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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

MAC: An Engineer's Thoughts on Mac OS X Tiger

An Engineer's Thoughts on Mac OS X Tiger - OSNews.com

By Jean-Baptiste Quéru - Posted on 2004-06-29 17:40:03
at OSNews [http://www.osnews.com/]

Let me make it clear. I'm not a fan of Apple. I think that their products are overhyped, overpriced and underperforming. If you're looking for a fair unbiased opinion, you're looking in the wrong place. You've been warned. So, I was at Steve Jobs' 2004 WWDC keynote yesterday, attempting to take pictures for OSNews (an amazingly hard task, by the way, which really explained why people pay big bucks for big lenses equipped with image stabilizers). UPDATE: Stop reading right there, I have rewritten & updated the article here [http://www.queru.com/articles/TigerThoughts2.0.html].

Thoughts on Tiger, Page 1/2
Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of osnews.com

Not much to say about the Airport Express (nice little appliance, well thought, well executed, I found it funny that Steve Jobs would use the words "iTunes" and "lossless compression" in the same sentence). Not much to say about the iPod BMW connection (it's ironic that iPod and iDrive don't work together, and even though it's unrelated the gray plastic bumper of the X3 looks cheap and out-of-place on a BMW). Not much to say about to 30-inch monitor ("wow"), nor about its price ("damn").

Now, about some of the actual features of Tiger:

-Data syncing. Nice, maybe, but every single app needs to do some work, and I'm ready to bet that at least some of them won't (who wants to bet that my default JPEG settings in Photoshop won't migrate over). That's also a domain where interoperability with the PC world would be crucially important but seems to be sorely missing.

-64 bit support. Nice for those who have G5s, maybe. For those of us stuck with ancient machines (the G4 kind, which Apple still sells today on their web site) there doesn't seem to be any enhancement, and no indication that Photoshop CS will be able to use more than about 40% of the RAM on my 2GB dual G4).

-Dashboard. A plain, simple and blatant ripoff of Konfabulator. The kind that makes you think that software patents aren't a bad thing after all. The kind that makes Steve Jobs look like a fool when the big banners for Tiger read "Redmond: start your photocopiers". Shame on you, Apple, this kind of behavior really doesn't make me want to give you any of my money, if all you do with it is drive your own developers out of business. That being said the way the accessories slide in view over the existing apps is probably nicer than having them on the desktop.

-Safari RSS. Not overly impressed. I've worked on RSS as part of my day job, and honestly what Apple did is really not a big deal. If they don't improve the way they make RSS pages look (they currently all look the same), they'll have missed a big opportunity to really innovate. I'd much rather have learnt that they fixed some of the rendering bugs that Safari has, or that they did a better job at integrating PDF (actually, there's absolutely no integration at all in 10.3, so anything will be better), or that they improved direct navigation to images, or many other things where Safari has a lot of margin for improvement.

-Automator. Once again not really impressed. That reminded me a lot of the Khoros image processing system which I used in college almost a decade ago, except that the Khoros system allowed for non-linear processing chains. Also not really impressed by how basic the UI was when entering parameters. There seemed to be no way to enter parameters in advance (a script that takes a while to run can't be left to run unattended if it needs parameters in the middle of its execution, and no way to specify that a given parameter would be used in multiple places in the script.

-Spotlight. In 1997, as a Be developer, I got my hands on BeOS "Advanced Access" (also known as developer release 9). I wasn't a Be engineer yet at the time. It was the first release that featured Dominic's bfs filesystem instead of Benoit's ofs filesystem. bfs was a major step forward from ofs, but not a revolution. It was natural evolution. Spotlight is an evolution of a similar magnitude, which attempts to solve pretty much the same problem with a slightly different approach. Seeing Finder create complex queries gave me the illusion for a moment that BeOS' Tracker had been ported to MacOS.

-Core Image. Discussing the issue with other engineers who are more familiar with the image-processing capabilities of current graphics cards, it very much sounds like Core Image isn't gonna cut it for serious image processing (support for floating-point pixel formats as source or destination of pixel shaders seems to pretty much not exist, which is a veyr big issue if the processing chain contains in the middle a filter that can't or isn't implemented by Core Image, like a plain Median Cut noise-removal filter). I'm really curious to know how well Core Image will deal with very large images. Epson's rumored $500 F3200 scanner is able to output images that weigh 180 megapixels (4x5) or that are 21000 pixels long (6x17). With IEEE 754 pixel formats we're talking about 2GB per image, the kind of size that only the most carefully written software will handle (Photoshop barely manages). We're talking about file sizes that are unusual, but not exotic yet (exotic is a 30GB 8000dpi drum scan of an 8x10 sheet of film, and overkill is a 130GB 12000 dpi drum scan of a 9x18 sheet, typically cropped from 12x20), and I wouldn't bet too much on Core Image until I can be sure that it has the ability to scale to such sizes. Core Video sounds like it has a lot more potential, as speed is a definite issue there, and the expected SNR and pixel sizes that are expected in video are well within what I expect a GPU to be able to handle.

Thoughts on Tiger, Page 2/2
Then there was the usual reality-distortion field surrounding many things that Apple says, as usual. A few examples:

-Steve Jobs claimed that Apple's LCDs are a reference in image processing, and that other manufacturers use panels that Apple rejects. I'll start with only two words about image processing: "Sony Artisan". If you really want two more words I'll add "Lacie Electronblue". As for the quality of the panels that Apple uses, I'm officially inviting Steve Jobs to my place so that he can compare himself the quality of the screen on my IBM thinkpad and on Eugenia's Powerbook.

-Steve Jobs claimed that the only OS transition ever to happen in the PC world was that in 1995 when going from DOS with Windows 95. Sorry buddy, but the transition from Windows 3.1/95/98/ME to Windows NT/2000/XP was at least as big. Or maybe I'd actually say that the PC world is unique in that it is able to maintain such a level of compatibility that no sharp transition is needed. The latest Windows is still able to run many 10-year-old applications. Most recent PCs can still run 10-year old DOS 6.22. By comparison compatibility in the Mac world is a total disaster.

-Steve Jobs was quick to mention that there hadn't been any major release of Windows since Windows XP (I really wonder what that "Windows 2003 server" thing was). Ignoring the case of the expensive server OS, he forgot to compare the cost of continuing to run the latest version of Windows and the latest version of MacOS on a PC and on a Mac both bought in 2001.

When I interview a candidate whose resume lists tons of different competencies, I very much like to pick one which I am familiar with and ask a few advanced questions, the kind that can only be answered with some real knowledge and/or experience in the domain. When I get an unsatisfactory answer, all I can assume is that the knowledge of the candidate in the other domains is going to be as shallow. Similarly when I listen to Steve Jobs' glorified sales pitch, I recognize a few areas where I have some level of competency, and my knowledge in those areas makes me realize that MacOS isn't the perfect operating system that Apple would like me to believe.

In summary, I don't think that MacOS 10.4 is worth my $129 (or my $199 since I have multiple Macs, assuming that they maintain their policy about upgrade pricing). In my experience each upgrade on MacOS X comes with a lot of pain, lots of broken compatibility with at least some of the drivers and accessories that I can't live without on MacOS, and I'm getting to the point where my Mac experience is stuck between a rock (continuing to use 10.3 and all its problems) and a hard place (upgrading to 10.4 and deal with all the new bugs and incompatibilities).

As a footnote, here are a few of my gripes with MacOS X:

-I find the hardware support to be very poor. 10.3 doesn't have any kind of decent out-of-the-box support for my good Keytronic USB keyboard (it swaps some of the modifier keys), for my good Logitech USB mouse (it makes it several times slower than it is supposed to be). Finder doesn't burn to my external Sony firewire DVD-R. I can't print a full-page letter picture if I tell the OS that I'm printing on letter paper and I have to pretend that I have legal paper, which then causes quite some headaches when trying to center prints.

-serious glitches in the window management. Exposé get very seriously confused when used while some modal windows are on screen, e.g. while scanning with an Epson 3200 photo scanner from within Photoshop. Maximizing the driver window of the Minolta Dual IV while inside Photoshop renders it almost unusable if you don't know some of the advanced keyboard modifiers that allow to interact with the window manager). I'll add that some apps (like the aforementioned driver for the Epson 3200 scanner) have some serious graphical glitches.

-memory limitations in applications. Even though my dual G4 has 2GB of RAM, which Photoshop can perfectly detect, Photoshop doesn't manage to use more than about 900MB of RAM. The rest of the RAM mostly sits there, unused (several hundred MB are unused, which is especially annoying when Photoshop is struggling with the hard drive to try to apply filters to 500MB images).

-poor multi-user support. Fast user switching is only available when displaying the user name in the menu bar (try to create a user named "Jean-Baptiste Quéru" and to enable fast user switching while using Photoshop CS on a 1280-pixel-wide screen and you'll see what I mean). Also many applications don't work well (or at all) when you're not the primary user of the machine, and many applications can't be installed at all if yo're not the primary user, while other applications cannot be installed to be available to all users at the same time even when installed to the primary user.

-non-intuitive installs, and non-existent uninstalls. I've installed several instances of software that wouldn't install automatically and needed some files to be moved around by hand. I've seen instances of software where an upgrade to a newer version would not replace the older version but would actually live side-by-side, with no visual indication about which version was the newer one. There's no uninstaller worth mentioning that can clean up after your /Library, /System or your personal ~/Library for certain apps.

-non-existent keyboard shortcuts. I really dislike how there doesn't seem to be any way to dismiss certain alerts with the keyboard, or how there doesn't seem to be a standard way to access with the keyboard menu items that don't have a shortcut. I got really annoyed when I found no way to move a window with the keyboard (which would be quite handy when a window ends up in a spot where you can't access its title bar with the mouse, e.g. underneath the Photoshop toolbar).

At the moment, MacOS irritates me so much that I don't even want to use it any more, which means that I'm not really doing any photography. If Apple doesn't solve those issues with Tiger (or if they do but create many new ones on the way) I have the feeling that I'll go back to using my trusted old PC. It might be noisy and slow, but it just works much better for me. Your mileage may vary.

Oh, one last note. Before someone tells me that some of the problems I have come from application writers and not from Apple, let me tell you that I've walked the very same arrogant path when I was at Be, claiming that it was possible to write clean applications for BeOS. As long as the OS makes it easier to write misbehaving code than to write well-working code, something is wrong with the OS itself and the blame cannot be passed on to the application developers. Even worse, it doesn't matter which API is the cleanest, which programming language is the most advanced, or any of those abstract qualities. If a small OS (in terms of market share) like MacOS has API that doesn't look like what most developers are used to, something is wrong (again) with the OS itself.

About the Author
JBQ is a software engineer who used to work on BeOS in a previous life. He uses Windows XP and Mac OS X (no, he doesn't use BeOS), and one of his hobbies is photography, which involves a lot of work in the digital darkroom.

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