What I want in OS X

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Things I’d like to see in upcoming editions of OS X:

I’d like to see an OS-level interface for managing my flow of work and information. Desktop computing centers around the experience of maintaining multiple windows across several discrete apps. That worked fine in the ’80s, when we were lucky to keep three apps running at the same time and we had barely enough storage for a two-page letter to an aunt and a desktop note that reads “Tuesday: Vitally imp. that we meet with R at J about the HJH for 80-00.”

This concept was engineered for managing a few windows on a small screen. Today’s screens have more than seven times as many pixels than that of a classic Mac but the amount of work we manage to perform has become an order of magnitude greater.

Dare I say that back in 1985, Microsoft, in its eagerness to introduce a windowed OS but not to get sued by Apple quite so quickly, fell bass-ackwards into the correct approach? Windows 1.0 used tiled panels instead of overlapping windows. What if OS X 11 had a separate Easy Mode in which the user is always looking at a single screen of immediately-relevant tiles, adeptly curated by the OS based on its guess at what’s important to you at this part of your day?

It seems like the OS could build a fairly comprehensive profile of my app and document patterns. I’m in Pages and I’m writing this column right now. But it’s early in the morning. Editors are still waking up and arriving at their offices and (after slowly exhaling and commending their souls to God) reading the manuscripts I sent them overnight. I’ve got an eye peeled on my Inbox.

My friends are also arriving at their offices. I’ve got an eye on Messages and my Twitter feed. I’m also occasionally dipping into Google to check quick facts. (Yes, the MacBook Air’s max resolution is 7.4 times greater than a Classic.)

Mission Control was a big feature of Lion. It’s not a particularly clever idea, though: it’s an example of trying to simply something by adding a new set of features and functions. That never works. I’m still dealing with way too many windows and menus…now, they’re even scattered across multiple desktops!

No. OS X 11 can sense the boss’ mood and respond accordingly. If I’ve put the OS in Easy Mode, there’s a thick panel in the middle of the screen that’s controlled by Pages and tiles in the margins that deliver no more of the Mail, Twitter, Messages, and Safari apps than I’m likely to need—mobile views, as it were. I’d still have control (I could drag the Safari tile into Pages’ position so I could do some extensive research, while still scrolling through and inserting data into my column in a side tile) but overall, I could explicitly refuse to put more apps and data on my plate than I can easily manage. It’s a UI that’s based on an overall, unified goal (“Research and write a column, while still managing my outside life”), instead of the “everything or just one thing” approach we have now.

Find a new way

Many of us have been anticipating a new approach to the Finder. We’ve been expecting it for so many years that The New Finder has become a little bit like the surprise birthday party that you suspect your friends are throwing for you today. You begin with eager excitement and you urge yourself to remain patient because this is going to be great. By the middle of the afternoon, you’re snapping at your best friend because he wants to go out for coffee after the mediocre movie you wasted two hours on, and you’re just irritable and impatient for this surprise to just happen, dammit.

Eventually, you’ve been ground into a fine dust. It hasn’t happened. It was never going to happen. You don’t live in the sort of world where such nice things happen to you. Why do you even bother to have friends, anyway?

Yes, every time I try to get my hands on the file that I was working with a few weeks ago I wonder why, in this age of modern miracles such as the self-loathing compact spare tire, we even bother to have a Finder. It’s the dream of every businessperson to work their way so high up the company org chart that they no longer have the foggiest idea where or how any of the company’s files and data are stored. All they know is, they picked up the phone during lunch and asked someone to put the projected actuals report from last quarter on their desk, and by the time they’ve returned to the office and finished picking baby duck hearts from their teeth, there it is.

Why should the average Mac user expect any less? I’m surprised that the molecular unit of the Finder experience is still Drill, Baby, Drill. We click through hierarchies and volumes, searching for a file or a scrap of data that we wish we’d labeled more clearly. every time, my Mac acts as though it’s just met me this very second and has no idea who I am, how I work, or what I do for a living.

I put it to you this way: I spend far less time on Amazon.com than I do with my Mac overall. And yet from this infrequent little snapshots of me and my habits, this store can often accurately predict the next book, album, or movie I want to buy before I can even type the first letters of “Neil Diamond Erotic Poetry” into the search field.

Why can’t my Mac, with its unblinking eye and unlimited access to The Ihnatko Psychosis, figure out what I want? By the end of our first month together, my Mac and I should be a well-oiled team, like the surgeon who finds that his nurse has slapped the right instrument into his hand right before he asked for it.

I want my Dock icons to stop bouncing. I want the color Apple logo back in the Apple menu. I want greater intimacy between my iOS devices and my Macs; I want my iPhone to duly convey all of the alerts that my desktop apps wish me to see, and I want Screen Sharing to work between my iPad and my iMac.

Think irrationally

For now, Apple’s only showing us OS X 10.8. It’s still sprinkling some of the iPad fairy dust over the Mac. To what positive or negative effect? It’s too soon to say. But Apple’s certainly a company that understands the value of incubating a cool new idea inside one product and then setting it free to enhance everything else with an Apple logo on it.

For me, the most attractive part of OS X 10.8 is that it’s another step closer to 10.9, which will then leave us just a breath away from 11.0. A love of round numbers is hardwired into the human operating system. I would like to think that somewhere in some conference room in Cupertino, there’s a whiteboard with that number written on it with excited circles drawn around it. And the rest of the space is full of ideas that’ll knock everyone on their behinds.

No less an authority than the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy informs us that there is a theory about the nature of the Universe that says if anyone ever discovers exactly what it is and what it’s before, it’ll be instantly destroyed and replaced with something even more unlikely and unimaginable.

I consider this to be a wonderful item in the business plan of any technology company. Once a community of users completely understands what a product is and what it’s for, it can only mean that they’ve reached the limits of that thing’s utility. It’s time to leave it behind and start thinking irrationally.

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