Ahead of the Curve: Mac sense and nonsense

A couple of columns ago, I introduced you to a friend and lifelong professional Windows user who agreed to let me observe and document her trial run at switching to the Mac. I set her up with a can't-lose bargain: She would swap her desktop Windows PC for a Core 2 Duo MacBook running OS X Tiger but retain her PC as a Parallels Desktop virtual machine. To switch or not to switch is entirely her decision to make; I'm just watching.

Initially, she lived in her virtualized Windows PC; Tiger merely played host. What started her exploring outside Windows was a simple thing: People often use migration as an opportunity to do some housecleaning and reorganizing, and that plays into one of Tiger's strengths. She had in mind to break the big repository of PDFs she kept in Windows into neat folders on the Mac. I tossed her a hint about OS X's Smart Folders, which rapidly organize files based on the content and metadata they have in common. She grouped her PDFs based on the names of the authors, information that's encoded in the document's metadata when it's saved. She experimented with different ways of breaking up her image repository based on metadata -- by photographer, by model of camera, by resolution -- but in the end, she simply sorted them by date. Not the time stamp on the image file, but the date recorded in the image's metadata.

It went on from there to her discovery of pervasive cross-application drag and drop, then to the realization that every application had the ability to export and print to PDF. She discovered that most graphics files default to opening in the ultrafast Preview app, which is also the system's PDF viewer. It flips through and searches the multithousand-page PDF catalogs she works with as if they were in plain text, and it installs itself as browsers' embedded PDF viewer, much faster than Acrobat Reader.

It's relatively easy for an experienced Windows pro to feel cocky after a few successful hours of poking around in Finder, Tiger's counterpart to Windows Explorer. Humility returns when you start firing up other applications.

That's when the Mac seems to stop making sense. In Windows, every document that isn't nested inside a parent window (Visual Studio is a good example of nested windows) is presented as a separate instance of the application. Each distinct document has its own window and menu bar, and when you close the last open document, the application exits. In contrast, each document that is opened by a given Mac application is shown in a menuless window. In fact, no windows have menus. They all share one menu bar across the top of the screen, and that menu flips depending on which application has focus (is "on top"). When you close the last document in a given Mac application, the app stays open, but with no visible windows. All you see is the menu. What sense does that make?

She's getting mired in other aspects of Mac-ness, like the fact that two files with the same extension (such as ".mpg") can open in two different applications. And unlike with Windows, when you restore something from the trash, it doesn't plant itself in its original folder.

These are small conceptual hurdles that she'll overcome with time, but on each occasion that the Mac "gets in her way" with issues such as these, she heads back to Windows to get her work done. As it turns out, the problems that I've described are nothing compared to the impasse she's hit now. She's discovering that there are things Windows does that the Mac cannot. This story is far from finished.

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