My Five Wishes for Leopard

We’re now at the beginning of September, and if Apple sticks to their revised timeplan for Leopard, we’re but a few weeks away from yet another round of manic blog updates, frantically written reviews and “oh, why hasn’t Apple done this and that” pieces.

Since one of my favorite adages is “forewarned is forearmed”, I have been mulling both the implications of upgrading and what I’m likely to be taking the most advantage of – but I’ve also been anticipating some of the most likely issues.

Although people are still going moderately ballistic over Spaces (yeah, right, as if virtual desktops weren’t available in the pre-VGA era), Time Machine and the unbelievably over-the-top (and, I suspect, mostly useless) Quick Look and Coverflow integration into the Finder, I know that it will be the details that will be getting to me.

For instance, I know I’m going to miss Letterbox, since Apple persists in ignoring the fact that their own laptops are widescreen devices and the productivity benefits of the three-column layout in mail clients. But that’s just one example – there are sure to be dozens of things that seasoned Mac users will need to adjust to.

Pulling back from that kind of detail, there are five things I wish Apple would do, either because I’ve been putting up with them for so long or because it’s more than about time, and most of them happen to be at a lower level than the UI.

Because, you see, for all the eye candy and show-off, Mac OS X could do with a few adjustments under the hood.

Stop Leaving Junk In File Shares – Unless It’s Actually Necessary

Roger Johansson was probably the first to write about this regarding Leopard, and I second his views: this is a rude, unnecessary and counter-productive behavior that predisposes network admins against Macs and clutters the filesystem with pointless junk.

Yes, there was a reason for .DS_Store, once. But the Finder has become anything but spatial, and per-folder preferences are pointless when you have column view – so that leaves per-file metadata, which is absolutely useless when you share files with other operating systems (as you have to do in a corporate environment).

The thing is, although I’m all for not having “dot junk” files on remote shares as a default (and have set DSDontWriteNetworkStores to true on all my Macs), it isn’t all that simple – because sometimes you do need thumbnails and other metadata on some file shares – such as your home server’s, or when you do need to share files with other Mac users via a Windows server.

So I’m thinking that there should be a way to have it enabled for specific file shares (not to mention a decent UI to manage the setting) – but, again, I would live happily with not littering file shares (and maybe even external disks) with crap1.

Proper Standards Support in

There are three things that have given me untold grief in the past, and they are lack of SOCKS support in, finicky IMAP support (including lack of IDLE mode), and hopeless HTML mail formatting limitations.

I have some hope the last one gets fixed indirectly by WebKit, but I haven’t seen anything regarding the other two.

And since I’ve had to grapple with Apple’s funky SOCKS support for a good while now for a number of reasons (not the least of which is my occasional need to SSH back home and check my e-mail, like I’ll be doing this vacation), I am holding out for some kind of fix (it’s either that or Thunderbird with proper Address Book support).

But I’m not the only one – a lot of people that are stuck behind a corporate ALG/firewall simply need this to work properly, because even after 2.1 fixed the most glaring issues, it did not fix name resolution.

You see, it is one thing to be behind a firewall trying to reach a public server on the outside that you can always resolve via whatever DNS you may have configured, and entirely another to SSH in to a network and get internal name resolution to work via SOCKS 5.

Guess what – it doesn’t work for me.

And yeah, I could just go on and on about how I expect to actually do IMAP properly (with IDLE support, storing notes2 in a server-side folder, etc., etc.), but I’ve pretty much given up on that sort of thing – Apple is sure to keep doing their own thing, and “proper”/“sensible” MUA functionality be buggered.

Cross-Platform Desktop Sharing

Yes, that old chestnut. I know that the Leopard builds have been burying the screen sharing application further and further down, but it seems that we’ll still be getting something at a sensible price (i.e., free, to match Windows’ feature set).

But I would really, really like to have a better way to both share my current screen and control a mac remotely from any other machine (i.e.,a Windows one, never mind Linux) without having to cope with Apple’s unbelievably crufty VNC server (which never managed to work properly with non-US keyboards and refuses to negotiate bit depth properly with some VNC clients).

I mean, we have Bonjour, painless Wi-Fi setup and whatnot, and we’re letting Vista do this better?

And although I think it’s nice to have a better3 iChat I think it’s ludicrous not to be able to share a screen with a couple of clicks (iChat seems to only do slideshows or presentations, and not let you share arbitrary applications).

Stacks On The Desktop

I’m all for keeping a clean desktop, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why file Stacks are apparently limited to the Dock.

Apple seems to be tuning the UI to support what they see as the most common leisure activities, i.e., the iLife stuff (taking photos, listening to music, etc.), downloading stuff from the web (viz. the dedicated downloads stack) and generally fooling around with media, and their decision to stick Stacks on the Dock seems to imply that they don’t expect people to have more than a few of them at any one time.

Me, I see a stack of files as being a context, i.e., stuff that is related to some ongoing task or category of tasks that I will be performing over time, and that ties together files and folders I have scattered all over the place.

But managing my stuff using Stacks doesn’t seem to be feasible – after all, if I stuck my personal projects/contexts on the Dock, I’d probably have sixteen or so items there (and I’m just counting the ones I touched this week – I have a smart folder that lists recently-modified items in my home directory).

And I suppose I should be thankful I only use my Macs at home – if I wanted to manage corporate stuff that way, I’d have so many stacks that my Dock would be 16px tall…

So, in a nutshell, this approach means they either don’t expect people to do many different tasks or that they’ve been bitten by the Windows Home Edition bug4.

A Sensibly Priced Home Server Edition

I’ve been beating this drum for a while now, and the current wave of hype surrounding Windows Home Server is a good reminder that a lot of people believe this to be a big enough market to require integrating dedicated hardware and software to provide a home storage (and services) solution.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (or read no trade magazines whatsoever), Windows Home Server provides a number of services above and beyond your usual NAS fare, including automated centralized backup (for Windows machines only, of course) and media sharing to any Windows UPnP media extender device.

This is nothing really new, of course. Anyone keeping track of things like DLNA is well aware of a number of products able to do the same, and ever since the NSLU2 came out that there have been a growing number of similar storage appliances with an ever-increasing level of sophistication.

And what is Apple doing? Well, very little, actually. Providing limited file sharing features on its Airport Extreme base station, and no more.

Whereas Microsoft is doing the right thing and allowing people to put all their media in a single headless box and share it across all the devices in the home, Apple persists in their stilted notion of having the Mac as the only device able to stream media – be it to an Airport Express or to an Apple TV.

And, of course, sharing an iTunes library using Apple software is still a chore – my NSLU2 did a much better job of sharing my music collection via DAAP, HTTP, SMB and to my SliMP3 than anything else I had at the time, and current media-enabled storage appliances in the market are very good at cross-platform sharing.

The most niggling aspect of this for me is that Apple already has the near perfect hardware platform for a home server – the mini. Sure, it does not have much room for internal storage, but there are no shortage of look-alike accessories, and a mini stacked atop a couple of Firewire disks looks a lot better than any of the Windows alternatives I’ve seen so far.

But let’s go beyond the basics – the mini can do a whole lot more5.

It can, for instance, run Leopard Server. And based on my occasional pokes inside 10.4 server installs, I’d say that there is very little required to add “home server” features to Mac OS X Server – all that’s really required is some sort of centralized iTunes server to do media streaming and deal with DRM authorization.

So, the question is, why doesn’t Apple do the sensible thing and issue a 5-user license pack for Leopard Server for, say, US$250 or so?

Even if it didn’t have all the media sharing tweaks out of the box, or if it persisted in ignoring every other DLNA-enabled device and talked to nothing else but to the Apple TV, I would still buy it – I would even pick up a new mini if they decided to go the appliance route and ship it pre-installed.

Of course, none of this will ever happen.

But at least I can start planning for the alternatives.

1 Other annoying Finder issues I expect to see fixed are proper refreshing and usable/secure WebDAV or FTP, but those are probably less irritating to other people than junk files.

2 And don’t get me started about the Notes font.

3 Which, by the way, persists in not being interoperable with corporate videoconferencing setups, forcing me to either use third-party software or plonk a 3G phone on my desk at home.

4 Or, more to the point, that Stacks probably aren’t that useful after all…

5 Mine, for example (besides file sharing and a DAAP server) runs a full-blown IMAP server where I aggregate and archive all my mail accounts, a home Wiki (based on Yaki, of course), and also serves as a central backup point.