June 2022


Five Enhancements for Future Apple Operating Systems

At the WWDC keynote in just a few weeks, Apple will unveil new features across its stable of operating systems (see “WWDC 2022 Stays Virtual Starting June 6,” 5 April 2022). The company has already started talking about some of those features (see “Apple Previews Upcoming Accessibility Features,” 17 May 2022). Rumors suggest that Apple could also release the classical music app it promised almost a year ago (see “Apple Buys Classical Music Service Primephonic,” 31 August 2021), offer new health-tracking features, and enhance notifications. As always, some changes will likely be useful, while others will fall flat.

We at TidBITS recently put our heads together to develop a wishlist of things we’d like to see Apple change or add. Some weren’t new—we’ve already drawn attention to issues with the organization of the iOS Settings app (see “Bad Apple #2: Alphabetize Settings in iOS,” 21 February 2018), Apple not allowing users to help train Siri (see “Why Can’t Users Teach Siri about Its Mistakes?,” 14 August 2019), the excessive complexity of Focus (see “Apple’s New Focus Feature May Be Overkill,” 20 January 2022), and better data protection in iCloud Drive (see “Bad Apple #5: iCloud Drive Folder Sharing Risks Data Loss,” 12 May 2022). So let’s just stipulate that those suggestions remain in effect.

But other results of our brainstorming—mostly improvements to existing Mac features—struck us as worth sharing. We’re under no illusion that publishing these ideas will have any immediate effect—Apple undoubtedly locked the feature set for macOS 12.5, iOS 16, and so on long ago—but we hope they will seed future changes.

Time Machine Interface Overhaul

When it debuted with Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard in 2007, Time Machine offered a significant rethinking of backup. It backed up everything on your Mac every hour, maintaining versions of changed files and trimming unnecessary versions to save space. Restoring files used a familiar Finder-like interface coupled with a timeline that allowed users to navigate through the stored versions of files. Since then, the underlying Time Machine code has changed radically, particularly with the recent move to APFS. What hasn’t changed over the past 15 years, however, is the Time Machine restoration interface.

That’s a problem. Time Machine is slow, clumsy, and disorienting. Navigating the directory hierarchy in the Time Machine’s window is slow, and finding a particular version of a file is an exercise in frustration. We’d like to see Apple revisit the Time Machine interface and make it so that it’s easier to navigate, shows dated versions of available files at a glance, and clarifies to the extent possible the differences between the current and older versions.

Or, perhaps Time Machine could be integrated into the Finder itself. Matt Sephton has hacked together a system that shows one way to make restoration simpler—a Restore from Time Machine contextual menu itemaccessible when Control-clicking a file in the Finder. Surely Apple could build such a feature into the Finder and provide some additional interface for users who wanted to revert to a version other than the latest.

iCloud Backup for the Mac, or iCloud Time Machine

Given the necessity of backups and Apple’s acknowledgment of that through both Time Machine on the Mac and iCloud Backup for the iPhone and iPad, it’s surprising that Apple hasn’t taken the next step and enabled Time Machine to back up to iCloud as an additional, offsite option with all the benefits that come from cloud-based backup.

Users would have to pay for additional iCloud+ storage, but that seems like a win for Apple’s Services division. Apple would need additional data center capacity to host all the data, but given how many millions of iPhones and iPads are already backing up to iCloud, we assume Apple knows how to do that.

Such a service would require that improved Time Machine restoration interface. If you think navigating through Time Machine is sluggish when working from a hard drive, imagine how slow it would be when used over an Internet connection.

Safari Site-Specific Browsers on the Mac

If you have a website that you regularly visit on the iPhone and iPad, you can add an icon for it to your Home screen. In a small way, you’re turning that website into an app. It doesn’t share cookies with other instances of the website in Safari, and in at least some cases, you can’t even access the address bar or other tabs in Safari to navigate elsewhere. It’s essentially a site-specific browser.

We’d love to see site-specific browsing capability come to Safari on the Mac. Although there are a variety of site-specific browsers available, they all have various issues (see “The Best Mac Site-Specific Browser for Google Docs,” 18 June 2021). Personally, I spend a lot of time on the TidBITS and TidBITS Talk sites every day, along with several sites I run for the Finger Lakes Runners Club. It would be helpful to interact with TidBITS and FLRC in separate apps—which would also capture clicked links directed at the associated domains—rather than ending up with 10 or 15 tabs to each site open by the end of the day.

Given WebKit’s ubiquity and integration into macOS, it should be easy for Apple to enable this. Certainly more so than for a third-party developer, and it would further integrate the macOS and iOS user experience.

Improved Undo for Preview through Versions

Preview is a surprisingly capable graphic editing app, but it suffers from one major liability compared to others: you can only undo changes you make to a graphic while it’s open. As soon as you save and close, your changes are written into the pixels of the file and become immutable. We edit a lot of screenshots in Preview because it has all the tools necessary for quick markups and annotations, but it’s always frustrating to make what turns out later to be a mistake and have to start over entirely.

Most graphics programs solve this with custom file formats that keep added objects editable, provide layers that can be changed independently, offer versioning, or all three. Preview has no file format of its own, but with relatively little effort, Apple could at least leverage macOS’s longstanding versioning system to provide an easier way to undo changes. There’s already a File > Revert To submenu that provides access to the most recently saved version and to the Time Machine-like interface for browsing and comparing other versions. If that capability were accessible via Edit > Undo, Preview users would be more likely to realize that their changes don’t have to be permanent, even after saving and closing files. And frankly, Preview might get more use.

Apple could go even further and develop a native file format for Preview files that would be managed by the versioning database behind the scenes, but it’s hard to imagine the company devoting such time to Preview again.

User-Level Logs of Important Configuration Changes

We all constantly make configuration changes on our devices. We install updates, change network settings, tweak notification options, and more. Settings in iOS and System Preferences in macOS both offer hundreds, if not thousands, of options, and plenty of configuration takes place outside those two apps. Most of us don’t remember much of what we’ve done, which can lead to all sorts of confusion later on.

We’d like to see Apple build a log of “important” changes into its operating systems, with an API for apps to log their own changes. Whenever the user took an action that met the criteria for “important”—turning on File Sharing, giving an app Full Disk Access, configuring Focus, adjusting system-wide text display, restarting the device—that action would be logged.

Making the log easy to parse would be essential—Console is a disaster. The log viewer should include the date and time, the device on which the change was made, details about the action, and ideally, some way to reveal the spot where the action could be reversed or changed. It should be entirely searchable, of course, and it would be great if actions could be categorized in certain ways to filter the results. It should run on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad, and its contents should sync across devices via iCloud, so you could use your Mac to view the log for your iPhone.

Such a log would be a huge help when figuring out what had changed recently on a system that has started acting up, especially for someone trying to help a less-experienced friend or relative. It would certainly be a boon to Apple support technicians trying to troubleshoot a caller’s problem. It could also be useful when replicating a setup on a new device.

What other specific enhancements or features would improve your experience using Apple’s operating systems?

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