Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard): The non-spatial Finder, or when ‘always’ does not always mean ‘always’

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
November 29th, 2007 • 12:26 pm

Much has been written about Mac OS X’s Finder over the years regarding its schizophrenic nature. It retains elements of the purely spatial Finder from the classic Mac OS, where the fundamental equation 1 folder = 1 window helped ensure that the Finder would actually remember window settings from one visit to a given folder to the next visit to that same folder. But it also has a “browser” mode with provides a multi-column view mode and lets you view the same folder in two different windows with different view modes at the same time.

I am a big fan of the column view mode for certain things, and I have nothing against being able to view the same folder in two different windows with different view modes at the same time. It can be useful. But the sad reality is that it generates a high level of confusion regarding which view options are going to “stick” and when.

Mac OS X 10.5 tries to remedy this situation by providing a revamped “View Options” palette with a check box labelled “Always open in XXX view,” with “XXX” being the current view mode of the currently selected folder.

There is only one slight problem with this check box, however. It is that “always” does not really mean “always.” It actually means “Always open in XXX view when you double-click on the folder to open it in a new window in the Finder.” Which is not quite the same, and does not quite have that elegant UI ring to it, does it?

The reality is that, of course, Mac OS X’s Finder continues to be a hybrid beast in Leopard. You can still open the same folder in multiple windows, and you can still force the Finder to show a folder’s contents in a view mode other than the one selected with the “Always open in XXX view” option.

The problem here is with the word open, which means much more in a non-spatial Finder than it used to mean in the spatial Finder in the classic Mac OS.

It’s purely an issue of semantics, but the fact remains that you cannot really expect the average Mac user to clearly understand that, in this particular context, open specifically means “open by double-clicking on the folder icon,” and does not refer to the ability to open the folder through other means, such as a single click in a Finder window in column view mode—even though technically speaking this also opens the folder to reveal its contents.

And you can open the same folder in a second window in the same desired view mode, but with a different window size and position, and of course the Finder will not remember the desired window size and position reliably, because, after all, you can have two Finder windows showing the contents of the same folder in the same view mode, but with two different window sizes and positions, and how is the Finder going to remember which is the right one?

All this is to say that the changes made by Apple to the Finder in Mac OS X 10.5 don’t really help make it a more intuitive tool, and I am quite sure that there are just as many frustrated Mac users out there who find themselves constantly resizing and moving and changing the view modes of their Finder windows because they don’t seem to be able to get the Finder to “remember” anything properly.

I would say that this semantic issue with the “Always open in XXX view” option illustrates, in a nutshell, the on-going problems with the Finder in Mac OS X. I am not saying that I have an easy solution, but, you know, others have given it a try, and what they say makes sense.

5 Responses to “Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard): The non-spatial Finder, or when ‘always’ does not always mean ‘always’”

  1. AlanY says:

    I’ve never understood the appeal of the “spatial” metaphor. The Ars Technica reviewer seems rabidly in favor of it, and thus very opposed to the Finder changes, but I think in most cases the Finder changes in Leopard were in exactly the right direction. As you point out, the “spatial” metaphor in its purest sense is fatally flawed because it assumes you’ll only have one view (window) per directory open at any one time, and of course that is not realistic. There are so many other problems with the idea of a spatial browser… I just don’t understand people’s attachment to the concept. It only made sense in the earliest days of the Mac, when we had small black and white screens with next to no real estate.

    By default, I’d like my Finder windows to have my usual view mode, except special folders that I’ve indicated I want to always have a special view, which is what Leopard does. With the exception of column mode, as you point out, but column mode has to maintain the column metaphor or it doesn’t make sense.

  2. ssp says:

    Replying, in part, to AlanY: I think there are two types of people. Some speak about directories and prefer the Finder’s browsing mode. While others speak about folders and appreciate the spatial behaviour as they have the expectation that things remain in the position they put them on screen. – Just as on a real desktop you can hope that things have ‘their place’ on screen and remain there. On a real desktop everything only exists once and if you are using your computer in this way you will find that you don’t need to open the same folder twice when working with it.

    The main point here is that it’s excellent if people enjoy non-spatial navigation and they should be happy to use it. _However_, this shouldn’t come at the cost of destroying spatial navigation for the people who prefer using that.

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    To be fair, I think John Siracusa appreciates the value of the non-spatial stuff as well. He’s not arguing that it should be eliminated, simply that it should be clearly separated from the spatial stuff.

  4. ssp says:

    Oh sure, there are situations where browsing is useful and I’m sure Siracusa is aware of that. I just dislike the “I fail to see the point of spatial browsing, so why are people complaining?” attitude that seems quite common.

  5. AlanY says:

    The problem is that there is no good middle ground. Both metaphors cannot coexist without introducing some global modal setting (spatial/non-spatial), and Apple isn’t about doing that. Nor are most modern UI designers for that matter. They cannot coexist because you have to make conflicting decisions at the most basic level. If you’re going to be purely spatial, you cannot allow the user to open a second window to a directory if one is already open. You also cannot allow column view, because it’s inherently incompatible with the metaphor, unless you have special column view windows that cannot be taken out of that view. You cannot allow Finder windows on separate monitors or virtual desktops viewing the same folder. If you allow any of these things, then the spatial metaphor no longer becomes predictable from the user’s perspective (without understanding complicated rules about what overrules what)… basically losing the promised advantages of the metaphor.

    You can try to meet both camps halfway, in the few areas where you can accommodate both, as Panther/Tiger did, but it only leaves both camps complaining.

    In Leopard, someone put his/her foot down and said spatialism is going away, and so it was. I found Siracusa’s comment about this being a “denial of service attack” on the spatial metaphor to be silly and overdramatic. Apple simply made the decision and implemented it. They also added hooks so the Finder can finally be replaced by third-party applications (Path Finder has taken advantage of this), so if there truly is demand for the spatial metaphor, someone will provide it.

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