OS X: A Few Much-Needed Improvements

A good friend of mine has been making the transition to Mac from Windows recently, and the experience has highlighted a couple of things that Apple really ought to do different and better with OS X:

  1. Turn the Dashboard off by default.
  2. Provide information about app installation and uninstallation.

Turn the Dashboard off by default.

Apple hasn’t been actively supporting Dashboard widgets for years now. The feature was launched with OS X 10.4 Tiger, way back in spring 2005. By the time 10.6 Snow Leopard came around, they were definitely a back-burner item, and the part of 2011– the year 10.7 released — saw Apple stop accepting Dashboard widget submissions entirely. It’s thus been over two years since new Dashboard widgets were available, and the download site has been broken off and on. Dashboard widgets are clearly not a high priority for Apple.

Making it a default part of users’ experience — especially new users — is just a bad idea. It leads to unnecessary confusion during the setup process, as users are likely to go looking for widgets only to find both that there aren’t that many really quality ones, and that new ones are not being submitted. (Most small utilities that would have gone on the Dashboard at one point have since become menubar items — a change which has some positives, but has also left my menubar increasingly cluttered.) Apple could, and should, leave the functionality in place for those users who rely on it,1 but turn it off for new users and simply add an option in the Preferences Panel to enable it.

Teach people how application installation works.

App installation from non-App Store sources is not obvious. Most installer windows don’t have words; some don’t even have the standard arrow-to-Application Folder shortcut. The app will happily launch from within the .dmg file. (What’s a .dmg file?) To a new OS X user, especially one coming from Windows, this is possibly the most confusing area of the OS. Windows users are accustomed to installation procedures, not “drag this wherever you want it and have a nice day.” The simplicity is grand — it’s one of the little details that I love, and one of the niceties of being on a Unix-based system. It is, however, not intuitive. It may “just work,” but it isn’t obvious.

Likewise, Windows users expect application uninstallation to be substantially more complicated than it is. For at least 95% of the applications I’ve ever used on OS X, uninstallation simply consists of moving the app to the Trash. Again: this is enormously better than Windows’ complicated Add/Remove programs scheme and the accompanying registry and DLL hells that have plagued Windows since time immemorial.2 The problem isn’t the process; it’s the fact that it’s not obvious — a simple explanation would go a long ways.

Unfortunately, neither installation nor uninstallation are covered by Apple’s transition materials as far as I can tell, and in any case they remain opaque to many transitioning users of all stripes. My fairly tech-savvy-but-not-technical mom was confused by this when transitioning eight years ago, I was confused when I switched five years ago, and one of my best friends — a professional software developer — required an explanation this weekend. The system is great; the available information, not so much.

A small tutorial that is available on first setup of a computer would be enormously helpful in making these transitions. Allow the user to access it at the completion of the setup process if they wish, and make it available under Finder’s Help menu, preferably as a distinct menu item (something like ‘New user tutorials’ would do the trick nicely).

  1. I realized in the course of writing this article that I don’t really need or use it, and accordingly disabled it entirely. 
  2. Okay, so, just for the last fifteen, twenty and thirty years, respectively. Close enough, in computer terms, right? Or, in other words, since the heyday of AOL, since the launch of Mosaic, and since a year after the original Apple Macintosh came out. Like I said: close enough. 

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