Monday, February 22, 2021

A Retrospective Look at Mac OS X Snow Leopard

Riccardo Mori:

So, I used Snow Leopard on my 2009 MacBook Pro for about three years, and then again on a 2010 Mac mini that a friend gave me to maintain, as a sort of offsite backup. That Mac mini was kept on Mac OS X 10.6.8 for the whole four years it was in my custody (2011–2015) and it was switched off only twice during that period and maybe restarted four or five times in total. It enjoyed an insane uptime and it was a testament to Snow Leopard’s stability.

But back to my ‘gut-reply’, I wanted to be certain that my fond memories of Snow Leopard weren’t just nostalgia. While I am confident when I say that Snow Leopard is the most stable version of Mac OS, I wanted to make sure its user interface was really the good user interface and experience I was remembering.


Update (2021-03-02): See also: Hacker News.

14 Comments RSS · Twitter

Oh, weren't the good old days, or as @has calls them, "the Jurassic", nice.

I don't agree with all of this, but a few things I particularly appreciate:

>In other words, when Big Sur decides that the desktop background image is dark enough, text and icons on the menu bar become white.

Yeah. I find the menu bar rather hard to read in this state. It seems like one of those ideas that should've died after the first prototype. (I also find the window tinting really ugly, but luckily, you can turn that off independently.)

So I don't use dynamic desktop pictures and only set the bright ones. Or I would, anyway, if macOS could actually properly remember my desktop picture?

>Mario Guzmán observed that Things are nicely compartmentalized by color. You can distinctly tell each section of the window (even the damn scroll bars)… it’s not just one blob of white with grey symbols.


This is one of the things brushed metal got right (didn't expect to write that sentence back in the day, I suppose). Provide strong contrast against the content.

I think the Yosemite design era still did OK in this respect, especially with the toolbar (less so with the sidebar). The Big Sur era? Not good. Try looking at a PDF in Preview. Try making out which window is frontmost. Everything just blends together. And is frankly, dull. I find it neither beautiful nor useful.

I also found myself nodding at the Preview section. How did they manage to make something as simple as a sidebar with different modes so confusing, especially when a previous version already had a perfectly fine approach of a tab control?

And then there's this:

>Oh look, from here you can also add it to your Reading List. Why exactly can these actions be found under a ‘Share’ menu? Am I sharing this with someone else? It makes no sense, but it’s done this way because that’s how Share sheets work in iOS and iPadOS.


On an iPhone, it is sort of forgivable that Share has become the junk drawer of "we didn't know where else to put this action". There simply isn't that much screen estate. It's not good, but I get it.

On an iPad, it's less forgivable.

On a Mac, adding stuff to Share that isn't… sharing is hard to forgive. (Yes, yes, "UI consistency" across platforms.)

And in general, the address bar is a mess. Why are "Show Reader View", "Translate" and "Refresh" weird buttons inside the address bar? Why is there another "+" inside that bar that only shows on however (the others don't seem to only show on hover?) and that does add to Reading List? There are actually things about modern Safari UI that I like a lot, like the way Downloads is first a popover so you can take a glance, but then you can actually drag that popover off into its own window (though perhaps, personally, I would prefer it not to be always-on-top). More of that, please. This weird toolbar/address bar thing ain't it.

To be fair, though, Add Bookmark… and Add to Reading List are also exactly where they should be: as good ol' menu items, in the Bookmarks menu.

>Under Snow Leopard you had the option of toggling discoverability without turning off Bluetooth entirely.

I think Riccardo is slightly wrong here — in newer macOS versions, I believe discoverability is simply off entirely unless you have the Bluetooth preference pane open. The "Now discoverable" label is probably trying to suggest that. It's not great UI, though.

Lastly, yes, the post-install video was cute. macOS seems to have lost a lot of personality since, as has iOS. Why?

To paraphrase the great Tony Hoare: Snow Leopard was a great improvement on its successors.

Which is not to say SL was particularly good, and its much vaunted reliability only came after multiple dot-revisions. But it was good at being a Good 2000 OS; dated and crusty, but predictable in its albeit limited behavior.

Later OSes, in trying to bring long overdue fresh thinking and perspective, consistently half-assed it. The result was change without clear, significant improvement; which is worse than no change at all.

I mean, look at Big Sur. Cutesy new skn. Still has a Trash Can. It’s not as if Apple doesn’t know how to do journaling file systems and revision tracking and remote syncing and the rest of the plumbing needed to permit instant file deletion in the GUI with 100% reliable and easy-to-use rollback support.

The trash can is a regressive feature that serves no purpose except to be a comfortable crutch to those incapable of imagining there might be better ways to do things after 40 years of evolving requirements and technology progress. And the worst part of it is: the trash can has NEVER delivered its promise of safe Undo. Sure, if you eliminate a file by moving to Trash you can move it back later. But if you eliminate the same file by copying another, identically named file over it, it’s gone forever. Except, not really: because if Time Machine was doing its job right, the old inode and data blocks would still exist as part of that storage device’s history (not to mention copies of that history replicated to backup and elsewhere).

All of that could’ve been rethought and rebuilt and (internally) real-world tested over the last decade, and finally, modestly, rolled out as a part of macOS 11. And there are dozens—maybe hundreds—of such small simplifications, standardzations, and unifications that could’ve been stocked up over those years, each one individually small and self-contained, but in total a “wow, this macOS 11 is soooo much more elegant and streamlined than macOS 10 ever was” moment.

I mean, 10.7’s rightly hated utterly incoherent File menu should’ve been gone. Not that the old Open/Save was a good thing: the Lisa never had this and the only reason MacOS did is because it couldn’t multitask so had to duplicate file management behaviors within every single application on top of the File Manager itself. And 10 years is more than enough to figure where that first attempt went all wrong, and have a fully battle-proven replacement ready in the wings to go.

This is how mature products eventually die: not in dramatic crash-n-burn, but from slow suffocation beneath the ever-increasing weight of their own accummulated crud.

Snow Leopard was a defining benchmark, and a terrifically good reference point within an ever-changing landscape. It should’ve drawn the line under where we have come from and where we intend to go next. Alas, macOS’s direction has spluttered ever version since.

That 10.6 should still compare favorably to 11.0 is a shocking indictment on every one of its stewards since. What a squander of 15 years.

* Hoare’s original, and no doubt icily-observed, quip was:

“Here [ALGOL60] is a language so far ahead of its time, that it was not only an improvement on its predecessors, but also on nearly all its successors.”

with the better-known aphorism:

“ALGOL 60 was a great improvement on its successors.”

Hoare’s razor dissection of ALGOL 68 and other abominations that followed should be mandatory annual reading for everyone in this industry. Especially when the exact same mistakes are still being made 50 years on.

@has wrote: "It’s not as if Apple doesn’t know how to do journaling file systems and revision tracking and remote syncing and the rest of the plumbing needed to permit instant file deletion in the GUI with 100% reliable and easy-to-use rollback support."

I'm not so sure of that, given how often recent versions of macOS mysteriously fail to update Finder windows correctly after simple, local copy/move/delete operations.

@Sören Since Catalina, I have also been seeing the bug where macOS doesn’t remember the desktop picture. I normally operate with 8 spaces, and it often forgets 5 of them on reboot. (And sometimes it remembers the desktop picture in System Preferences but draws it in solid black on the actual desktop.)

>I mean, 10.7’s rightly hated utterly incoherent File menu should’ve been gone.

My impression is that Lion tried to do a forward-looking thing of getting rid of some System 1.x assumptions (e.g., do you really need Save/Save As… when you have auto-save and multiple versions?), but was widely panned for it, and so Apple has presumably since shied away from further experiments like getting rid of the trash.

(I'm also not convinced getting rid of the trash is a problem that needs solving. It's quite a good UI metaphor. Yes, on the technical side, you can now roll back to older snapshots, but that involves far more complicated UI.)

The one UI change I did not like was Exposé's switch to a rigid grid layout for windows. I went so far as to replace with Leopard's version to get the old free-form layout back.

Exposé was a major draw for me in 2003 when it debuted in Panther. Unfortunately, like the rest of the OS, over the years it accumulated some annoying usability bugs that were never fixed. Windows 10 has a rough equivalent now, though you have to use an anti-telemetry tool to keep it from constantly asking to send your data to Microsoft in exchange for a cross-platform activity list.

The Snow Leopard years weren't actually that stable for me, but that was mostly due to hardware problems than software problems. I do miss having more affordances in the UI.

@Sören: “My impression is that Lion tried to do a forward-looking thing of getting rid of some System 1.x assumptions”

It tried. It failed. The first mistake was not eliminating the File menu entirely. The second mistake was replacing Save[As] with Duplicate and Export and Dog knows what else, making every single app more complicated and difficult to understand. (Including those that kept the old way, because now there isn’t even consistency.)

All that stuff is File Management, which is supposed to be Finder’s role. Again, go see Apple Lisa. Then ask why we’re still using a deliberately crippled interaction model that hasn’t been technically necessary since System 7.

This is further complicated because nowadays “file management” really needs to be Document Management, because there is no longer a 1:1 relationship between files and documents (if there ever was).

A typical document nowadays is composed of multiple resources—themselves often individual files within some sort of wrapper, e.g. .app, .rftd, etc (a regular directory that appears as an atomic file in Finder), .xlsx, .docx (a compressed zip file containing a directory structure with multiple file-like resources), whatever formats Safari, Firefox, etc use to save complete web pages to disk, and so on. Not to mention the document’s versioning history (more files under the hood), distributed storage (and let’s not get into the horrors of how iCloud “integrates” with the local file system), and no doubt other needs and wants that evolve over the years.

Decoupling individual apps from all that file/document management crap would’ve been a great step forward, not just in making Macs more usable (eliminating duplication of effort and standardizing everything in one place) but in opening up space for future evolution. But they utterly pranged it in Lion; then having done so just… gave up. The whole lot is rank. But I guess that’s what happens when Marketing gets to dictate release schedules instead of Engineering. Apple shouldn’t even have contemplated releasing it until its own staff had used it in-house for several years. That would’ve allowed it to be built, field-tested, thrown out, rethought, rebuilt, field-tested, and so on until they finally got it right.

I mean, look at document thumbnails in Finder nowadays. You can zoom them huge almost to the point of being able to read their content. And yet, if you could’ve zoomed a bit more they could’ve become fully editable, with the appropriate menubar menus activating and the document gaining scrollbars and other window controls. It’s still application switching, but now it’s seamless. Zoom back out, and the document’s written to backing store and the app can automatically page itself out of memory after a while (no need for explicit Quit). Why does the Dock still have App icons? Documents/Windows are where the action’s at! (Yeah, there are branding/identity issues with Apps. Vendors want to be seen. But balancing those needs is a separate discussion.)

Heck, Jef Raskin was writing about half this stuff decades ago. The Mac GUI is rotten, but no-one realizes how bad it is because no-one’s motivated to do any better. Because to learn how to build a good solution you’ve got to build lots of bad ones first; try them, understand why they fail, and then do it all over. Shipping the first (bad) attempt in Lion was a disaster, not because it’s bad to use but because it kills any chance of improving on it; because what developer/manager wants to be publicly humiliated like that? Career death for the people who built it, just as they were beginning to learn. And no-one is going to squander their own career path on cleaning that mess up. So it rots.

Mac OS X 10.6 was a good Mac OS X; the culmination of a decade’s work and a good “stopping point” for that development path. Nice and mature. Stable. A great reference point going forward.

macOS 11? Who knows what that wants to be? It certainly doesn’t. Its only notable development is the ability to run iOS apps (admittedly not to be sniffed at). But everything else about it is a fake out, as shallow as a puddle. A pivotal landmark, wasted.


[Sent from my ancient 10.14 MBP while my newer 10.16 MBP mostly just gathers dust. Crazy. Because eff Apple’s value-free noise. Sh-t or get off the pot already.]

@Stu: Touché.

Perhaps it’d be more appropriate to say Apple has no excuses for not knowing how to do it? Even less for screwing it up in public and then abandoning both it and its users.

Still, I’m sure the appropriate scapegoats were found and (quietly) punished. Which’d be another reason why it has never been fixed: those in power would rather pretend “It’s Fine” than stake their jobs on declaring it’s not. So it goes.

I guess, if Apple made a survey and asked if people want more focus on new features or no new features and only focus on quality - most people would overwhelmingly choose the later.

Since Catalina, I have also been seeing the bug where macOS doesn’t remember the desktop picture. I normally operate with 8 spaces, and it often forgets 5 of them on reboot.

It’s quite bad. When typing that comment, I set both displays to Teal.

I have since rebooted and now:

1) one display is still Teal
~~2) the other display, according to System Preferences, is the Big Sur Graphic default picture (the orange thing), but in actuality is the Big Sur Dynamic photo~~
~~3) a few moments later, those two do go in sync~~

(Oh, I think I see what’s going on: even though I had a full-screen app on that display, it seemed to generate a temporary space for it with its own desktop picture. Swiping to non-full screen is what caused it show the correct value.)

Like, this isn’t even a picture from some cloud storage, or a picture at all; it’s just a solid color. System 7 did this better. [FB9018209]

And that’s not to speak of the Photos section underneath, where presumably the idea is to integrate with iCloud Photo Library? Anyway, it does show, say, quite a few contacts, but some don’t show photos at all, and many only show a few of them. (So it’s apparently getting the metadata that there are photos for these contacts, but not the data which photos they are?) Could be because of optimized storage, but… come on. Just fix it. [FB9018212]

(And sometimes it remembers the desktop picture in System Preferences but draws it in solid black on the actual desktop.)

Do you occasionally use full-screen mode? I wonder if this is related.

@Sören When it shows the wrong desktop picture, it shows the custom one that I had set months ago, not the macOS default.

I never use full-screen mode. Mission Control also shows the desktop picture, too. It’s just the actual display that shows black.

@Michael: Your Mac displayed the wrong desktop picture? Luxury!

My 2016 MBP would habitually kernel panic when plugging/unplugging the external HD monitor if I didn’t open/close the lid in precise order. #20MilesInTheSnowUphillBothWays

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