‘It Just Works’ should be the next step

Knowing I like to talk about user interfaces, usability and operating systems, a few weeks ago my friend Michele Di Paola pointed me to this essay on Medium: macOS: It’s time to take the next step by Andrew Ambrosino, tacitly asking my opinion about it.

It’s a good essay, one that gives me the opportunity to discuss things that interest me, considering how lately it seems that Mac OS X and non-mobile operating systems have become a bit of the Cinderella of the tech debate.

A large part of Ambrosino’s contribution is devoted to big images showcasing how he imagines the next Mac OS interface, and I have to give him credit — for once, I’m presented with something that looks entirely possible and not just some designer’s abstract wet dream. It’s a very Apple-like direction towards an even more polished UI. I like the visual consistency of his proposal, and the idea of having Mac equivalents of certain iOS apps.

Some of Ambrosino’s UI touches also remind me of certain design choices I don’t particularly like when applied to a desktop operating system, such as the disappearance of chrome from application and Finder’s windows. Yosemite has brought to OS X the same kind of ‘flat revolution’ iOS 7 brought to iOS, and while I agree that a visual refresh was overdue (for both systems, but especially for OS X), the switch to a flatter design has also come with questionable decisions related to user interaction and usability. The extreme reduction of window chrome, coupled with the ability to resize a window from any side means an increased, unnecessary difficulty when moving windows around.

Sometimes you try grabbing a window from its title (an old habit for seasoned Mac users) and you accidentally resize it. Sometimes, when having multiple windows open in a text application, instead of moving a window away, you end up either resizing it or even inadvertently selecting text in it. This happens in particular — to me and to a few different people I spoke with — when using the trackpad as input device instead of the mouse. Small last-second movements of the fingertips, and the pointer is offset enough from the intended position that you end up mishandling a window in the ways just described.

I believe we can give windows some chrome back, or even a more visible, grabbable border, without losing in flatness or elegance. To tell you the truth, I find the old way of resizing a window by only having to drag the bottom right corner to be more comfortable and less error-prone.

The part I most disagree with in Ambrosino’s proposal, however, is when he talks about a new filesystem that would leave behind the old hierarchical model in favour of a ‘single bucket’ model, relying on “powerful search and self-organization” (?):

Last year I had the privilege of working at Upthere […]. Started by Bertrand Serlet and others a few years ago, the goal has been to introduce a brand new stack that forms a cloud filesystem and model for organizing content. The model is simple and the implementation complex — it lacks hierarchy and relies on powerful search and self-organization, along with building in sharing and collaboration into the filesystem itself. It’s about time for macOS to shift to this type of organization (or just buy them!)

This is not the first time I’ve heard this tune, that the hierarchical filesystem must die because— well, apparently because it’s an old model and not suited for our modern needs anymore. The ‘top highlight’ of the essay is: We produce far too much content and our work is too often collaborative to rely on a manual model that was designed many, many years ago.

Sorry, but I’m not convinced. Am I the only one who sees the ‘single bucket’ model as being actually more impractical when applied outside of the cloud and at the local level? Why have to solely rely on search, when things can just as easily be found by browsing because in most cases you already know where to look? That’s why it’s called Finder. Even when Spotlight on the Mac worked better (under Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger and 10.9 Mavericks, in my experience), I usually found what I was looking for by going to where I knew it would be — because I put it there in the first place — or where I at least expected it would be; this latter scenario happens when I don’t remember the exact file name (e.g. IMG_7918) but I’m pretty sure about the name of the folder I’ve put it in (e.g. Firefox iPad screenshots).

Also, with this proposed new ‘single bucket’ model, how would one manage operations like copying a bunch of files from the Mac to an external drive or USB key? Sure, one can look for the files first, or maybe they’re linked together by what Upthere calls loops, but unless I’m missing something obvious, this doesn’t strike me as a faster way to carry out what amounts to opening a couple of folders in the Finder and drag-and-dropping the relevant files on the destination drive.

I’ve nothing against searching, mind you. A powerful search is a great tool to have. For me, it works like this:

  • The Finder is my short-term memory search tool: all recently accessed files and projects are basically a click away. I’m usually faster at retrieving stuff by looking at my organised folders inside the Finder than accessing Spotlight, typing what I want to retrieve, and finally opening it.
  • Spotlight and (better) Find Any File, are my long-term memory search tools. I use them every time I need to look for something I filed long time ago and am not sure anymore where to look for it. If I feel I may have moved it on another volume, I connect my external hard drives to the Mac and perform a blanket search on all volumes. This is obviously much faster than fumbling about clicking on several folders down the wrong rabbit hole.
  • Then there’s Raskin, which is the tool I resort to especially when I’m looking for a certain image file or photo or PDF document and I have absolutely no idea what its filename is or where I put it, but I remember what it looks like. Raskin provides an unique bird’s-eye view on folders and files, and in several occasions I’ve been able to spot the image I was after by recognising it ‘from above’. Raskin is a rather ingenious tool that perhaps needs a bit of your time to become familiar, but once you get accustomed to its logic, it’s a handy solution to have in your arsenal.

My point is, why should the filesystem be tied to a single model at all? Why not have multiple ones? In other words, why not let people organise stuff with the method that’s most efficient for them, and then offer multiple models, multiple ways to search and retrieve information? Macs are powerful enough to handle this, and certainly powerful enough to manage underlying complexity while offering user-friendliness on the surface. The seeds are there: just imagine a more efficient Finder with a more efficient Spotlight engine, plus a better way to display search results and ways to interact with such results; plus an added capability to perform visual/spatial bird’s-eye view searches the way Raskin does. Not to mention Siri as a search tool. All built in OS X (or MacOS, whatever it’s going to be called next). Things simply need to work more seamlessly, more coherently, and more reliably.

Let’s get back to that ‘top highlight’ in the essay: We produce far too much content and our work is too often collaborative to rely on a manual model that was designed many, many years ago.

What does this mean? In what ways the hierarchical filesystem is inadequate to handle far too much content and collaborative work? It’s a genuine question. You file content gradually anyway, you don’t usually produce 250,000 files overnight and have to organise them the day after. While doing research for Low Fidelity, the science fiction novel I’m publishing in serialised form on my magazine Vantage Point, I recently downloaded a lot of PDFs from the Web. I hadn’t planned that — I started finding interesting materials online, one thing led to another, and when I realised my Downloads folder was getting crowded, I created three new folders to organise the files I had downloaded; then I put everything in the Research folder inside my Low Fidelity project folder. Doing this is simple, it keeps my stuff tidily organised, and keeps me organised and efficient when I need to retrieve information.

As for the collaborative work — I honestly don’t know. I have done little collaborative work in my professional career. The little I’ve done never involved working with other people on the same file at the same time. We simply agreed to share a dedicated Dropbox folder.

On a similar note, I haven’t much to say about The People Thread, the last section of Ambrosino’s essay. I guess it’s a smart thing to create ‘an advanced common thread for people,’ considering how obsessed the present technological era is getting on the social aspect of everything. I still view the Mac as a personal computer first — as a local, private, personal space first, and a means to share slash collaborative device second. So if I were to design a new model for the Mac operating system, I would still favour the personal over the social, but of course I’d give the users with more social/collaborative needs all the necessary tools to carry out whatever they want to carry out.

In the end, I think that what the next ‘MacOS’ needs most is focus. Focus on what it has historically done best — ‘just working’. I don’t think that the current problems of OS X have much to do with its old age or its old models. It’s more a matter of identity. I feel that recent versions of OS X have tried to ‘look friendly’, as if to say Hey folks, I can be simple like iOS! Look, I too can have big app icons taking up the whole screen! I too can go full-screen with apps, and I can do split-view just as well! And I have Notification Centre like on iOS! and so on. This path of convergence with iOS hasn’t been all bad, but the process has involved an accumulation of new features which not always have brought more value or functionality, and often have introduced bugs or annoyances; all this has ultimately undermined the most important aspect of using a Mac — the ‘it just works’ aspect.

OS X shouldn’t present its simplicity by dressing up as ‘the iOS for the desktop’. It should present its simplicity through its powerfulness and versatility, through a coherent, cohesive system that ‘just works’. A system that is more than just the sum of its parts. A system where — to make an example already mentioned above — people can organise their documents and files any way they like, and then search and retrieve them in many different ways: through the Finder, or a more reliable version of Spotlight, or by looking at the entire filesystem from a bird’s-eye perspective like in Raskin, or by performing dictation search through Siri. What makes people love iOS, what makes people think iOS is much simpler than OS X is, I believe, its reliability. iOS feels positively predictable, dependable. This kind of reliability should become the main focus for the next ‘MacOS’, not just a continued aggregation of old, newer, and borrowed features swept under the carpet of a translucent, attractive UI.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!