Blog Post

10 Classic Features to ‘Bring Back’ to OS X

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

Classic Icon When Apple created Mac OS X, they didn’t build on the creaky foundation of the Classic Mac operating system. So when OS X was first released, there were a number of features that long-term Mac users considered missing. Over the course of four major upgrades, Apple added a number of those features to OS X and trumpeted their return: Spring-Loaded Folders, Labels, Desktop Printers, USB Printer Sharing, Software Base Station (Internet Sharing). However, there are still a number of features from Mac OS 9, 8 and even System 7 and 6 that deserve to be resurrected for OS X. Here are my Top 10 (in no particular order):

1. WindowShade

Introduced in System 7.5, WindowShade allowed users to “roll up” any standard Mac window so that only the titlebar appeared. Users could either click the button on the right-hand corner of the titlebar or they could double-click the titlebar. In OS X, double-clicking the titlebar can minimizes the window to the Dock.

On first glance, it would seem that minimizing the window accomplishes the exact same goal as WindowShade. But it is actually far less useful. First, un-minimizing a window always requires a trip to the Dock, while using WindowShade requires no mouse movement whatsoever. You can easily see what’s behind your frontmost window with a single click on the widget and quickly return with a single click in the exact same location. Second, minimizing a window removes it as the active focus while WindowShade keeps it active. This can be incredibly useful if you want to keep typing in the window while looking at what’s behind/under it. Third, using WindowShade for multiple windows keeps the titlebars in their same location but with minimal screen space used (you could option-click to shade all windows in a single app). Minimizing multiple windows fills up the Dock, potentially causing the Dock and all its application icons to shrink.

While minimizing windows can be useful (although it seems more like an attempt to ape Windows functionality with a slick animation), it does not offer equal benefits as WindowShade. There is certainly no technical reason that WindowShade cannot be implemented, considering that OS X’s Stickies application supports it. And the fact that Unsanity has created WindowShade X should not dissuade Apple from re-implementing this functionality. It should only persuade them that users still want it, and if it is built into the OS it will not require the installation of possibly-buggy third-party software.

2. Trash Features: Put Away, Total Size Equals

Dating back to at least System 7, you could choose any item in the Trash and select Put Away. This would return the item to the location from whence it was trashed. It was a handy feature, especially if you had multiple items to put back. The argument against having this feature may be ‘If you put it in the Trash, why would you want to take it out?’ Yet that is the entire purpose of having a Trash can in the first place: having the ability to take something out of it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t move items to a Trash icon, you would just be deleting them immediately (a different sort of feature request).

Another feature of the Classic Trash was that after choosing to empty it, the ‘Are You Sure?’ warning would pop up and list the amount of items and the total size of those items. This was useful in determining how much free space you were to regain (one of the biggest reasons people ever empty the trash). Now the only way to measure the total size of the Trash’s contents is to open the Trash, select all the items and View Inspector via Command-Option-I or Get Summary Info via Command-Control-I. And even that is not surefire, as the Info window will sometimes state the size as “Calculating…” and simply never finish. At the very least, put the total size of the Trash’s contents in the window’s Status Bar.

3. Map any application or file to any F-key

One of the last new features of the Classic Mac OS was the ability to assign specific applications or documents to the F-keys on the keyboard. You could put a browser on F1, e-mail on F2, a commonly-used document on F3, and so on. This was prior to the standardization of brightness and volume controls using F1-F5 on all Macs, but you could also use modifier keys like Option or Fn (on laptops). And Apple already provides a feature in the Keyboard preference pane to switch the necessity of using the Fn key with the F1-F12 keys. And since Apple also allows you to customize which F-keys launch Exposé and Dashboard there seems to be no reason they couldn’t easily return this functionality.

4. Ejecting one partition of a disk

Prior to OS X, if you had an external hard drive with multiple partitions mounted on your desktop, dragging one of those volumes to the Trash ejected only the individual partition. The same was true of CDs with multiple sessions. In OS X, Apple decided that dragging any external volume or CD session would eject all related partitions and sessions. This method has value … IF that’s how you want it to work. If you don’t, you’re required to open Disk Utility, select the individual volume and press the Unmount button. It’s understandable if the goal is to make things simple for basic users who want to eject the physical CD. But the physical eject button (which is what most basic users probably use anyway) already does that. And those are the same users that are probably less likely to use drives with multiple partitions and CDs with multiple sessions. A preference setting should be created in the Finder to allow either the all-eject or single-unmount method.

5. Internet Helper preferences

One feature that actually made the jump to OS X and was then removed (in 10.3) was the ability to set Internet helper preferences. In OS X’s original System Preferences, there was an Internet pane where you could assign your default web browser and e-mail client. In 10.3 and up, these settings were moved to the respective preferences of Safari and Mail, forcing an unnecessary visit to unwanted applications. And even that long-gone Internet pane was a far cry from OS 9’s capabilities, where default applications for other protocols could be set, like ftp, rtsp, udp, and more. Users are now required to open various applications and check the preferences (if they exist) to make them the default. The third-party RCDefaultApp now provides this functionality, but there’s no good reason for Apple not to make its users lives a little easier. The underlying technology already exists and they simply have to provide basic access.

6. Tabbed folders

In OS 8 and up, you could drag a Finder window’s titlebar to the bottom of the screen and it would create a tab the width of the folder name that would quickly pop the folder window up and down when clicked on. Items dragged onto the tab would also pop the window up. And because the window would pop quickly back down, a tabbed window could be used as a kind of app-launcher. If you had three browsers, for instance, you could drag an HTML file onto the tab, the window would pop open and you could drag the file onto any of the browser aliases contained within. The file would then open in the application and the window would pop back down, leaving only the tab.

The Dock is clearly the main reason why tabbed folders have not appeared on OS X. Obviously you cannot have tabbed folders sitting below or on top of the Dock. But the Dock can also be placed on the side of the screen, leaving room for tabbed folders on the bottom. Similarly, why couldn’t tabbed folders be created on the sides of the screen?

Although the Dock certainly has drag-and-drop launching capabilities, the number of applications is limited to the horizontal space of the screen. This is why some users put folders into the Dock filled with applications, so they can right-click on it and get the full list. But a docked folder will not pop-up its list of contents when you drag a file onto it. And a docked folder will only pop-up a list, not a window with icons arranged to your size and liking.

7. Appearance themes

With the exception of desktop patterns and custom icons, the Classic Mac System was a largely customization-free affair until the arrival of the Appearance control panel in OS 8. It provided a unified area for users to change desktop pattern and picture, the fonts used to display in Finder windows and the menubar, the color of selection text and scrollbar grabber, the sounds associated with various computer activities, and even alternate interface themes. These settings could be grouped and saved (like Network Locations in OS X) and then quickly switched from one to another.

OS X has largely eschewed the entire concept of themes, providing no ability to even change the menubar font, much less the Finder’s icon and list view fonts. This seems to be a religious issue at Apple ever since Steve Jobs returned and banned the sharing of the few Apple-developed demonstration themes (Gizmo and HiTech). But forcing your beliefs onto the users doesn’t make anyone like it. The fact remains that many users like to customize the appearance of their computer. Not allowing built-in capabilities forces those users to seek out third-party alternatives, which increase the risk of incompatibilities and crashing, especially since they involve more fundamental changes than running a basic shareware application.

This backwards leap in capabilities makes OS X look primitive compared to OS 9 and Windows, whose users Apple is increasingly courting. If Apple truly feels that its Aqua look-and-feel is so superior, they shouldn’t be afraid of letting its users make up their own mind.

8. Print Finder window

A commonly-used feature of the old MacOS was the Finder’s Print Window command. It was very handy to be able to print out a window of a Zip disk or CD to fold or cut out and slip in the case. Users moving to OS X often ask where that feature is, only to find that Apple has attempted, but failed, to replicate it.

One solution given is to drag and drop a folder to the printer icon. The first problem there is it requires the printer icon to either be in the Dock, the Sidebar or on the desktop. It’s not unreasonable, but it wasn’t necessary before. The second problem is the result sucks. It prints a list view with no folder name or icons, columns that aren’t labeled, and allows for no choice of which column information is shown. What if you want to print out a Finder window that lists all the files with their labels shown? Too bad. What if you wanted to print out a Finder window that has a number of images, each with a custom preview icon created by Photoshop? Too bad.

The other option is to use the Print Window script in the Script Menu (if you’ve enabled it), which asks you the unnecessary question: ‘Which Window Do You Want To Print?’ There’s simply no denying that OS X’s Print Window functionality is a blindingly-pale imitation of the old Mac OS and users shouldn’t have to seek out third-party software to get that functionality back.

9. Put URL of downloaded files in Get Info’s Comments field

This is actually not a feature of the old Mac operating system, but of Internet Explorer for Mac. But it was the default (and, arguably, best) browser. One of its nifty features was to put the URL of any downloaded file in the Comments field of its Get Info window. This was useful for keeping track of where files came from or where they could be found again. The feature did not survive in Internet Explorer for OS X, but that browser is officially dead and buried.

Now that Apple is creating the default (and, arguably, best) browser for OS X, it should return that feature. It would be especially useful in 10.4 because the Get Info window’s Comments field has been renamed Spotlight Comments and its contents are indexed by Spotlight. Of course, downloaded files do have a ‘Where from’ field in the More Info pane of the Get Info window, but that text is not selectable. Say, for instance, that you had a desktop image you liked and had downloaded months ago. If you wanted to go back to the specific area of the site where it came from to see if they had added others, you could select and copy the relevant portion of the URL and paste it into Safari. It would save a lot of retyping effort. Either add the file’s location into the Spotlight Comments or just make the More Info text selectable (not writable, of course, just selectable).

10. Flash menubar on alert when sound is muted

Going all the way back to at least System 6 (it’s the earliest I can remember), if the volume level was silent and an alert occurred, the menubar would quickly invert its colors, resulting in a visual flash. This was a simple, good idea that respected your wishes to shut your Mac up and yet still be informed of what the computer deemed attention-worthy. Just because you want silence doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be alerted somehow.

Unfortunately, somebody forgot this simple, good idea in OS X. If you mute your Mac (even easier to do in OS X thanks to F3) and an alert occurs, it occurs in silence and you aren’t alerted. Apple hasn’t completely forgotten the concept, as there is a “Flash the screen when an alert sound occurs” option in the Universal Access’ Hearing tab. Visually, the screen flash is much more sophisticated than the menubar inversal. But there are two problems with this. First, it’s all-or-nothing regarding volume. The screen will flash if your volume is muted, but it will also flash if your volume isn’t muted. Second, it doesn’t work correctly 100 percent of the time. There are numerous occasions where an alert sound plays and the screen doesn’t flash.

At the very least, Apple should fix the problems with the current setup. But to make things even better, they should implement a ‘new’ “Flash the screen when the computer is muted and an alert sound occurs” feature.

Often, when longtime Mac users ask where old features are in OS X (Where’s the Control Strip?! The Apple logo isn’t a rainbow!), they are reminded by other users of the shortcomings of those old systems (There was no preemptive multitasking!). But OS X’s rock-solid underpinnings are not at odds with useful user interface features. And adding ‘back’ these 10 features would be useful for both longtime Mac users who remember them and new Mac users who wouldn’t know any better.

72 Responses to “10 Classic Features to ‘Bring Back’ to OS X”

  1. regarding #9, I wrote an applescript that downloads the url that is on the clipboard to the desktop and stores the url in the files comments. here it is:

    display dialog “Do you want to download this file?”

    tell application “GrowlHelperApp”

    set the allNotificationsList to ¬
    {“Download Complete”}

    set the enabledNotificationsList to ¬
    {“Download Complete”}

    register as application ¬
    “Download Script” all notifications allNotificationsList ¬
    default notifications enabledNotificationsList

    end tell

    set source to the clipboard

    do shell script “cd $HOME/Desktop/; curl ” & source & ” -O”

    tell application “GrowlHelperApp”

    notify with name ¬
    “Download Complete” title ¬
    “Download Complete” description ¬
    source application name “Download Script”
    end tell

    on error
    end try

    –add comment to file
    set desk_top to path to desktop as Unicode text
    tell application “Finder”
    set desk_all to (every file of folder desk_top)
    set a to desk_all’s item 1
    repeat with b in desk_all
    if (b’s creation date) > (a’s creation date) then set a to b
    end repeat
    set comment of b to source
    end tell

    –add comment to file
    set theFolder to path to desktop
    tell application “Finder”
    set fileList to every document file of theFolder
    sort fileList by modification date
    set newest_file to first item of fileList
    set comment of newest_file to source
    end tell

  2. #24:

    From “Mac Help”:
    Click to select a single item. Drag to select a group of items.
    Press the Shift key and click other items to include them in the selection. Click a selected item to deselect it.
    To select multiple items in a list that are not next to one another, press the Command key and click the items you want. Click a selected item again to deselect it.

  3. PrintWindow – do it all the time! When handing files to a Printer (even Kinko’s asks) so they know everything on the disc you’re giving them…a designers/artdirector’s staple. (my silly work around is a screen grab and print the PDF, not jazzed about the shareware appPrintWindow…seems clunky )
    How about bringing back simple font management!

  4. #11 I just copied and pasted files around…. cmd+c then cmd+v, or your can ctrl+click/right click, or use the edit menu. I dunno what your issue is, copy and paste is there for finder – though cut is not.

    What I miss from windows is the ability to combine shift+select and cmd+select. So I can select multiple ranges of files at the same time like files 1-7, 9, 11, 14-19, and 21; without having to click each file individually.

  5. Hey Mark,

    Try Lightswitch X to get those windows to work like OS 9 again. It’s not free and OS X includes an appswitcher now, but it allows you to change window “layering.”

    Not affiliated with Lightswitch X.

  6. It’s amazing how many of you Mac OS X users are unaware that #9 actually exists… go on, do a Get Info on a file you’ve downloaded from Safari and the URL is listed there!
    It was even a Hot Tip on the Apple site a few weeks ago, d’oh!

  7. The classic feature that I really miss is the way you could control what folders appeared in the Apple Menu. I’d put applications, documents – whole trees of things. It was a super quick way to open any file..

  8. For a short time Apple introduced a technology they called Data Type Detectors. Inside any OpenDoc document or Cyberdog window you could highlight and click on any logical data and get a list of appropriate conversions for that type of data. Currency, distance, speed, weight. You name it. Select the conversion you preferred from the list and thats what would display in place. Trouble was, after first parsing the page, the DTD would then go through and ferret out the various data types. For the computers of the era (601s – 604s & Pre iMac G3s) this was a quite taxing task and made for a sluggish experience in OS 8.

  9. Thank you for writing such a great list!
    Every one of these items I have used extensively before OS X and have missed them all since!
    Your description of the features is spot on and also thanks for the hints in replicating the features with a work-around in OS X … I’ve been trying to unmount a single partition for some time, now.

  10. Regarding #8, Print Finder Window, I believe this is already incorporated into OS X, although I’m not entirely clear on what the original functionality was given that I was a Mac user at the time of Classic. However, I believe what you’re describing is something akin to having a column view of a disk or volume, with the directory listing of the various attributes (file name, size, date modified, etc) and printing the window to use it as an index.

    Provided you expand the Finder window enough to show all the relevant information, you can do this by the Cmd+Shift+4 keyboard shortcut, and then pressing Spacebar to be able to capture the contents of a window (any window at that; your mouse will turn into a camera icon). There’s a Dashboard widget called Screenshot Plus that acts as a Dashboard front-end to this functionality with some additional options, but ultimately, that technology exists within OS X and, given that the SSP widget has captured its functionality, you should be able to write a script or some equivalent method to temporarily restore that functionality. I imagine writing an AppleScript and then using Automator to tie it in as a Finder plug-in would be the best method at the moment for Tiger users.

  11. 9. Put URL of downloaded files in Get Info’s Comments field

    Uh… get a grip!
    What you really want is for the field that already exists to be a clickable link with a “copy to clipboard” option.

    Why suggest a “feature” that’s so clearly inferior to something you mention just in passing in the end (making the existing field selectable)?

  12. 11. One and a half click
    Double-clicking your mouse and not releasing the button after the second click (hence the 1 and a half click) changed the cursor into a magnifying glass – Instant file hierarchy browsing, like spring loaded folders. It was fast and I miss it a lot.

  13. Windowshade, tabbed finder windows, themes… These are all a part of the user experience.
    You make some HUGE points when you talk about the windows people coming to a less user-defined experience… Frankly, windows 98 has more of this in mind that even os 8.

    Apple, while I am a total fan-boy… you really need to wake up to the FULL experience a person has with their computer. Not only do we love to play with our media, but we want to play a little with our OS experience as well. Changing the fonts, colors, shapes, opacity, and any other creative ways you can safely allow we users to personalize our mac experience, means we are not just mac users, we are experiencers of the mac’s honest go at making our computer experiences our own.

    Free us from Haxies.


    Ryan Clark

  14. Uhm, how about file copy/paste? One of the main things I was used to doing on a Windows box that I absolutely would not give up. I moved stuff around, a LOT. I don’t want to drag files, spring folders open, etc. I enjoy the fact I can select a number of files and cut/paste them somewhere else. If Leopard doesn’t have it, I’m staying out of the game.

    /It sounds trivial but it really is a bother to me
    //Love the interface though. Beautiful…absolutely breathtaking

  15. Themes would be challenging for developers to support, to say the least. Mac OS X is not classic and it’s not Windows.

    Mac OS X is currently going through a metamorphosis in user experience, and throwing system-level themes into the mix would be a mess. Users would expect it to “just work,” but it would be far from that simple. It might be okay for basic apps, but how should something like Disco behave? Or Aperture? Even things that look like standard controls are often custom controls.

    Themes as a supported, system-level feature might be less crash-prone because there’s no code injection going on, but it there would suddenly be millions of average peoplet using themes instead of thousands of fringe users who know what to expect.

  16. i have to agree on a couple of those features –

    (1) windowshade – i think that this, or the much prettier and osx-ish minimize in place hack that has been floating around for a while, is a much welcome option to expose. expose is certainly a nice touch, but i still like the old school way too. reminds me of stickes, which still exhibit a similar behavior.

    (2 put away – my god this would save me SO much time…

    (3-5) most of these features could stay gone in my opinon, as there are more effective third party options as mentioned. and as for the internet preferences one, OS X still asks you if you want to set a browser or mail application as your default when you launch it for the first time…

    (6) tabbed windows – i don’t know why they ever got rid of this feature, or the ‘drawer’ behavior option os 9 and back used to have.

    (7) appearance themes – other than grey or blue, OS X doesnt give you many options. there is software which will let you theme OS X, but it would be nice to have a legit built in way of doing so. not really nessecary though…

    (8) print finder window – having this built back into the finder would be awesome!

    (9) url in comment – this would also be very handy. as it is now, i have to launch my browser and hope i didn’t delete the file from my download list, then if i find it relaunch the download and then stop it when the new page pops up, just to get the address. this is a pretty inconvenient method if you ask me.

    (10) flashy menubar – in OS X, in the Universal Access preference pane, under the Hearing section, there is an option to have the screen flash (much like it does in photobooth when it takes a picture) on any alert. you have check the “enable access for assitive devices” box at the bottom for this to work. this isn’t what you are talking about, but it does the same job in my opinion. the only thing is that it will only flash once. im pretty sure dock icons bounce when that app needs attention by default, but having the menubar flash repeatedly until the alert was dismissed would be a nice option.

  17. yeah osx should have those features re-featured in their next os.

    but as for now, you can dowload a freeware windowshade add-on, i cant think of the site, but you can a lot on this particular site.
    on this site you can also get a program called shapeshifter, which can change your whole theme to one of hundreds on thier sites, but it does cost $20.

    as for print screen i believe there are some simple keyboard shortcuts, but yes a button would be easier, but that would add an extra button.

    i believe you can also get a freeware version of tabbed finder, but i might be mistaken for what leopard is going to feature.

  18. I didn’t convert to the Cult of Mac until Tiger (but had used Classic even before System 7). Still, I’ve found more than one of the things one this list irksome enough to do something about it.

    Yes, I actually wrote an AppleScript to unmount a single partition of a multi-partitioned external drive. (I’m trying to find the script, but I seem to have misplaced it. Point is, if you unmount the partition instead of ejecting, the other(s) stay there.)

    And putting the URL of a downloaded file in the Spotlight comments field? OMG that would make my life so much simpler — not to mention allowing people to cite their sources so much more easily!

    For instance: I download a load of Creative Commons-licensed images from Flickr; for each one, I manually add the license type and the URL into the Spotlight comments. It’s tedious and totally unnecessary (howabout a Firefox extension?; there’s already one for Safari), but I want to ensure that I give proper attribution when I use something.

  19. My take:

    1. WindowShade – quite frankly I never liked it. These days expose does a much better job.

    3. Map any F-key – my MBP only has two available (both of which I use with Synergy anyway). There’s plenty of software to make good use for those – I’m not convinced it’s worth Apple spending time on.

    4. Ejecting – I honestly don’t think what you’re suggesting is a good idea. Users expect to be able to hit “eject” and be able to take their drive away. Adding preferences is generally considered a bad idea it seems. Perhaps the advanced user who really does only want to eject one partition for whatever reason is best using Disk Utility or umount.

    8. Print Finder Windows. People actually do that?

    9. URL. Safari, at least, stores this as metadata on a file. Under More Info: in a Get Info screen is a “Where from: http://…” section. I think that’s better than setting a comment.

  20. What about classic finder windows! You’re in one application then click back to the finder, VOILA!, All your finder windows come to the front. (same goes for any app) Ahh the days of OS 9.