Running Windows Apps on a Mac & Other Stories

One of the best stories I’ve heard about Apple’s history concerns Ellen Hancock, whom Gil Amelio brought into Apple as Chief Technology Officer. Her role is pretty much overlooked these days, but she is responsible for pulling the plug on Copland, looking for a viable replacement, and — ultimately — acquiring NeXT, Steve Jobs, and Avie Tevanian (her successor).

Anyway, back to the story which I am reciting from memory. Ellen Hancock comes in to work and she is the most senior woman — ever — at Apple, surrounded by a lot of cocksure guys. She holds a meeting with her key reports and during the meeting utters the following statement. “One of the things that’s always puzzled me about Macs is why when I have a Windows .exe file on my desktop and I double-click it, it doesn’t just work.” The reaction is one of utter consternation. How could anyone working at Apple, let alone its new Chief Techology Officer, be so utterly clueless. And then it starts to dawn on them:

1) She has a PhD in Maths.
2) She has done serious shit at IBM.
3) She’s right.

Not long after this, Virtual PC added a feature which actually allowed .exe files to “just work” if you double-clicked them. It was a horrible kludge — you double-clicked the .exe and Virtual PC (which claimed ownership of that type of file) launched, loaded up the last version of Windows you had run with it, booted Windows, copied the .exe file over to some place Windows (under VPC) could see it, and then attempted to execute it. If the .exe required a bunch of local context to work (as most Windows .exes do) it quite likely crashed.

But the principle was there.

The only word we’ve seen from Apple on Windows compatibility lately is (a) Bootcamp — a pretty much wholly unsatisfactory option for serious users (it’s a great security blanket for switchers). (I am not going to reboot my Mac to run some dumb Windows app; I hardly reboot my Mac at all period. If a Mac OS update requires a reboot, I often leave the dialog up for days before I finally click “Restart”…); (b) pushing Parallels Workstation — almost as unsatistfactory as Bootcamp since it won’t run games, which are Windows’s killer app; and (c) a statement by Phil Schiller that Apple is not going to implement virtualization in Leopard.

So Apple has implemented one pretty much lousy option, is pushing a second, also lousy option, and has denied that it will implement the second lousy option itself.

What Apple hasn’t denied, because no-one has asked, is whether it will implement the correct answer to Hancock’s question — a Win32 compatibility box in the Mac OS X block diagram. You know, those rectangular diagrams which show “QuickTime” in a box that is kind of offset on top of another box labelled “Quartz”. The one with “Carbon” and “Cocoa” sitting side-by-side.

This isn’t the stuff of Science Fiction or a bad rumor page. It has existed under UNIX for years, Linux for not-so-many years, and is currently available for free as Open Source WINE (WINE is not an Emulator) and in various commercial forks. Apple in fact used to sell an equivalent product for UNIX that let you run Mac apps on Sun workstations. Unlike bad option #1 it doesn’t require rebooting your Mac, and unlike bad option #2 it doesn’t require partitioning your hard disk, booting up Windows in a virtual environment, or giving up games. Word has it that World of Warcraft (for Win32) actually runs faster under WINE than under Windows itself.

Let’s see. This option is Open Source or (for certain versions) fairly inexpensive to license, works better than any other option, satisfies the it just works mantra, is unbelievably cool (as in “would make a kickass TV ad”), is already out there, and Apple hasn’t denied that it is working on it. Oh and it doesn’t sell more Windows licenses.

But, you know, maybe Apple will just buy Parallels.

Return of the Newton

It’s been thirteen-or-so years since I got my first Newton. The PDA industry has still not produced a tool with a better interface for note-taking, tracking appointments, or making quick sketches. I’ve still never lost data in a Newton. (I’ve owned two iPaqs, both of which have died losing everything onboard on multiple occasions. That just isn’t cool. The fact that they’re useless pieces of junk for anything that a decent cellphone can’t do doesn’t help.)

So folks are buzzing about the imminent death of the iPod (my iPod died a couple of months back; it was its second trip through the washing machine that did it). I actually agree that everything is going to merge into the cellphone, and I hope that Apple will be the company that makes that cellphone. And I think they can do it. Anyone who can reduce the pocket/purse clutter we all live with and the number of things we can forget to take with us when we leave the house, or recharge when we’re at home, without losing functionality or convenice, has a winner on their hands.

Here are some things iPods do well:

  • Stores Data
  • Transfers Data to/from Computers
  • Navigates Large Lists
  • Plays Music
  • Runs a decent time on a single charge (unless playing video)

Here are some things iPods do less well:

  • Output audio to other devices (e.g. car stereos)
  • Output video to other devices (e.g. TV sets)
  • Transfers Data to/from other devices (e.g. cameras)
  • Allow you to view organizer data (appointments, contacts)
  • Record Audio
  • Watch Video

Here are some things iPods don’t do that you need to carry other crap around to do:

  • Make/Receive Cell Phone Calls
  • Make/Receive VoIP Phone Calls
  • Instant Message
  • Video Conference
  • Allow you to record organizer data (appointments, contacts)
  • Transfer Data to/from common data storage cards (e.g SD Cards)
  • Take Pictures
  • Take Notes
  • Draw Pictures

So imagine that Apple produces an iPod with a larger screen, bigger battery, solid state storage only (no hard disk), an SD card slot, a microphone, a small camera, and the the best pen-based UI ever developed (i.e. the Newton’s). It can basically be a Nano in a Video iPod case using the space previously used for the hard disk for more battery capacity.

All of a sudden they have a Newton (who cares if it’s really a Newton underneath, as long as it has the UI?) that they can actually sell.

Annals of Usability: Windows Vista

Disclaimer: I haven’t used Windows Vista for even five minutes, so my opinions on it are just that valuable.

Windows Vista is the new version of Windows Microsoft plans to ship in 2004*. It features many groundbreaking new features, such as a search field on its file browser, a 3D chess game, and pixel-shader-powered rectangular window frames.

Ed Bott has posted thirty screen shots highlighting features of Windows Vista which he thinks particularly noteworthy, and it’s certainly interesting.

Ed Bott’s Blog Entry and Screen Shots.

Until I looked at this I really couldn’t think of any reason one might want to use Vista (aside from the distant prospect of Microsoft dropping support for XP), but these two links show that the jump from XP to Vista looks at least as compelling as that from Win2k to XP… i.e. not very compelling, but a lot better than say the jump from Windows 98SE to Windows ME.

Of course, screenshots don’t crash or take four days to install.

The biggest benefit for me: Microsoft is so busy imitating the Mac GUI in Vista that all the folks who claim they prefer the Windows UI are going to be explaining why Vista is better to themselves and their fanboi friends. This was fun back when they were claiming command line UIs were better than graphical UIs, and that mice were toys. It’s still fun now.

That said, it’s pretty hilarious that the performance rating system rates his Dual 3GHz PC with 3GB RAM etc. as “3/5”.

* Based on the assumption that Jesus Christ was actually born in 5AD.

Bootcamp, virtualization, yada yada yada

Microsoft makes tons of money and has legal headaches. Apple makes not quite so many tons of money and has smaller legal headaches. Here’s an interesting possible direction…

Apple makes Windows XP/Vista “the new classic” via strong virtualization (i.e. virtualization where the virtual machine can actually “see” some of the more useful hardware, which is to say the GPU) within OS X 10.5.

OS X 10.6 with Windows Vista bundled (a la Classic) replaces Windows as both Microsoft’s and Apple’s OS. Microsoft still makes a ton of money from OS X 10.6 (via sales of Office and cross-licensing). Apple gets access to Microsoft’s DRM. Windows users get a relatively robust OS. Users get a single OS that can run Windows, Macintosh, and UNIX software seamlessly, play media from anywhere. Apple will lose hardware sales but gain huge market share. Everyone is happy.

Note that Apple is heading this way regardless (and, indeed, Apple has no choice; virtualization is already here and stronger virtualization is the logical, obvious next step).

So it’s merely a matter of whether the two companies cooperate to make everyone’s lives easier, or insist on creating incompatibilities to force some users to choose one platform and live with the inconvenience and other users to work across both platforms and live with a different level of inconvenience.

Annals of Usability: Pathfinder 4

Like a great many Mac users and the vast majority of self-appointed usability experts, I have been very critical of Apple’s new (as in OS X) Finder. Every so often, I download the latest version of Pathfinder — the most ambitious attempt to replace it that I have found — and desperately try to like it, and then delete it and go back to the one Apple gives me “for free”.

Oddly enough, many prominent voices have said that Pathfinder is the be-all and end-all Finder replacement, and I really wonder why they think this.

First of all, let’s examine objections to Apple’s Finder. These fall into several basic categories, which all in turn either fall under the general heading “it’s not the old Finder” or “it’s not Windows Explorer”.

The Old Finder

Many of us old-time Mac users have fond memories of the Classic Finder. These generally date back to the days of, say, 1989, before hard disks became terribly large. My Mac IIci (my first Mac was a 512k) came with a 40MB hard disk, and the System folder had something like 20 files and folders in it (which I thought horribly cluttered compared with, say, System 3.2). The spatial Finder made a lot of sense back then and worked very well. Aside from a live project directory, most things stayed pretty static and having a feel for “where” everything was really made sense.

By 2000 the Mac Finder had seen its best days. Almost anyone I knew had everything set to show hierarchical list views, which kind of worked and kind of didn’t. Individual views could be very slow to update, and the whole interface was somewhat fragile.

The old Finder did have one excellent feature which I still miss: tabbed windows. They never quite worked properly, but for hours at a time they would be attractive and useful, before something messed them up and they had to be fixed. It seems odd to me that Apple never resurrected them, since they would work much better in OS X… except that there’s this pesky Dock in the way.

Windows Explorer

Windows Explorer is, at its best, quite a nice file browser and quite a nice web browser. Unfortunately, because it is both, it has the ability to morph its windows into many different forms, and whether you get the form you might prefer is quite arbitrary (no doubt there’s a consistent set of rules by which different forms are evoked, but in fifteen years of using Windows it has yet to become apparent to me).

Consequently, I cannot seem to set Explorer to always display directories in a specific way that I like, so instead I just live with whatever odd form a window takes, or when I have a specific task in mind, I go through the rather painful process of either configuring a window properly OR finding a window that is already configured properly and pointing it at the right directory (or web page).

When Mac users who are familiar with Windows point to a nice feature of Explorer and decry its missingness from OS X, they are right to do so. But they seldom add the caveat that this feature is arbitrarily present or not, or buried amid a host of horribleness beyond casual contemplation.

The Complaints

As I see it, the specific complaints against the new Finder are:

  • It doesn’t have tabbed windows.
  • Columns view is clumsy in some ways
  • Columns view lacks obvious features (e.g. sort options)
  • It’s no longer spatial
  • It’s metal
  • It behaves badly sometimes

All of these complaints are perfectly valid. Metal, in particular, is so hopelessly ugly next to the new “unified” windows in 10.4 that it should be made to disappear altogether. It was kind of cool in 2001… can we lose it now and pretend it never existed?

The problem with these complaints is not that they’re wrong, but that they’re either simple to fix (make column views sortable NOW Apple) or there’s no known solution:

  • Tabbed windows never worked properly in Classic, and there’s a dock in the way now. Figure out a way to make Finder windows “tabbify” to any side of the screen that doesn’t have the dock on it.
  • Columns view can be kind of clunky. I don’t know how to fix it and it’s better than the alternatives (e.g. huge hierarchical views).
  • Add sort options to column view NOW, please. And add filtering.
  • The spatial Finder is broken. Get over it. And please, figure out how to keep my desktop tidy without constant supervision.
  • Make Finder windows unified NOW, please.
  • If I say I want settings to apply to all Finder windows, APPLY THEM TO ALL FINDER WINDOWS.

Pathfinder is NOT the solution

I originally set out to put my feedback on Cocoatech’s forums (Cocoatech develops Pathfinder) but it seems I need to be a member, and I didn’t want to join (or if I had already joined, I couldn’t remember my userID and password). So here I am ranting in “public”.

Here’s the deal with Pathfinder:

  • It replaces column view with something more web like (a this>path>to>folder headline which I would love to see in Finder’s non-column views).
  • It provides tabbed browsing windows (not Classic Finder type tabs but FireFox / Camino / Safari / IE7 type tabs) which I would also love to see in Finder.
  • It also provides a whole bunch of hopelessly disorganized and marginally useful clutter.
  • It provides multiple redundant views of everything.
  • It can replace Finder (kind of) but the developers don’t really believe it so it does dumb things like reveal selected items in Finder windows rather than its own Windows.

Here’s Pathfinder’s problem in a nutshell: by trying to be too many things to too many people it simply becomes a clumsy mess.

It has two drawers — one on the left and one on the right. The icons to disclose the drawers helpfully resembler drawers (i.e. they indicate, kind of, that they disclose a drawer but not what you might find in the drawer).

The left drawer contains a process list allowing you to conveniently and/or accidentally terminate processes with two mouse clicks at any time from any Pathfinder window. WTF? This is like attaching, say, a self-destruct next to every light switch; sure it has a plastic safety cover over it, but having a 0.1% chance of accidentally blowing up your house every time you switch a light on or off is still a bad idea.

I can’t remember what the right drawer containers, except that it seems redundant. Indeed redundancy is the watchword of Pathfinder.

In Mac OS 7 the Apple menu stopped being a list of “Desk Accessories” and became instead of list of everything in the Apple Menu Items folder. This was really cool because it let you put aliases (another System 7 feature) of all your favorite stuff in the Apple Menu. I miss this feature. So do a lot of us.

OS X replaces the Apple Menu with the dock. This has the disadvantage that it takes up screen real estate (either permanently or at inconvenient times, such as when resizing a window) and the advantage that unlike the Apple menu it can act as a target for drag operations. It also eliminates what had become a burgeoning problem for Classic, which was “multiple incompatible mechanisms for accessing everything”. In OS9 you could launch an app via the Apple Menu but only drag to an application in the Finder (barring ugly system hacks); meanwhile running Applications were visible in another menu … etc.

Both the (old) Apple Menu and the Dock have the great virtue of being user configurable. The dock has the even greater virtue of containing all running applications.

Pathfinder, by default, provides you with no less than four, and probably more, methods of directly accessing the items in the Applications folder. I don’t know about you, but my Applications folder has 123 (I am not making this up) items in it at the bottom level. (I tried tidying my Applications folder up a long time ago, and discovered that Microsoft and Adobe products no-longer updated themselves properly, so I’ve decided to treat the Applications folder as a horrible place not fit for human habitation.)

Pathfinder automatically turns things like your Documents and Applications folders into menus. Rach of these menus is essentially a horrible booby trap waiting to blow up in your face. (Either you use these directories, in which case they have hundreds of files in them, or you don’t, in which case you don’t need that menu.) All of this stuff in Pathfinder is potentially configurable, but in the end it seems like the Windows Explorer problem (can you configure it and predict its behavior?) wrapped around a just-not-terribly-good-file-browser-window.

Pathfinder is also disorganized. The menus are all enormous with no real organisation. Things you might use once in a blue moon (e.g. set window transparency) are top level items rather than justifiably buried in in a dialog box.

I don’t know why a useful feature — launching a shell with its current directory mathcing the directory you’re looking at — is buried in a menu while a useless feature (showing you a console transcript) is conveniently available by clicking a toolbar icon that looks strikingly similar to the terminal icon. Oh and why is the tabbed shell window the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life? (Although Pathfinder’s About box is a contender too.)

This gets on to my final complaint. Pathfinder is, aside from its main browser Window (which is merely cluttered) horribly ugly. While the company is called Cocoatech and great emphasis is placed on Pathfinder being Cocoa throughout, just being built with Interface Builder is no guarantee of aesthetic nirvana. Every dialog box is poorly laid out, with incorrect spacing, poorly chosen widgets, or just too much crap in too little space.

Even when it tries to add clever and original features (e.g. the dropzone) Pathfinder fails to make clear what it’s doing (e.g. the dropzone). I understand the principle (you can collect a bunch of stuff to copy from one place to another) but I don’t know what happens if I change my mind halfway through, or if some of the items are only being moved within a volume while others would be copied from one volume to another. This isn’t immediately apparent, so I’m not willing to risk guessing wrong.

I understand everyone’s frustration with the Finder. It’s far from perfect, and if folders in the Dock automatically disclosed to Finder windows, Finder adopted the best features of Windows Explorer (e.g. allowed items in the left column to disclose hierarchically), and it acted more predictably it could be better, but Pathfinder is an ugly, confusing mess. At its core, Pathfinder’s browser window isn’t as good as Finder’s, and adding hundreds of doodads around it doesn’t fix that fundamental problem.