John Gruber on anchored and unanchored selection in lists and text views in Mac OS X

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh, Mail
August 5th, 2006 • 11:29 am

John Gruber has an interesting essay on what he calls “anchored” and “unanchored” selection in Mac OS X with lists of items (as in Mail’s list of messages) or blocks of text (in a block of text in TextEdit, for example).

There are some long-standing problems with these two types of selection in Mac OS X, and John does a good job of summarizing them. He also raises the fundamental question of why Mac OS X handles keyboard-based selection in a way that no one seems to like:

… we’re left with a situation where almost all Mac software handles keyboard-based list selection in a way that almost everyone — or at least everyone who cares — considers suboptimal… I don’t believe there are two opposing camps here. It’s not controversial; it’s just baffling.

One thing that John Gruber neglects to mention explicitly, however, is that, essentially, keyboard-based selection is for Mac nerds. I don’t know a single “average” Mac user who uses it. Even people who would clearly benefit from it, i.e. people who type a lot of text and have their hands on the keyboard a lot of the time, still switch to the mouse every time they have to select something.

(These are the same people who, most of the time, don’t know about word-by-word selection with the mouse either. They only use the default selection mode, i.e. they select text with the mouse character by character, even when they want to select entire words.)

These people know about shift-clicking for selecting more than one item in a list, because it meets a pretty fundamental need. (Even non-nerds know that there must be a more effective way to deal with list of items than to select items one by one, when you want to apply the same action to a batch of items.)

But that’s how far their knowledge and mastery of selection in Mac OS X extend. They usually don’t know about command-clicking to create discontinuous selections. And they certainly never think of using only the keyboard for selecting items in a list, even when it would be more convenient for them.

So I suspect that part of the reason that Apple has persisted with this seemingly unwanted behaviour for keyboard-based selection in lists in Mac OS X is that no “average” user ever complains about it. Only nerds like John Gruber and me do. And for some reason, with Mac OS X, Apple tends to listen to non-nerds only.

I’ve submitted countless bug reports to Apple through the Apple Developer Connection and through the AppleSeed program regarding similar issues that primarily affect nerds or “power users” like me. Sometimes Apple has responded to the bug report by acknowledging that it is a bug and asserting that its engineers are looking into it.

But none of these bugs has ever been fixed. The bugs have been with us for years, and Apple just doesn’t seem to be interested in fixing them within a reasonable time frame. Their engineers’ energies appear to be always focused on new features or on fixing other types of bugs. “Usability” bugs just don’t seem to be given any kind of priority at Apple these days.

And that’s the really depressing aspect of the whole issue. Right now, we are in a situation where power users have to live on a daily basis with bugs that annoy the hell out of them, and they have pretty much no hope of these bugs ever being fixed by Apple.

I don’t mind Apple giving priority to other bugs. But we are talking about years of inaction here. These bugs are not just low priority. They appear to have no priority at all.

On a side note, I’d like to point out one error in John Gruber’s report. He states this:

Using the mouse and keyboard together to select items, however, is unanchored: if you select one item, then Shift-click both above and below that item, both Shift-clicks add to the selection range.

But there is at least one context in which this is not true. In Finder window in column view, using the keyboard and the mouse together is anchored. In other words, in a Finder window in column view, if you select an item, shift-click to extend the selection downwards, and then shift-click again on an item above the selection, the Finder deselects the current selection (except for the initial item, the “anchor”) and creates a new selection extending upwards instead.

This is not the case in list view, only in column view. So it’s quite clearly a bug. But it’s a bug that adds even more to the inconsistency. Surely Apple didn’t actually mean to have different behaviours in column view and in list view here, did they?

One Response to “John Gruber on anchored and unanchored selection in lists and text views in Mac OS X”

  1. ssp says:

    I’m really split on this one. John Gruber does make a good point and the effort of explaining what’s going on and why.

    Not being a frequent keyboard-list-selector myself, I have still managed to run into this exact problem and consider it a problem. Yet, I keep thinking the implemented behaviour is quite logical and easier to understand than the behaviour that may come handy in some situations. Particularly so as the current way Apple handle this issue leaves no ambiguities: You see that screen and whatever single, multiple or discontinuous selection you have it is clear and predictable what hitting a shift-arrow key combination will do.

    So this comes down to a fight between clarity and predictability vs an easy way (for geeks, as you point out) to correct their typos. And while I may have suffered from this ‘problem’ myself, I generally think that Apple siding with clarity and predictability is both consistent and a good thing.

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