before they release their attacks they'll of course test them against Windows Defender (and other products). And today they're getting away from worm outbreaks and concentrating on one victim at at time. Maybe you.

4. Installation takes forever. As Blonde used to say, 'make sure you have an ample supply of caffeine products handy'. Yes, it's too much for a dinky wee personal OS.

2. Price. $400 for the equivalent of what Apple sell for $129 is outrageous, and then you have to add on the cost of better hardware. Microsoft want 128 MB VRAM where Apple require only 32 MB to do the same thing better. Bad Microsoft code? Perhaps - but as regards your pocketbook it doesn't matter. The Windows PC is finally way more expensive than a Mac - and it's not worth it either.

1. Little originality, sometimes with a loss of elegance. One thing the UI purists have been harping on about all along is that Microsoft not only copied the 'ideas' in OS X but seemingly took the little time to understand them just as Gates and Ballmer did with the original Macintosh - with expected results.

Everything in the NeXTSTEP interface OS X is based on is grounded in an intuitive approach to usability. The 'bells and whistles' aren't there to impress - they have a real function.

But this was lost on the Redmond copycats. Microsoft have probably never done such a sloppy job before of ripping off someone else's ideas. Transparency in OS X is there for a reason; it's there in Vista just to impress. And looking at bells and listening to whistles when you can see there's no purpose to them doesn't impress - it annoys.

OK, over to the OS X list.

15. No Date Display. Scot and Finnie wouldn't make it out of design school. The OS X method of displaying time and date gets top grades. It's done absolutely correctly. One of the hallmarks of both MacOS and NeXTSTEP has always been to provide only the information users need and decidedly steer clear of that monster known as 'TMI' - 'too much information'. While of course making 'additional information' easily accessible if it's wanted.

Microsoft are notorious in this regard, and this is perhaps the most noticeable eyesore for people used to a Redwood City or Cupertino product when dipping their toes back into a Redmond product again. It's BUSY. It really annoys and aggravates. 'Do not tell me more than I want to know and if I want to know more I will ask - dammit!' Even KDE suffers in this regard, being an extremely busy UI putting even Microsoft to the challenge. No, in this regard Scot is still suffering from overexposure to Bill Gates.

And he might be suffering from something else too: his comment that Apple can waste space on the menu bar because others do it is pretty inane: there is never any guarantee you'll get something up there so people have to be frugal. Normally a small icon is all you should use. That Apple today have not only the day and time but Spotlight up there is actually pushing it. Getting extravagant at this point is not an option.

14. Widgets Can't Be Placed on the Desktop. Widgets aren't important. There are third party widgets that greatly outnumber proprietary widgets. Whatever: they are not important. Power users will steer clear of them anyway because they offer little more than eye candy at an all too great cost in terms of CPU and making the machine sluggish. They're cute and they outflank Arlo Rose and Perry Clark but they're little more. They look good in the showroom but professionals don't have time for things like this.

13. Inconsistent Use of Context Menus. There are a few points in the list that belie the lack of experience with OS X and this is one of them. And considering Ken Mingis is supposedly helping out here it's a wonder. WINDOWS MENUS SUCK. The entire Windows menu system sucks. Straight from their programmatic implementation through to their use they're a kludge. OS X menus are dynamic and you just have to get used to it: you don't need contextual menus on OS X. OK, sometimes it's nice - but it's always a frill. And OS X users avail themselves of keyboard shortcuts a lot more than Windows users. Most standard Windows shortcuts actually come from elsewhere such as MacOS and NeXTSTEP but Windows users prefer to 'click and drool'. Microsoft made a big thing of availing themselves of the 'secondary mouse button' with Windows 95 but that doesn't mean it's a good thing for everyone and every platform. And on OS X it's like a fifth wheel. But then again you have to perhaps use the platform for more than a few weeks to appreciate this.

12. Documents and App Instances on the Dock. Another example of the same. Windows is to this day hopelessly crippled by the fact that the original copycats in Redmond GOT IT WRONG when they tried to emulate MacOS. The latter is document oriented if not object oriented and Microsoft thinking was not. As a result Windows is not either. YOU CAN'T GET TWO SOVEREIGN DOCUMENT WINDOWS OPEN IN THE SAME PROCESS. Want to open a new file? YOU GET A NEW PROCESS.

And what happens with this new process? Why of course: it pops up on the 'task bar'. Lovely place to be. An increasingly crowded place.

The OS X dock has icons for running applications, each of which may have a zillion gajillion documents open. Instead of having a zillion gajillion tiles in a task bar OS X shows ONE ICON and then lets you pick.

Another sign of Scot not RTFM: he claims there's only one way to open this dock menu when there are in fact two.

11. Managing Window Size. This is so trivial it doesn't merit comment, but two quick comments may be in order. Again Scot is showing he hasn't taken the time to adjust to a new platform and again he's still showing he hasn't got the 'busy toxins' from Windows out of his system yet.

There is one place to resize an OS X window and everyone knows where it is. And windows on OS X generally tend to stay put and come back again where they last were so there's less need of continually playing with them in this fashion. And most importantly is the overall subliminal effect when using the Windows system: as the mouse moves over the desktop those little cursor critters appear all over the place. It's just too busy. And the relegation of one corner for resizing shows again the UI artists are thinking of the user's best.

10. Accessing Applications. This is the one comment that has any validity but again an exercise in 'RTFM' would alleviate greatly. Strictly object oriented desktops such as used in OS X do have a deficiency here. Not that the solution on Windows is any better. But being more 'action oriented' without losing that 'OO' pedigree might be a step in the right direction.

9. Backspace and Delete Keys. Here is where Scot begins to get obnoxious.

'The rest of the world long since accepted that IBM make the best keyboards. Why can't Apple accept the standard in its notebooks?'

One really wants to mock the OS X neophyte at this point. IBM definitely make the most expensive and most durable keyboards - but any IBM 'standard' is based on SAA/CUA compatibility. That's 'Systems Application Architecture/Common User Access', Scot. It's so even PC keyboards can become 3270 emulated gateways to MVS mainframes. Apple don't need that and notebooks don't either.

There might always be a lot of suggestions as to how Apple could improve their notebook keyboard layout - the most common of which is to make full size arrow keys - but on closer inspection it's obvious a lot of thought has gone into the present design and all the alternatives have more drawbacks.

And IBM might have the sturdiest desktop keyboard but PC notebook keyboards are hardly a roll in the hay - they're invariably more difficult to work with. And if it's the ThinkPad keyboard Scot's thinking of then there's even less reason to side with him. In an open usability contest between the ThinkPad and the Apple notebook keyboards the Apple would win hands down any day.

5,4,3. Managing Finder's Columns View. Not a lot to be said here, but no matter how many complaints leveled at Apple's Finder one thing must be remembered that is never ever mentioned.

Apple provide the operating system. That's drivers and frameworks and extensions and the seamless way the boxes start up. That's all the technologies that make it possible to connect user wishes with the computer hardware. It's not necessarily each and every application the user dreams of.

Many are the systems that provide the technology and a few 'token' applications and leave it at that. Apple provide the 'file management' technology and true, then they provide a 'face' on that technology in Finder - but neither Scot nor anyone else has to use Finder. There are two basic alternatives to Finder, one of which is available at this site, the other available here.

Yes the Finder is a mess, but the shallow analysis Scot provides doesn't even begin to get into it. Yes, it's a shame it's not better, but Apple have called it 'notorious' and are supposedly working on it. And considering its legacy - it's actually more a NeXTSTEP FileViewer than a MacOS Finder - it's pretty much a wonder it came out this good.

And again: it's the OS vendor's responsibility to provide the technology - not the applications. Personal systems are sold today all 'wrapped up' but what's really important is the underlying technology is good - for this is what all applications have to rely on.

And there are alternatives. So complaining about Finder is like saying Windows Notepad has some issues. And no one from the Redmond camp wants to talk about Notepad.

2. Finder's Hobbled Cut Command. Ouch. Again a dead giveaway, Scot. Let's go back in your history a bit - for you say in so many words you've been using Windows since version 3.1 from 1992. Let's look back at how things were done back then.

File Manager for Windows 3.1 had copy and move operations - just like underlying file systems. You'd most often use function keys to invoke these operations. File Manager was an ace program. It was good. Then along came Windows 95.

It was Windows 95 that got into this absurd thing with copying and pasting files. As John Siracusa and others have pointed out, you're not really copying and pasting files - you're copying and pasting their names. And maybe that's a triviality but the other aspects are not.

As evidenced in this screenshot (look to the very bottom) there's a difficulty seeing where the paste operations come from - and the default file manager on Windows (Explorer) gives the user no indication (as opposed to the example above). It's basically 'hold your ears, close your eyes, click the paste button, and hope for the best'. Ergonomically and aside from purist objections such as Siracusa's it's just not a good idea.

1. Dynamic Finder Refresh. If anything belies one's orientation solely in the realm of the ordinary user, this is it. Dynamic refreshes are never going to do it. Period. Systems can make 'admirable' attempts to catch each and every change to the file system - at a considerable cost - but they're not going to get it all. And yes, Scot is right that there should always be a way to manually force a refresh. And no, Finder doesn't presently have this.

Dynamic refresh can also be a kludge when major operations are underway. If a nontrivial 'search and replace' operation is underway where the output files are written 'atomically' then programs like Explorer and Finder are in a lot of trouble.

Atomic overwrites - a near universal option in the NeXTSTEP frameworks - involve first writing output to a third previously nonexistent file and then renaming the output file to the target - this to avoid collisions should other applications be attempting to access the target.

But if the file system sends out news of these changes and a file viewer picks them up then the display of said file viewer turns into a circus of a mess with in some cases little chance of recovery. Those changes occur at the rate of several dozen or hundred per second and there is no way the UI can keep up. It has to be seen to be appreciated. And it's not pretty. All things considered dynamic refresh is not all that it's cracked up to be and clicking a refresh button will on the other hand always give accurate results.

Apple have today added their 'fsevents' to aid Spotlight which is already a bit of a kludge and a CPU hog and yes, 'fsevents' can aid a file manager in seeing changes to the file system even though the technology is customised specifically for Spotlight. 'fsevents' doesn't record all events - only those interesting to Spotlight - but it's coincidentally exactly what a file manager would need. There's only one catch.

The 'fsevents' module can at times become 'overloaded', incapable itself of keeping up with disk activity. When this happens, 'fsevents' notifies clients - such as Spotlight or a file manager such as Finder - that there's been an overload and nothing more can be known.

The client - Spotlight or Finder or any such application - now has to either crunch through the entire file system or just ignore it all and leave the user hanging.

Dynamic refresh never works. Period.

Twenty eyesores in Vista and fifteen in OS X and there's one thing they have in common: they read like an article in 'Car & Driver'. It all makes interesting reading for most anyone and yet you're not getting the in depth reporting you might really need.

They're all usability issues. They totally skirt by the more important security and networking issues that really make the difference in the long run. The issues that really determine if the shop is going to make a good or bad investment.

Feeling like a fish out of water on a new platform is easily cured with a Missing Manual.

« Butch Finnie & the Mingis Kid

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