Lion Is a Quitter


For the first time since I’m on Mac OS X, I’m not getting particularly thrilled about the latest version of the operating system. I remember embracing the transition to Mac OS X from Mac OS 9 with enthusiasm, and every time a new version of Mac OS X was out, I immediately upgraded, certain that the benefits always outweighed the compromises. I always trusted Mac OS X to the point that — apart from a manual backup of my most important data — with every upgrade, I just inserted the system discs and updated, without too many paranoid precautions.

You’ll probably think it’s silly, but for me Lion is becoming a really controversial upgrade. It’s the first time a new version of Mac OS X has made me really consider not only a simple backup, but a complete cloning of the contents of my main hard drive and a Snow Leopard/Lion dual-boot configuration. It’s the first time I’ve waited so long before actually upgrading. It’s the first time I’m really giving a lot of thought to that benefits/compromises balance, because for the first time I’ve the feeling that what Lion is giving me barely compensates what it’s making me leave behind. Mind you, these are strictly personal reasons & observations. They’re related to how I’ve been using my main Mac, how I’ve been perfecting my workflow, the applications I’ve come to rely upon, etc. In this regard, as I’ve already said, Lion feels rather disruptive to me. I find many of its new features appealing, but at the same time perhaps I’m just not ready to adjust my habits. In a nutshell: I will upgrade to Lion, but for the first time with a strong safety net and less enthusiasm than before.

I’ve written this long introduction to this great article by Matt Neuburg — Lion Is a Quitter — to make you understand where I’m coming from and why I agree with Matt’s position. His piece is about a so-called feature in Lion, Auto Termination. What does it do? Neuburg quotes the amazing review of Lion by John Siracusa:

Lion will quit your running applications behind your back if it decides it needs the resources, and if you don’t appear to be using them. The heuristic for determining whether an application is “in use” is very conservative: it must not be the active application, it must have no visible, non-minimized windows — and, of course, it must explicitly support Automatic Termination.

This ‘feature’, though, seems to be messing with Neuburg’s workflow:

Yesterday, the same thing happened to me with Preview. I launched Preview because I wanted to open a certain PDF document. So I chose File > Open to summon the Open dialog. At that point, however, I realized that I wanted to make some changes to the folder containing the PDF document I intended to open. So I closed Preview’s Open dialog (and I may also have told Preview to hide) and switched to the Finder. When I was done messing about in the Finder, I tried to use Command-Tab to switch back to Preview to bring up the Open dialog again — but I couldn’t, because in the meantime, Preview had quietly been told to quit, by the system, behind my back, without notifying me.


As Siracusa goes on to point out, when Automatic Termination occurs, the terminated application may in fact not really be terminated. For example, right now on my machine, TextEdit is listed in Activity Monitor as one of my running processes. It’s using some memory; it has open files. Nevertheless, TextEdit doesn’t appear in the Command-Tab switcher or the Dock. Lion has faked me out twice: it has caused TextEdit to vanish from the GUI’s display of running applications even though I didn’t quit TextEdit, and at the same time, it has kept TextEdit running in the background.

Matt then questions the usefulness of Auto Termination, and in my opinion he makes some good points against it, both from a technical and a user experience standpoint.

I know that this, like the change from Exposé + Spaces to Mission Control, is bound to give me headaches because part of my workflow is having two or three applications in the background and having to move back and forth from one to another to compare, make changes, open files, copy-paste contents, close files, and so on, and it would be hugely annoying for me if the system decided to quit one of these applications behind my back just because I don’t have open documents or windows at a particular moment. That’s why I really sympathise with this bit:

[T]he fact is that when Lion caused Preview to quit automatically yesterday on my machine, I was using Preview. I wasn’t using it actively at that moment in a way that Lion knew about — there were no open Preview windows, and Preview wasn’t frontmost — but I was engaged in some activity involving Preview. I had switched away from Preview only in order to prepare things in the Finder so that the document I intended to open in Preview would be ready. But when I switched back to Preview with Command-Tab, Preview was gone. That’s not helpful or useful; it’s annoying, confusing, and a hindrance. I had to launch Preview explicitly again in order to continue with my task.

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1 Comment

  1. I have mixed feelings with Lion too, so much that I’m waiting to buy a new Mac and upgrading my actual Macbook Pro.
    To solve the problem with Automatic Termination I see two ways:
    1) to put an option somewhere to disable it
    2) when a program is “terminated” its data are still in memory, so if you still see it in Mission Control or in the cmd+tab window you can invoke it. But at this point it’s like not having Automatic Termination.
    Let’ see what will happen with 10.7.x but at the moment I see this more as a problem than a feature.

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