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Apple’s Dirty Little Secret

The dust has settled, and Mac OS X 10.1 has brought Apple’s new operating system from embryo to infancy. We all have our favorite features: the new keyboard shortcuts for controlling menus and dialogs, copy and paste (and Undo!) to manipulate files in the Finder, the restoration of AppleScript to something approaching first-class citizenship. But what’s the worst thing about Mac OS X? That question is rhetorical, so don’t answer; I’m going to tell you. No, it isn’t the file extensions crudding up the end of file names (though I’d be willing to admit the closeness of the race there). It isn’t the lack of support for your favorite peripheral, either. For me, it’s the Open and Save dialog boxes.

Since System 6, I’ve been outraged at Apple’s Open and Save dialogs. To see why, all you have to do is watch my mother use a Mac. Here’s this computer whose default environment (called the Finder, though she doesn’t quite grasp that) is a wonderful and easy way of navigating the file system. She has become accustomed to, and quite adept with, the way this works. But then, every time she wants to open or save a file, she is suddenly confined to a little dialog that works in a completely different and much clumsier way. This confuses her utterly. She doesn’t know where she is or how to get to the place where she wants to be; missing are all the Finder’s visual cues that have come to mean "a place on the computer" and all her shortcuts and standard actions for reaching places quickly.

Developers have complained to Apple about this at every World-Wide Developer Conference talk-back session for the past decade or more. With Mac OS X, Apple had a chance to fix this long-standing problem, to root it out and start all over from scratch. And they fumbled the opportunity almost entirely.

I say "almost" because one or two things are definitely improved. The new Open and Save dialogs have a multi-column arrangement, so it’s easier to get a sense of where you are in the file hierarchy. The menu interface to commonly used and "favorite" folders is far better than in the Mac OS 9 Navigation Services dialog, so you’re much more likely to use it; and some recently used folders are included. Some improvements introduced with Navigation Services are carried forward as well. The dialogs can be resized (though you may not guess this in Mac OS X, since they sometimes don’t show their grow handles). And if you can arrange the windows acceptably, you can drop a file or folder from the Finder into an Open or Save dialog as a way of navigating to it; this strongly mitigates the frustrating situation where you could actually see the file or folder you wanted, right behind the dialog in the Finder, but you had to go through navigational contortions to reach it in the dialog itself.

Finder Mimicry? But the question remains: why don’t the Open and Save dialogs work like Mac OS X’s Finder? (Let’s skip the broader question of why there are Open and Save dialogs at all; I’ve always thought that when you want to open or save a file you should just find yourself in the Finder. But perhaps that’s too much to ask.)

The Finder has several views: icon view, list view, and column view. The Open and Save dialogs have only one: column view. Why? What if that isn’t the view you’d like? What’s wrong with list view? It isn’t multi-columnar, but it has some important advantages: in particular, it can be sorted on criteria other than the filename. Why can’t the Open and Save dialogs let you do that?

Furthermore, the column view in Open and Save dialogs isn’t really the column view at all; it’s just a pale and inconsistent imitation of the way the Finder does it. The similarity to the real column view, combined with the differences, results in confusion. For example, the Finder’s column view now lets you widen and narrow the columns manually, so that you can see the entirety of long names; the Open and Save dialogs do not. In the Finder, holding the Option key lets you immediately see all of a long name that’s otherwise curtailed; in the Open and Save dialog, it doesn’t (you have to float the cursor over the name and wait, drumming your fingers, until the tooltip deigns to appear).


Worst of all, keyboard navigation works differently, so much so that behaviors you’ve learned navigating in Finder windows can foul you up in Open and Save dialogs. In the Finder, Tab and Shift-Tab navigate levels, whereas in the Open and Save dialogs they rocket you out of the file navigation area altogether. In the Finder, you can use left and right arrows to navigate levels, and use the up and down arrows to navigate the level you’re in (plus typing a name to jump to the first item with that letter); but in the Open and Save dialogs these work inconsistently. Sometimes right-arrow works; sometimes it does nothing – even though I can see the level I want to navigate down to, I can’t get there by using the keyboard. Sometimes left-arrow does nothing; sometimes it works; sometimes it navigates up a level but instead of selecting the containing folder, the alphabetically first folder at that level is selected (as if I’d hit left-arrow and then up-arrow many times). And for some real confusion, just try pressing the up-arrow or down-arrow repeatedly in Open and Save dialogs in Carbon applications.

Typing a letter key is no better. Sometimes I type a letter and find myself in an unfamiliar part of the file hierarchy with no relation to where I intended to go. Sometimes I type a letter and the whole file navigation area of the dialog goes blank!

To experience this insanity, you need a Carbon application, because part of the problem is that Carbon and Cocoa work differently in this respect. Let’s use Sherlock. In Sherlock, choose File -> Open Search Criteria, and in the Open sheet, navigate to the top level of your Mac OS X hard drive. Using arrow keys only, navigate down to /Library/Scripts/URLs. So far so good, but now you’re stuck; the right-arrow key won’t move you into the URLs folder. Now hit the down-arrow key. Were you able to guess what would happen? Do you know where you are now? Hit up-arrow to try to return to where you were. You should now be very confused; the dialog’s navigation area may well be blank, and you may see some odd cosmetic glitches at the left side of the sheet. I think I can deduce the keyboard navigation "rules" here, but there’s little point, since they’re both hellishly difficult to obey and capriciously inconsistent with keyboard navigation in both the Finder and Cocoa application Open and Save dialogs.

This situation is unacceptable. Too long – for over 600 issues of TidBITS – we users have been subject to this silly dichotomy, where there are two completely different ways of navigating the file hierarchy, the Finder and the Open and Save dialogs. Let us not sit meekly by! When you see the Open and Save dialogs behaving badly, don’t just shrug and accept the situation. Send Apple back to the drawing board and ask them to fix not just the unnecessary inconsistencies, but the whole shooting match! Open and Save dialogs should work just like the Finder! The time to pound the table is now, and the URL at which to do it is below.


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