December 9, 2002

Bedtime Story

In the Classic Mac OS there was a great little tool in the Finder which made accessing commonly needed system preferences a cinch. It was called the Control Strip. It sat by default in the lower left hand corner of the screen and quietly performed its duties well. It could be expanded or collapsed, it could be horizontally resized or repositioned along the y axis of either side of the screen, and best of all is was extensible. Anyone could write plugins for it. And all was right with the Universe.

Then along came Mac OS X 10.0 and the Dock. The Dock wanted the bottom of the screen for itself. And the little Control Strip died a quick and silent death. The Dock thought it could handle everything the little tool could do. Why not? The Dock is part of Aqua! Nothing that looks as glitzy as anything that’s part of Aqua could be sickeningly unusable to the point of absurdity. So the Dock was given some items which handled similar functions like indicating the remaining battery power and developers began churning out more useful tools as well.

But before long it became clear that the Dock couldn’t handle all the tools it was being loaded up with. “I’m for switching between apps and windows that are currently running! All the rest of this crap doesn’t belong in me! Why does everyone hate me? I’m sorry I broke Fitts’s Law! Whaa!” So Apple killed the Dock Items and created Menu Items for OS X (10.1). Now the tools that had moved from the Control Strip to the Dock now lived on the right hand side of the menu bar. It made sense, Apple had put stuff there before. And they looked sharp with their simple black-on-white 16x16 icons.

Apple was on the right track. The items were small, they were reorderable, they could be inserted and removed with ease, and best of all, it was still extensible. If anything, Apple had made the Menu Items too well, and once again, third-party developers started making their own very useful tools to make use of the feature. But Apple felt that the space was too precious to be used by third-party schmoes so in the latest major release of the OS (10.2), they crippled the ability for anyone but them to use the Menu Item functionality.

Developers now have no way of building Control Strip Items, Dock Items, or Menu Items. But, being the inventive sort that developers tend to be, they found a way around Apple’s Eastern Bloc-style defense of the menu bar. It isn’t as slick, you can’t reorder the items or simply drag them out of the menu bar to remove them, and you have to run them like an Application to turn them on, but it works. Sort of. In a, “Why do these practically identical interface elements have such inexplicably different functionality fer crap’s sake?!” kinda way.

That’s where we are today dear readers. I, for one, can’t wait to see how Apple tries to ruin a once brilliantly simple way for developers to provide access to deeply nested preferences which require frequent reconfiguring next. Maybe in 10.3 they’ll move the Control Strip items to the middle of the menu bar. Maybe they’ll arrange them in a circle in the center of your desktop in a randomly appearing/disappearing animation which dares you to guess where they’ll pop up next. Nothing would surprise me at this point.