Many have wondered what would happen to Apple after Steve Job’s death. I’m afraid things started to go south at Infinite Loop long before Steve passed away. Case in point: Mac OSX Lion, which I think is the worst version of MacOSX ever (and I’ve used all of them since Rhapsody).
What’s wrong with MacOSX Lion?
While there are a number of relatively useful features in OSX Lion, like being able to resize a window from all sides (granted, not exactly a new feature in the computer world), the general philosophy of that OS seems to be “We know better“. A computer company that thinks it knows better than me how I should use my own computer? Let’s not get used to it.
I will illustrate this with three real-life cases:
- Ten minutes to reboot on a Core i7 laptop is not cool.
- How I came to positively hate the mandatory auto-save feature.
- The sad story of Quit, Select All, Undo and Close Window.
There are a few other smaller cases that I will brush on quickly at the end. Like the broken replacement for good ol’ Save-As, the stereoscopy crashes, the mysterious unimprovements to Spaces, the Screen Saver of Doom…
Ten minutes to reboot is not cool
Many know the great story of Steve Jobs telling an early Mac engineer that making Macs boot faster would save lives. This lesson seems to have been forgotten these days.
This morning, I had a kernel panic in Lion (a not so uncommon occurrence, sadly). So I was forced to reboot. And what happened next prompted me to write this blog entry. Crashing is enough of a waste of time. But then, MacOS X Lion aggravated that by reloading every single tiny window I happened to have open at the time of the crash. And not letting me do anything in the meantime, because you see, it was busy, it had better things to do than even letting me quit an application.
Being able to quit an application is what I took as an indication that the system was done booting. It’s as good a measure as any, since if you can’t quit an application, you can’t do much else. And it took more than 10 minutes for me to be able to quit Firefox: I booted the machine at 7:02 (according to uptime), Firefox accepted to quit at 7:14.
In the meantime, OSX Lion had reloaded, for my own good:
- Mail, with 7 windows
- Pages, with 4 documents
- Numbers, with 6 documents
- Keynote, without any document open, but hey, what’s wrong with launching it anyway?
- Terminal, with 2 windows, one of them was running a build. There’s a severe bug in OSX Lion restore-everything-at-reboot-time functionality: it didn’t restart my build!
- Safari, with 8 web sites, including two with videos I had already seen.
- Firefox, with 2 web sites, which I certainly didn’t wan tot re-open since they were payments.
- iTunes (which helpfully started downloading new contents)
While the system attempts to “please” you in some demented sense of “pleasing”, there’s very little you can do but wait. Actually, you need to do a little more than that, because the machine will occasionally ask for passwords or pop up some dialog box. And it does so in such a random fashion that even reading mail is difficult. All the more so because the machine is so busy re-indexing its Spotlight database and downloading iTunes contents you really don’t care about right now that everything crawls.
Even switching windows is difficult, even borderline hazardous. You think you brought up one window, but then the system shows another one right at the moment you click or close something or do something dangerous, and bam, the one and only window you didn’t want to close vanishes from the screen!
What is so infuriating about this incredibly stupid behavior of OSX Lion is that practically every single time I rebooted my machine, I unchecked that little box asking if I want to re-open my windows when I log back in. Can’t OSX Lion get the hint? If it’s smart enough to save my windows at the time of a kernel panic (of all times), can’t it save a little preference like “I don’t want you to re-open windows at boot time, ever”, without forcing me to resort to command line hacks.
Yes, I know how to fix it. It’s a script like this one:
echo "#!/bin/bash" > /tmp/loginfix.sh
echo "rm /Users/*/Library/Preferences/ByHost/com.apple.loginwindow.*" >> /tmp/loginfix.sh
mv /tmp/loginfix.sh /usr/bin/loginfix.sh
chmod +x /usr/bin/loginfix.sh
defaults write com.apple.loginwindow LoginHook /usr/bin/loginfix.sh
Having to resort to something like is really annoying. And if Apple really didn’t want to store the “reopen windows” user choice in preferences, then it shouldn’t be a check-box. It should have been a separate action button, just like “Shutdown” and “Restart”.
I’m clearly not the only one who dislikes that features. If you look up on the web, you’d be hard pressed to find any site that explains how great that feature is. Instead, you’ll find dozen of places telling you how to disable it. So it’s a useless feature compounded with a bad UI made more annoying by a blatant disrespect for user preferences. That seems to be the general theme for changes in OSX Lion. Let’s not get used to it.
How I came to hate the mandatory auto-save feature
Another feature that follows the exact same pattern is the mandatory auto-save feature in applications like Pages, Numbers, Keynote, etc. What this feature does looks good on paper. It helpfully saves things for you at regular interval. Since Apple implemented for Time Machine a relatively nice way to version files, Apple used that to offer a kind of per-document Time Machine. Isn’t that a great idea?
The problem with that auto-save is that it doesn’t scale, and that there is no way to turn it off, even temporarily. So here is what happened to me once. I was animating an event, and for some reason, they decided to use my laptop as the main machine connected to the projector. So they gave me this 150 pages Keynote made by copy-pasting together a dozen or so slide decks. So far, so good.
Then, various people started coming to me asking if they could change a word here, copy a new slide there, etc. Guess what: it took over one minute to save the 150 pages document. My guess is that Keynote uses a brain-dead algorithm to decide when to auto-save, something like “if something changed and if the last auto-stave started more than 30 seconds ago”. Just a wild guess. What I observed, though, is that it doesn’t check that after you do an operation, but before executing the next operation you request.
All these harebrained design decisions blend together in a perfectly distasteful mix. You hit a key. Keynote shows your keypress. You hit another key. Keynote detects it should auto-save. The save takes more than one minute. The “saving takes a long time” progress dialog shows up and eats the key you typed! So you need to type again, very fast. But usually you don’t succeed. Same with mouse clicks. You send mouse clicks that get eaten by the stupid “Please wait while I’m saving” progress dialog. Who decided to call this a “progress” dialog? It’s not progress!
Anyway, after a very painful 15 minutes trying to make this work, here is how I ended up doing things: I started another Keynote instance, edited slides one at a time there, and once it was done, I would copy things back in the original Keynote document. But talk about a counter-productive exercise fighting a badly designed UI that won’t accept my preferences (namely: I don’t want to auto-save. Period. I hit Command-S when I’m happy. I know what I’m doing.)
Quit, Select All, Close and Undo
The third scenario I came to hate in OSX Lion is much more specific. See, I’m French, so I often have to type French text. And I’m a coder, so I often have to write English text or computer code. At some point in my past, I started taking the habit of typing French text in the native French keyboard, which is AZERTY, and English text in QWERTY
I don’t think many other people do this, but to me, that means faster typing in both cases. In English, I can type all the wonderful special characters used in code, like [ and ]. In French, I have easy access to all the wonderful àccénts that pepper our language (and, by the way, in defense of Jean Dujardin, “Putain” is more like an accent than a swear word in French; it doesn’t really mean “Whore” anymore than, say, “OK” means “all correct” or “gay” means “in a good mood”). A and Qs flip automatically when I’m typing French. If anything, that shows how flexible the human brain is.
There’s just one little problem with that clever scheme: keyboard shortcuts. It so happens that Command-Q (Quit), Command-A (Select All), Command-Z (Undo) and Command-W (Close window) are some of the most frequently used shortcuts of all. And unfortunately, they flip places when I switch languages. And unlike complete words, which my brain has “short-circuited” to the correct keyboard layout depending on language, they have no context, no language associated with them. So often, I want to Undo, and instead I Close the Window.
So what does this have to do with OSX Lion, you may ask? Well, the auto-save feature has, for me, a very nasty side effect. If a document has been modified, OSX Lion no longer asks if you want to close it or save it. That dialog box that used to pop was my saving grace in the old days. If I hit Command-W instead of Command-Z, then the dialog box would pop up, I’d hit ESC and hit Command-Z. No harm done. Nowadays, my window vanishes, and with it, all my undo history. In other words, at the exact time I want to undo something, MacOSX Lion finds a way to erase the entire undo history!
Of course, Apple engineers know better. Their reasoning must have been that the auto-save feature is like a kind of persistent undo to disk. Unfortunately, auto-save and Time Machine are nothing like undo. Undo remembers the actions. Auto-save remembers the result. So Time Machine is way way slower to activate, and it makes it harder to find where a document actually changed.
So a couple of times a day, I close a document by mistake, and I swear. Nothing has been closer to turining my Macbook into some unidentified flying object than this feature. At some point, I’ll find the time to disable that auto-save feature as well, in a way that doesn’t break other things.
Then, there’s the small stuff
OSX Lion’s disregard for users’ taste and preferences permeates throughout. It looks more like a design philosophy than an accident.
There’s the odd reversal of the trackpad scrolling behavior. This one at least can be configured. But either you stick with the default, and you are backwards each time you return to a Windows, Linux, older MacOSX machine. Or you change it, and you are backwards each time you return to a Lion box that is configured with the default.
There’s the new technique for “Save As”. It used to be “Save As”, Command-Shift-S, select the new file name (defaults to the document’s directory). Basically, one keystroke. Now, it is “Duplicate” (no keyboard shortcut), close the old window, Save (which now defaults to the Desktop rather than where the original document was), find the original location, save. So you have replaced one keyboards shortcut with 4 to a good dozen clicks depending on where your original document was. And “Duplicate” seems to use more memory and take more time than Save As (maybe it saves the document somewhere?) The benefits? Hmmm. I don’t see any, it seems like a less intelligent way to do the same thing as before.
Stereoscopy is a minor nuisance to the majority of people. But it turns out Taodyne, my company, produces a 3D presentation software. Something like Flash blending with Avatar. One of the ways we generate stereoscopic images is with the OpenGL Quad buffer support. It was broken in 10.6.1: when our application ran, switching spaces would kill the window server. I reported it to Apple, it was fixed in 10.6.2. It was broken again in Lion (10.7.0). Only this time the crash is a random kernel panic or system freeze, a bit more serious. I reported it three times to Apple. It’s still there.
Overall, Spaces and the Window server are nowhere as good as they used to be. When you switch spaces, it used to be smooth. You used to have a single desktop background. Now, it’s not smooth. Sometimes, windows won’t drag from one space to another. Spaces can be “out of order” (i.e. the number keyboard shortcuts no longer correspond to the logical layout of the spaces). The windows that MacOSX Lion insists on reopening at startup don’t reopen in their original space. And so on.
It’s more than just spaces. For example, using full screen app mode on dual-screen setups makes one of the monitors become unusable (covered with a oh-so-nice Lionesque background). Try watching a DVD full screen on one monitor while you do something on the other. Worked like a charm in Snow Leopard, impossible to do in Lion. Try putting the DVD player full screen on your TV while the menu is on the main screen of your laptop (just because most HD TVs overscan, so putting the menu there means you don’t see it). Nope, Lion knows better, it will bring the full screen picture where the menu is, not when the window is. That also worked in Snow Leopard.
And there’s another one of my favorites, the Screen Saver of Doom. Some screen savers in OSX Lion consume all the memory they can. They evict all the useful stuff away. So when it’s time to log back in, you see your keystrokes show up. one. at. a. time. And by the time you logged back in, you see that 5G of your 8G of RAM are now free. For the next few minutes, every single application you will try to use will page stuff back in and be extremely unresponsive. That too is a nuisance. Let’s not get used to it.
OSX Snow Leopard was a lean and mean operating system, just like its feline counterpart. OSX Lion takes on its role model as well: it’s big, heavy, slow, lazy, and it doesn’t care about you a tiny bit.
Let’s just hope that Apple’s next OSX version, Mountain Lion, will not be smaller, less powerful but more dangerous than its predecessor… Unfortunately, I won’t hold my breath based on what we can gather from Apple’s sneak peek Making it more difficult to download third-party applications in the name of security? A chat application? Twitter support? A features page that has so little to show that it needs to boast on the US web site about stuff designed specifically for China? Seriously?
I still want to believe that Apple will soon focus again on making their OS lean, mean and efficient like it used to be.