Mac OS applications are not very friendly

Long before having a Mac, I learnt about it interface and the Application/Window relationship on Mac OS.

You see, there is a fundamental difference between Linux/Windows application and Mac OS application. While in the first two the window is the application (and closing the windows, closes the application), on Mac OS it is not quite like that: you can have an application running without any windows (it would still show on the task list and it would have a menu on the top, but you may have no windows at all.) It makes sense for some applications to don’t have any windows, as it makes sense for some applications to simply disappear if there are no windows open.

Examples: if you are using some text editor, when you close your window/document, it really means you are done? Maybe not, maybe you just want to close that document before starting a new one. In this case, it makes sense to have the application still running. The same goes when you have more than one document open: displaying it as two separate windows make them independent of each other and you can choose how to work with them (that’s something it took years to Microsoft to realize and dump the MDI [multi-document interface] Word was using since it was called Word.)

So, basically, what you have on Mac OS is that every document should be a window and closing all documents don’t close the application.

One of the things that annoys the hell of me is trying to use Mac OS applications in a Mac OS way. One example is Safari: If you follow the idea behind the window/application Apple introduced, you’d have one Safari window for each site. The thing that annoys me on that is that there is no visual feedback about what it is doing. Firefox have the spinning circle, Safari has nothing. To make it display any feedback, you have to enable tabs, which means you’d start opening tabs for every page, which is not the way you should use this. And, to be honest, have a single, dangling tab just to display a damn spinning circle is quite stupid.

Mail.app is another application that completely fails on user feedback. I have some 20-something filters and my IMAP server is not that fast. So, when I start the application, it does nothing. Then it beeps. And displays nothing. And then, suddenly, it displays the mail counts. And there is this space in the sidebar which says “Mail activity”. A completely lost space which could be used to display, for example, “Retrieving your email”, “Applying filters”, “Checking new mail on folder X”.

Other applications simply decide not to follow the window/application metaphor. One example is PhotoBooth. I really like to take a picture of me from time to time and update my 15-something social networks site (well, from “time to time” more likely to be “every year or so”.) The thing about PhotoBooth is that, if you close the window, the application closes too.

Software Update is ever worst. If it doesn’t find an update, it displays “There are no updates” and, when you click “Ok”, it simply disappears. No window, no application, no nothing. What kinda of user feedback is that? Show the user that the update list is empty and let the user close the window or the application. Like every other Mac OS application.

And, on top of that, all those applications where produced by Apple itself. And I won’t even comment about iTunes, which doesn’t even follow the default theme you’re using.

15 thoughts on “Mac OS applications are not very friendly

  1. Eh… there’s some points you should know about (nothing that would disagree with your point). Have in mind that I’d prefer to have this “close window -> close app” behaviour set-up somewhere in preferences, so it could be tailored to everyone (newcomers and longtime Mac users alike).

    > that’s something it took years to Microsoft to realize and dump the MDI

    First of all, there was first Excel for Mac. Then Word. They obeyed the Mac’s interface, for sure. The MDI interface was made so that they (MS) couldn’t be sued by Apple (didn’t worked so well, they were sued nonetheless). They’re abandoning it because, oh well, we have 30″ displays in 2008.

    > every document should be a window and closing all documents don’t close the application.

    If there’s only one window in the app, closing the window should close the application. That’s why iTunes doesn’t close when you close its “main” window (iTunes can display lots of windows) and PhotoBooth does (I’ve never seen PhotoBooth, but it makes sense).

    > A completely lost space which could be used to display, for example, “Retrieving your email”, “Applying filters”, “Checking new mail on folder X”.

    Don’t know about Leppard (hehe), but in Tiger there was a separate window for it, and I always had it open just because of that. Yeah, it could be vastly better.

    Software update is ridiculous. It’s clearly an afterthought to “just (rush to) market it (NEXTSTEP) to the masses”.

    I think OS X default apps are reaching to a brick wall (concerning user interface and design) fast.

    Because, if you think about it, one of the next steps would be mashing up apps (which can be done with AppleScript, but it’s not quite what I mean to it; it’s not possible to embed one application onto another. That would be a major selling point for them, for instance).

  2. Generally speaking, in Mac OS X, an application closes when its window closes if the window is the application. If the window is a document, however, the application stays open. This model is acceptable to me, and should be implemented consistently. I prefer the Mac way of things far more than the Windows way, but there is room for improvement with the Mac yet today.

  3. Hello! I’m not saying it’s totally intuitive, but the way it’s supposed to work is that “document-based” apps don’t quit when the last window is closed (you’ve only closed a document, and you might want to work on another one), whereas single window apps that aren’t document based should quit when their one window is closed. Not sure how iTunes fits in, though (not really document based, but multiple windows).

  4. Most of that commentary is wrong. The OS distinguishes between applications which can only be ever single window ( photobooth, sofware update) and the multi-document windows. Easy enough to understand. If the software update says it has nothing to show, and you say OK, then it closes. Makes sense. What are you expecting?

    Mail is multi-documented, you can have more than one viewer, or email open, so it does not close when the last window is closed. ( all this is detailed in the Apple UI guidelines btw). In a multu-documented window which is running with no windows open, clicking on the dock ( not the taskbar) will open a untitled window.

    I am not sure what exactly your problem is with safari. Safari shows progress in the URL bar on top, so opening a window will clearly show progress. Mail shows progress in a spinning progress on the left. That, I admit, is not good enough ( although it is more verbose, I am told, in Leopard)

    Anyway maybe there should be some UI to define single documented windows – a different bezel – but your problems are not real problems, just issues with regard to an OS you are not used to.

  5. Hard to tell what you are talking about. Safari’s URL address window is also a progress bar for the page. How can you miss that big blue bar that shows the loading of the page. In addition you get feedback from the bottom of the window giving text that the site is being contacted and a count of the items being loaded.

    I don’t understand your quarrel with software update. Telling me there are no updates is fine with me. Why open another window?

    The Mail behavior is something new with Leopard. I think it is a timing glitch of some sort that will be fixed. On Tiger it did not beep until the download was finished.

    Other people have complained from time to time about some small lack of consistency in the OSX interface design, but it is hardly unfriendly. That seems a big exaggeration to me.

    Some of your complaints seem more related to having a slow connection.

  6. To each his own, I suppose. It’s clear the author has only cursory knowledge of the OS X interface; much of the commentary is just incorrect. However, he DOES get that the Mac can have an application open when it has no current windows. I view this as a great advantage. Windows drives me crazy, frenetically loading and flushing the same code every time I open a document

    Granted, MS seems to know this; they’ve taken action to cache code to make subsequent loads faster, but still… is it SO hard to keep track of what applications you’re running?

  7. Ultimately it is a matter of styles, but there is a sound logic for Mac OS’ one: in document-oriented apps closing the last document doesn’t necessarily mean that the user would want to close the app, while in task-oriented single window ones usually it does so.

    Probably the confusion is exacerbated by Mac apps not having their own “desktops” (I don’t know what the name is for an document-less empty Windows application window), the only major clue of app context being the top menu bar which easily can change if one focuses in another app. The Dock can get too busy to know what’s going on at a short glance, too. CMD-TAB is an easier way.

    It’s just a matter of getting accustomed to each OS’ manierisms.

  8. Speaking of not being able to tell what’s going on: On my Windows computer, when I launch IE7 (and some other applications), absolutely nothing happens for a few seconds. Then I get a few seconds of the hourglass, then that goes away and there is nothing. Then the hourglass comes and goes a few more times, then a window appears, but there’s nothing in it for a while with no indication of any activity. Then finally, it loads normally. This is on a corporation-maintained, relatively new machine.

  9. @Eugene, @Mark: Yes, I completely understand the idea of “document applications” and “simple applications”. The problem is: how can the *user* know which is which. iTunes surely isn’t a document application, but behaves like one (closing the window doesn’t close the application.) That’s the kind of consistency I was expecting from Apple.

  10. The user should know if it’s a “document” app by what “appearance” the current window has; if it’s something metallic, it should be one-window-only and stuff.

    Too bad Apple forgot and messed everything around.

  11. @plan9ner: I guess you meant “Dark grey applications are multi-document.” iTunes is dark grey, Mail.app is dark grey, Software update is light grey. Still, pretty hard to catch the difference.

    (And, if I’m not mistaken, the OS X manual says “you don’t need a manual, go use your system.”

  12. Part of the reason why windows apps quit when the last window closes is because the application menu is in the window – not at the top of the screen like on the mac. No window = no menu bar and therefore no way to create a new document.

  13. You people really need to clean up your headlines. I know you get picked up on RSS feeds, and mac surfer, and all that – but it’s just blatant badvertising, of your blog

    maybe your new to the close window / close application differences in windows and OS X. Congrats. So mail chokes on your admittedly crap IMAP server, if you want more verbose feedback, use another mail application, it’s not like you don’t have a choice.

    pure fluff. I want the 10min of my life back. Blogs are worse than tech sites now. How any of you think you should be paying your bills for your less than half sighted commentary is amazing to me.

  14. Funny you should mention the business about not knowing which window is a “document” window and which is an “application” window. When Mac OS first came out (not OS X, Mac OS) there were special windows with black title bars. These were windows that _were_ applications (“Desk Accessories” actually.) The other windows belonged to applications, which generally behaved as you understand they should in OS X.

    This is not the only issue that’s “devolved” in OS X, sadly. Apple needs to get back to its roots, somewhat, with OS X, and fix the things they broke just because they thought it would be “cool” to change them. This includes making “one window apps” show it by making the windows subtly different (hey–I like black.)

    …and what’s with some of the other stupid Leopard tricks, such as getting rid of the rounded corners on the menu bar BUT ADDING rounded corners to the menus? How about adding the little disclosure button to most of their apps to make the marquee show up in the windows (or hide) then getting rid of half of them? Then there was this “drawer” business that seems to be going away…speaking of going away, why’d they axe the window clock without any explanation? Translucent menu bar?

    Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!?

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