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See the world through the eyes of a newbie

A week ago my older brother finally broke down from the years of subtle mental pressure applied by his girlfriend and me (Linux and Mac nerds, respectively) and dumped his Dell for an iMac G5. Being the family tech support agent and the Mac evangelist that affected the change, easing him through the transition became my burden; at some stage in his life he clearly gave up on natural inquisitiveness and self-initiated learning and figured “ask the guy who knows” is a better option, so I’ve been inundated with questions this week. Not that I can complain; in his case I know he’ll retain the information and be able to reapply it in the future. The same cannot be said of every family member I support.

It’s been interesting, in the mean time, to see his reaction to the different snags he has hit along the way. It’s as though (and I suppose I can be blamed in this regard) he expects the Mac to be an entirely magical entity, one that always does everything exactly right… usually reading your mind to do so. Often his problems aren’t because he’s a n00b (not to put too vulgar a spin on it, damned gamer slang), but exactly the opposite: because he’s a Windows Power User. When he migrates from Thunderbird to Apple Mail he doesn’t have problems setting up his accounts or composing email, his problem is that he can’t find where to set up mail filters because they’re called ‘rules’ instead, and that the contextual menu he once relied on to create filters isn’t there either; problems my parents or uncles or grandparents would never run into because they’ve never used a mail filter in their life.

And although some of his problems are outlandishly n00bian, they’re not always what they seem. Like demanding to know why QuickTime couldn’t play such-and-such a video file. The answer was that he needed to install precisely the same software on the Mac to play the video as he did on his PC —namely DivX— but it did uncover a rather glaring failure on QuickTime’s behalf: it’ll tell you that it can’t play a particular file, and it’ll even direct you to a yawningly useless page of potential plugins, but it won’t identify the unplayable format for you. It could, don’t doubt it —the required information is there in the Movie Info pane, if you know where to look— so why not just tell the user what he needs instead of offering the UI equivalent of a shoulder shrug?

It is, with that in mind, that I walk through some of the troubles he has had this last week with fresh eyes and think my god, what were they thinking?

Plugging his eight-button laser mouse into the iMac and having it work out of the box with no driver installation or rebooting is nice, sure, but wondering why each of the buttons don’t do precisely what they did on Windows and blaming the computer isn’t so cool. I don’t even know what I’d expect those buttons to do, but the thought of customizing them with the mouse’s own bundled software never crossed his mind. Why not? Because he didn’t need to install that software for the mouse to function in the first place.

I’m definitely not advocating a sideways “education through necessity” approach that mandates additional software be installed just so we know it exists, but given that OS X has such great support for mice of all shapes and sizes one wonders why the Keyboard & Mouse preference pane doesn’t let you customize those additional mouse buttons. If you’ve gone so far, why not the extra mile? So… besides that and a wish that his iMac had multiple optical drives (!!), he’s positively thrilled with the machine and the OS X experience, but there are some niggling issues that persist.

For god's sake when I put a program into HIDE mode then damn well stay hidden. I don’t care if I have just put a new CD into iTunes and that the computer is going to start backing it up. I KNOW THAT YOU DUMBASS COMPUTER — I PUT THE DISC INTO THE DRIVE MYSELF! I want you to just rip it, then eject it, AND STAY IN THE BACKGROUND WHILST YOU DO IT, YOU EXTROVERTED, EGOMANIACAL SOCIOPATH!!!

You can taste the bile, but he’s completely right. Applications demanding (and getting) attention front-and-center is one of my pet peeves on Mac OS X, and it seems to go so completely unnoticed in Mac circles that I thought I might be the only one that thinks this way. When you’ve hidden something (or, more appropriately, when an app is in the background and you’re working on something else), having it move to the foreground is a pain in the ass. A huge one. This is precisely what dock-bouncing was built for; a “hey, I need attention!” cry that actually gets your attention without messing with your work. In Dave’s case, when iTunes is set to read a disc, rip it, and eject it, it should be that simple. Worse still when you’re clicking on or typing in Application A and the attention-seeking Application B jumps forward to ask a question, there is the off chance that your input (intended for A) will go to B. Not what I intended. Not at all cool.

On a similar thread, although deviating from Dave’s complaints, it’s beyond me that a boring background process like the disk image mounter should put a window front-of-screen. Just mount the disk image, and quietly! I’m coming to be of the opinion that this kind of feedback would be better integrated into the Finder — especially since DiskImageMounter and other archive tools don’t launch into the Dock like they used to. They’re effectively faceless, so why not make them completely faceless and be done with the progress window? People already believe, however misguided they be, that things like this are done by the Finder because ‘the Finder is the computer’… so impose the progress onto the file icon, with an animated spinner or progress bar, and have done with it.

Speaking of disk images, boy are they a bizarre distribution method when you think about it. Don’t worry about me, I get why they were invented and why (at least in the early days) they were used to distribute anything and everything for OS X, but they’re a ridiculous concept to explain. “You see the .dmg file? Yeah, clicking that creates a kind of ‘virtual disk’ that sits there on your desktop. Yes, the white one. So instead of dragging the Firefox icon from that virtual disk to the dock, you need to drag it to your applications folder and then you can get rid of the virtual disk… otherwise every time you click the Firefox icon in your dock it’ll have to remount the image to launch the application, and if you ever deleted the .dmg file it wouldn’t be able to mount and you’d be fucked”.

Yeah, real intuitive.

I think at this point in Mac OS X’s history we could safely deprecate disk images and not hear a complaint. So I’ll say it straight out: if you’re distributing a GUI application that requires no more than a drag-n-drop installation, zip it up.

Update

Word from Dave…

I’d like an amendment. I was hesitant about installing the Logitech software because on Windows they installed spyware, which then fucked my system when I tried to uninstall. The spyware did NOT uninstall, and using Adaware and Spybot Search and Destroy fucked Windows up the wazoo.

So saying, The Logitech Control Centre did NOT effectively control the mouse. No, I had to download (and pay for) USB Overdrive, a completely third party piece of software. Which gives me incredibly good control by the way.

Well, even though that part of the post was berating Apple, it looks like Logitech are the asses here. The functionality he describes as missing from the Logitech Control Center software was custom control for the tiltwheel, which on Windows was set for sideways scrolling, whereas on OS X defaulted to browser Forward/Back controls.