How Could OS X Be Improved?

by James R. Stoup Oct 10, 2005

How many of us like OS X?

Ok, now, how many of us think it could be better?

Alright, got any ideas?

See, those first two questions were real easy, but that last one makes people pause a little. And so, after a little bit of thinking I compiled a list of what I think Apple could do to improve OS X.

The Finder
A lot of my complaints here are purely cosmetic. For example, I want to be able to change the opacity of the Finder windows. If you open the Terminal you can change the background color, text color and the opacity, which is wonderful. It allows you to customize your Terminal to suit your style. So, I see no reason why Finder windows shouldn’t have the same options.

OS X gives you the great feature of changing the background of a Finder window, you can set it to be a color or a picture. However, it is an all or nothing process. Which is nice, sort of, unless you want to have multiple colors or pictures in multiple windows. It would be a better if you could select a folder and set the background for it and all of its subfolders. That would be a much more effective feature. That way all of the windows that can be opened from your “Games” folder can have a picture of the Mario Brothers and your “Barbie Doll Pictures” folder can have a pink background.

The Dock
Once again that opacity thing rears its ugly head. Here is another time when it would be just swell to have control of the transparency of the dock. And while we’re at why not let us change the color of the dock too. And how about changing the shape of the dock? Instead of a semi-transparent rectangle how about one with rounded corners? Or maybe a thin bar through the middle of the icons, giving them a floating appearance. Once again it would be nice to several different choices in how the dock looks.

I love Spotlight but it definitely needs improvement. More search options would be the first improvement I can think of. I think they should keep the simple search bar that comes up when you hit [apple - space] but the more detailed search window needs to have a few more field. Such as a NOT operator. That way I can search for all files having the words “family vacation” but without the word “Florida”. Or how about an easy way to look for Quicktime files created last year with the word “racing” in it. Those are just a few examples of some improvements that could be made.

Extra Applications
I think that Apple could include a few more applications with OS X. The first one has to be a solitaire game. What can I say, I like the chess application but sometimes I want mindless entertainment, and let’s face it, that isn’t chess. So throwing in a couple of card games would be great. Maybe Apple could include a game like Snood too. And a decent FTP application would be useful as well, though I think more people will use the card game.

First, I want a true multiple desktop setup, not an add on application such as Desktop Manager. Don’t get me wrong, DTM is a great application, I just want Apple to build that functionality into the OS. As such I want to have multiple desktops, each with their own background. And how about a picture in a picture while were at it? That way you could see what is happening on your second desktop while you are working in your first. I realize that wouldn’t improve productivity much, but it would look cool.

When are we going to get animated desktop backgrounds? Even if it is only something simple I still want it. Wouldn’t it be great to see the earth spinning, a flower growing or maybe the equalizer from the song currently playing in iTunes?

So, those are my ideas for some improvements to OS X. Maybe with a little luck we will see them in 10.5 someday. What would you like to see in Leopard?


  • Networking under OS X sucks in my opinion. If the server drops my connection for any reason my Mac becomes unresponsive and spins the beach ball - sometimes for five minutes until it works out what has happened - Why does it take so long? Surely this can’t be too difficult to fix ... then again, it appears Apple has hired a lot of second rate ex Windows programmers of late given the lack of quality of many apps ...

    What about a CONSISTENT USER INTERFACE? Is that too much to ask? How hard can it be to get everyone together and give them some guidelines? It’s almost as if the different departments don’t talk at all ... COMMUNICATION could solve so many interface woes.

    Perhaps programmers could be seconded to HELP desk functions once a week - that would be sure to instantaneously inspire them to make a better product.

    There are so many niggly little things about Tiger that really irritate me - like dragging a file to my hard drive and having the finder window that springs open, spring open behind the frontmost application so I have no idea where I’m putting the file - was Spotlight invented to solve this? (<= sarcasm) Personally I’d prefer correct Spring-loaded window behaviour.

    Then there are decisions that seem to be made arbitrarily, without any consultation that affect my work flow - and not in a good way. Changes to Quicktime Pro are a case in point.

    It feels like Apple is less responsive to user-requests than in the past ... It also feels like programmers know less about the possibilities of the OS as evidenced in numerous blogs relating to file-tracking etc. (See drunkenblogs Finder errors ...)

    Anyway, I hope someone at Apple finally brings it all together. I’m not used to the computer I love being uncohesive ...

    Prendergast had this to say on Oct 11, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Bob Appleby:

    What you seem to want from widgets is actually available using standard applications.  Note that the “Calculator” is still included as a standard app.  Sherlock also includes Dictionary and Thesaurus on the application level.  Stop using widgets for these types of tools and instead download standard apps that do the same thing. There are tons of them out there - most of them written long before Dashboard was introduced in 10.4.

    vb_baysider had this to say on Oct 11, 2005 Posts: 243
  • I want screen partioning. i.e. you can partion your screen and apps run in the partition they are opened in. With so much screen real state available to us nowadays - esp widescreen - this wouldn’t pose any problems and be very useful as you could keep apps open in one partition that you didn’t want to get covered by others.

    eg you could have your dictionary/thesaurus open in one partition, or an open folder you stored images in that you use often by dragging to applications.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Oct 11, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • Also, dual running OSes. i.e. being able to start up more than one OS at a time and then hot key swapping between them. I wouldn’t care if the one without focus was suspended. With the coming Mactels, it would be very useful. How hard would it be? Probably very very hard. It would require some sort of new boot manager to handle it.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Oct 11, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • How about making OS X even easier to lock down for corporations, schools, etc.? It’s still not there - especially for those of us who have LDAP set up. Lots of small hacks must take place so that the preferences of the default local user can stick to our LDAP login users. Also, Apple needs to fix the bug that causes the dreaded “hdiutil: convert failed - image/device too large” problem that’s plagued Disk Utility ever since 10.3.9 (it worked correctly in 10.3.8 and earlier). Just my $0.02, from an IT perspective.

    kms007 had this to say on Oct 13, 2005 Posts: 1
  • If you go to the preferences for Tiger’s Dictionary app, it has a British pronunciations option. What I want to be able to do is add my own dictionary definitions. I play Dungeon & Dragons and I personally think it would be pretty cool if I could create a D&D dictionary that the Dictionary app could search through.

    The Dock is fine, to me. What developers need to do is make better use of contextual menus in the dock! (ie, Dock Menus)

    The Finder does lack customization. While transparencies may hog a tiny bit more CPU power or RAM, it would be neat! OS 9 had the Appearance control pannel - Apple, give us something like that. Windows has had it for YEARS.

    Command+Tab may or may not have been stolen from Windows, but the feature has been around since at least OS 8. The floating, giant icon viewer that shows up in Tiger is, however, new and clearly a feature Windows already had. : )

    Unified GUI? NEVER! Let me try to explain something to you people who moan and gripe about Aqua and it’s “lack of consistancy.” Here’s the deal: Aqua has a set of Human Interface Guidelines. When building your app’s interface in Interface Builder these guidelines show up as red and blue dashed lines telling you what’s acceptable as far things being close to each other (like buttons and text entry fields) and being close to the edges of a window. Brushed metal’s HIG is slightly different than the normal window’s. Therefore, so long as you kept the HIG in mind when designing your app, Brushed Metal DOES NOT break the Aqua Human Interface Guidelines. Furthermore, though this has been abused a tiny bit by Apple (Safari is a good example) and by 3rd party devs, brushed metal is great for single-window (ie, not document-based) applications. Calculator? iTunes? Perfect. iChat? Only with tabbed IMs (does iChat have tabbed IMs yet?). Safari? Well, if you get yourself to use tabbed browsing, the brushed metal theme makes sense. Now, in regards to Apple’s pro apps, these use a special interface that can not be duplicated through Interface Builder. It’s basically a proprietary Apple developers’ theme which has its own set of HIG. Personally, I like the idea that the pro apps look different because it helps them stand out from the zillions of little freeware, shareware, or full commercial apps.

    Oh, and Finder being brushed metal? SO WHAT! There are better things to complain about, such as OS X’s terrible thread spawning and management which is where most of its speed issues come from. Or, how about Apple’s delayed adoption of newer technologies, like PCI Express in place of AGP - that would get better performance out of existing cards (granted, you can’t plug an AGP card into a PCI Express slot) and open the doors for newer, better graphics cards (a la the new iMacs - which gives a nice preview for PowerMac updates). How about complaining that OS X’s Connect to Server feature is all but useless for FTP work? How about complaining about needing to download and compile your own version of WebKit to get Safari to display most web content correctly (though it does a pretty good job anyay), but the discovering doing so eliminates most of Safari’s contextual menus and RSS capabilities.

    Multiple desktops? Maybe that’d be cool… But fix the basics of OS X first. Fix it’s underlying architecture. When OS X becomes a viable server OS, start adding in ultimately useless features like multiple desktops. I can see the need for this on small monitors or laptops. Not for most desktop systems.

    Animated desktops? You can do this through the Terminal by applying a screen saver as the desktop picture, but it eats up a TON of CPU power. Even on G5s. Despite this, I would actually be quite excited if I could get a spectrum analyzer (color, or identical to the one at the top of the iTunes window) on my desktop. Even better would be if it reacted to all sounds, like system alerts and sounds from games that don’t run full screen… You know, for enertainment reasons more so than any possible practical reasons.

    Dual-running OSs… Hmm. OK. That would be pretty cool. I’m seeing it now… command+option+tabbing my way over to some new Linux distro, working with some nifty OSS and then command+option+tabbing my way back to OS X! Ah, I’d never actually use that, but I’ll support it as a possible feature.

    OS X still needs work in the networking department. Personally, I despise the fact that every time I switch users and/or wake my computer from sleep, I have to reconnect to a wireless network. What’s the point of setting up a default network to connect to in the system preferences if it doesn’t do it? And, yeah, lcms007’s comments are important too!

    Bozoface, where do yuo see a open subfolder in new tab option in the Finder? A perfect indicator of windows loading content before the content shows up would be that dashed circular object that shows up during boot time in OS X. It looks cool and it’s pretty clear what it means. Or, there’s always the age-old watch pointer which they could have the regular pointer turn into when you mouse over the loading window. Hey, if you can do it with CSS and JavaScript, you can do it with an OS!

    I second the notion of using real apps over widgets for a couple of reasons. Generally, I don’t want to wait for Dashboard to load and sometimes the widgets lose features that the non-widget apps of the same use contain. Plus, loading a ton of dashboard widgets eats up loads of RAM.

    Location specific System Prefs would be amazing. Before OS X you could do this, now Location applies only to your Networking prefs.

    How about clear documentation?! Improve Help. Does Apple need to hire new people just for this? Consider me applied for the job. OS X has so many little tricks no one knows about. Ever dropped a folder into the Dock? Talk about useful!

    OK… Just to respond to some other comments… The green maxiimize (+) button (bubble? gumdrop? gem?) should have three states, in my opinion. Current size, last size dragged to, and full screen. Heck, why not four? Smallest possible size! Problem is, making people aware that clicking a button like that could cycle through states. And, maybe it could have right-click features to select the specific state or shift-click features to cycle through them backwards. : )

    Spring-loading folders are when you drag something over a folder and after a short delay (adjustable in the Finder’s preferences) that folder opens up in a new window. Pressing the space bar automatically skips the wait period and spring-loads the folder. Right-clicking (or, control-clicking for one mouse button users) a folder (in the Finder, on the Desktop, or in the Dock) displays a contextual menu. Two totally different things.

    While more games on OS X would be something a lot of people would appreciate, Apple could spend their time and money on more important things. Also, sites like MySpace work well enough in Safari, but even better if you build your own WebKit. I’ll agree that the Win-IE optimizing needs to stop. Sure, it’s still the most widely used browser in the world, but FireFox is here to stay, Safari is here to stay. OmniWeb, Opera, Camino (and the other Mozilla browsers), and Netscape probably aren’t going anywhere either. Therefore, all these narrow-sighted, idiotic web design individuals or teams need to stop designing sites in such a way that they pretty much only work in the latest version of Internet Explorer on Windows. Why do people avoid standards?!

    Option-dragging a file to duplicate it into a new location does not remove the original and so does not solve the issue one or two individuals have mentioned.

    OS X’s own solitaire? Maybe… I dunno. A couple petty little games might actually be nice to kill time and help reduce stress during a project that just doesn’t seem to go right for you…

    What’s wrong with taking features from Windows? If they’re useful/helpful/neccessary, then do it. How do you think Windows even started? Besides, we all know Apple could give it that special flare that makes it seem like Apple must’ve done it first. On that note, give me the option to rename and delete files from within the Open/Save dialogue. I’m serious.

    That’s all I have to say for now.

    Waa had this to say on Oct 13, 2005 Posts: 110
  • Waa,

    Quite a list you have there. Thank you for your well thought out response. I agree with much of what you said.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Oct 13, 2005 Posts: 122
  • Haha. Well thought out? Me?! Never! Everything must be off the cuff, half researched, laden with opinion and most likely wrong. Thass how I do, as the kids would say.

    I thought of something while I was working though, so I snuck away to a computer to post this: OS 9 did not have a unified appearance. For one, as far back as OS 6 and 7 there were multiple window styles that could be used, and the brushed metal theme made its debut in OS 9 through iTunes and the QuickTime Player. So, there!

    Waa had this to say on Oct 13, 2005 Posts: 110
  • I’d like to be able to move, delete and copy files from within Open and Save dialogs. I had a utility years ago, maybe pre Sys7, that created that function and it was great. And I think you do it in Windows dialogs.

    Greg Caulton had this to say on Oct 13, 2005 Posts: 1
  • There was a utility in the System 7 (and it may have worked in 8 too) that added a whole slew of features to the OS from enhanced hierarchical menus to more options in the open/save dialogues. See, Apple should steal from shareware developers!

    Waa had this to say on Oct 14, 2005 Posts: 110
  • Chris Howard,

    I don’t know about the screen partitioning thing, maybe.

    As for dual OSes, interesting, though it’s not something I would see myself using much.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Oct 17, 2005 Posts: 122
  • kms007,

    What hacks are you referring to? I was under the impression OS X was fairly easy to lock down.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Oct 17, 2005 Posts: 122
  • And speaking of locking down your system, does anyone remember the utility in Classic OS that would allow you to limit the rights of users? It might have started with an “e”?

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Oct 17, 2005 Posts: 122
  • iCal to work with Exchange servers. 
    And shared iCal via .Mac service.  One that can be editable by multiple users.

    aoren had this to say on Dec 11, 2005 Posts: 1
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