Finder Reflux

A common misconception regarding my recent Finder criticism:

Gruber thinks the 9 Finder is perfect. Alternatively phrased as: Gruber thinks the OS X Finder should behave exactly like the 9 Finder.

False. I do think the 9 Finder is terrific, but it’s certainly not perfect.

To buy my argument, you don’t have to think the old Finder is perfect, only that it was very good, and that it was worth building on rather than throwing away. Moving to Mac OS X is a great opportunity for developers to implement new features and new ideas, but it’s not an excuse to pull the rug out from under existing users.

Name another application, from any developer, which has changed so drastically in the move from OS 9 to X. Or, more specifically, which has changed in ways that so greatly disappoint existing users. Which leads us to the next misconception:

Gruber thinks everyone prefers the classic Finder.

False. I knew from the outset that there were people who did not like the Mac OS 9 Finder. The most frequent complaint regarding the old Finder is that it forces you to open “too many windows”, a line of criticism most famously (and most importantly) put forth by Mr. Steve Jobs.

The problem with line of criticism is that a large majority of Mac users have no such complaint with the classic Finder. The browser metaphor underlying the OS X Finder is a solution to a problem that most Mac users didn’t have.

I acknowledge that software design is not a democracy. Good UI design does not happen by polling users. The best revolutionary ideas often come out of the blue. The original Macintosh is a fine example: computer users in 1983 weren’t asking for a graphical user interface, because they hadn’t ever seen one.

But when you’re designing an upgrade to a widely-used application, goal number one must be to keep your existing users happy.

The Finder’s evolution from 1.0 through 9.2 demonstrates this well. There were occasional evolutions (like the move from System 6 to System 7, when as MWJ points out this week, the Finder was rewritten), but never a revolution. Major new features were added, but old habits were seldom broken.

But old habits and expectations were shattered with the OS X Finder. We can argue about which Finder metaphor is superior — OS X’s browser, or classic Mac OS’s spatial orientation — because such arguments are subjective. (Admittedly, I would argue until I ran out of breath in favor of spatial orientation.) But you can’t argue with the fact that a clear majority of long-time Mac users are not satisfied with the Mac OS X Finder — and not only because of its abysmal performance and horrid UI discrepancies.

Even if I were to concede, for the sake of argument, that the OS X Finder is on the whole a better design than the classic Finder, that still doesn’t make it acceptable. An upgrade that doesn’t appeal to existing users is never a good idea, no matter how well intentioned the changes.

Defenders of the OS X Finder tend to be highly-proficient computer users with experience using Windows and Unix. And they invariably underestimate just how important the Finder is to traditional Mac users. To most Mac users, the Finder is much more than merely a file manager; it is in fact the interface to their computer as a whole. To them, the Finder is the Mac OS, it encapsulates nearly every aspect of managing the entire system.

If you have a basic understanding of how a computer actually works, you know that the Finder is just an application. But the vast majority of Mac users don’t understand how a computer works, they only understand how a Mac works. The beauty of the Macintosh is that you don’t need to understand how a computer works in order to maintain control over your computer; you only need to understand how the Mac works.

If you’re not a computer nerd, it is neither easy nor fun to learn to use the new Finder. It is discouraging. There is a sense of “Jeez, what the hell is going on here?” It is unfamiliar. When Finder windows no longer remember their positions and view settings, or when items get stuck in the Trash and cannot be erased due to permissions problems, an understanding of the Macintosh Way is no longer sufficient to set things straight. You must understand how your computer works.

For the most part, when long-time Mac users complain that they find Mac OS X’s “interface” lacking, it’s really just the Finder they’re talking about. Think about it. No other major application has changed significantly in the move to OS X. The standbyes are decidedly familiar — Photoshop, Illustrator, BBEdit, Dreamweaver, MS Office. Old apps running in Classic are, by definition, the same.

Conversely, amongst Mac OS X aficionados — even those who happen to like the new Finder — the Finder is low on the list of reasons why they love Mac OS X. For many, it is at best a source of indifference.

So imagine if the OS X Finder were redesigned to appeal to Mac OS 9 users. By simply changing nothing other than the Finder, the entire “Mac OS X” experience would instantly feel much more familiar to millions of Mac users.

The alternative is for Apple’s Finder team to stay the course, and keep the OS X Finder moving in its current direction. This will make only but a handful of its users happy.

There is a strong sentiment among many long-time Mac users that Mac OS X is not for them. The excitement is all about how it’s the best Unix ever. And it’s the best system for newbies ever. Most Mac users, however, are neither newbies (or dummies) nor gearheads. They feel left behind, because what they need is the best Mac OS ever. And judging by the Finder, Jaguar clearly is not it.


Would it be a cheap shot to tack on a gratuitous link to an Apple Knowledge Base article describing a horrendous Jaguar Finder bug, wherein the wrong folder gets trashed? Yes it would.