Mac OS X: Apple menu not accessible in unresponsive application

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
October 1st, 2004 • 3:34 am

There is one fundamental aspect of the Mac OS X environment that Apple has got wrong, and it is what happens when an application becomes unresponsive. (I wish it never happened, and I am sure Apple wished it never happened as well, but it does happen, far too often in fact.)

When an application becomes unresponsive, because of the way Mac OS X works, the entire left-hand side of the menu bar becomes unresponsive. You cannot click on any of the menus. In most cases, when you hover over that side of the menu bar with your mouse pointer, you get the spinning beachball, but sometimes you get the arrow pointer, yet clicking doesn’t do anything. (And then sometimes you can actually bring the menus down, but selecting their commandes doesn’t do anything, which is another type of unresponsiveness.)

The fact that this side of the menu bar is unresponsive makes sense. It is, after all, where the menus of the unresponsive application are located. Since the application itself has become unresponsive, it is logical that its menus have become unresponsive as well.

The trouble is that there is one menu on this side of the menu bar that does not belong to the application: the Apple menu. The Apple menu contains important commands that are available system-wide and are not tied to a particular application. There is, therefore, absolutely no reason why it should become unresponsive when a specific application becomes unresponsive. Yet that’s exactly what happens.

It is particularly problematic in light of the fact that the Apple menu contains precisely the one command that can be use to exit an unresponsive application, i.e. the “Force Quit…” command. Now, of course, I know very well that there are other ways to access the “Force Quit…” command. You can use the keyboard shortcut (command-option-Escape). Or you can click on the icon of the unresponsive application in the Dock to bring up a Dock menu that will tell you that the application is not responding and will include a direct “Force Quit” command for this particular application. Or your can switch to another application first and then access the Apple menu as usual.

Yet the fact remains that the main place where the “Force Quit…” command is located is the Apple menu, and that this menu is not accessible from within an application that has become unresponsive. I am afraid it makes no sense.

Simply put, it appears that this is due to the way Mac OS X manages the menu bar: it is divided into two zones, which behave differently. The zone on the right-hand side includes menu extras and stays responsive at all times (unless the background SystemUIServer process itself — which is the process that manages the right-hand side of the menu bar — becomes unresponsive, which can happen, in which case you have to force quit that process through the Activity Monitor application or kill it through the Terminal.

The zone on the left-hand side includes the Apple menu and the application-specific menus. And that’s precisely what the problem is. This zone contains two different things: one array of menus that are application-specific, and one menu (the Apple menu) that is system-wide. When an application becomes unresponsive, it freezes the entire left-hand side of the menu bar, including the Apple menu, even though the Apple menu can still be accessed if you switch to another application first.

This is simply not intuitive.

Again, I wish that application freezes never did happen. But they do. And as long as they do, the way the left-hand side of the menu bar is managed by Mac OS X will remain a problem from a user interface point of view.

Comments are closed.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.