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Wednesday, October 24, 2007, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Road to Mac OS X Leopard: System Preferences

Many functions in Mac OS X are only exposed to the user via System Preferences, so as you might guess, a lot of new things in Leopard show up there. Among them are a few of the "secret new features" that have never been previously announced in demonstrations of Leopard, laying to rest the hopes of certain critics that Steve Jobs somehow failed to deliver upon his assurance that the new system would deliver a variety of other new features Apple was keeping under wraps so that competitors wouldn't copy them before they were released. Here's a look at where System Preferences came from, and what's new.

This report goes to great lengths to explore the origins, history, and maturity of system preferences. For those readers with limited time or who are only interested in what's due in Leopard, you can skip to page 3 of this report.

The Origins of System Preferences

As noted in Road to Mac OS X Leopard: Dashboard, Spotlight and the Desktop, the original Macintosh in 1984 could only run one main application at once, so the idea of desk accessories was designed to enable the system to present mini-apps that could be used at the same time.

In his Folklore.org article Desk Ornaments, Andy Hertzfeld noted that his group needed a way to present a variety of system settings, and decided that the task would be best handled as a desk accessory so that the settings would be available from within any application.

Leopard Prefs


Apple artist Susan Kare designed the original Control Panel (above) as a compact display that was intuitive enough to not require any descriptive text. Kare's designs, including Mac system fonts and icons, gave the Mac a distinctive look and feel with a cohesive overall personality using just the two colors available. Among her other contributions was the choice of the propeller icon used on the Command Key (as described in How Apple Keyboards Lost a Logo and Windows PCs Gained One), the Happy Mac that displayed on startup, the Trash, the watch wait cursor, and Clarus the Dogcow, which appeared in print preferences. Kare's Chicago font not only served as the standard Mac font for a decade and a half, but was also resurrected to served as the system font on the early generations of iPods.

Kare later followed Steve Jobs to work at NeXT, and then worked for IBM and Microsoft, where she designed icons for OS/2, Windows 3.0's solitaire cards, and a variety of Windows system icons that mostly remained unchanged throughout the rest of the 90s. She subsequently designed the look of Eazel's Nautilus, the Linux file browser now used by GNOME.

Control Panel Evolution

By System 3 (below) in 1986, text labels had snuck in to clarify functions as the system software grew increasingly sophisticated. The clock settings were spun off into its own desk accessory.

Leopard Prefs


The following year, System 4 (below) began presenting settings divided up into sections to reduce the clutter of the interface, allowing room to return clock settings to the general section. The new modular interface was also expandable.

Leopard Prefs


With System 6, Apple began shipping the MultiFinder, which enabled multiple applications to run at once. This appeared to terminate any need for Desk Accessories, but they continued on as supported components of the system.

Desk accessories were actually implemented as system drivers, rather than just being smaller versions of applications. Like other drivers, they were stored as system resources within the Mac System file. Adding or removing Desk Accessories, just as with Font resources, required a special utility called Font/DA Mover. Once removed from the System, these resources could be stored in container files called Suitcases.

Control Panel Items

In 1991's System 7, the Control Panel was revamped to act like a collection of small applications. Rather than using a utility to install them, they simply sat in a Control Panels directory inside the new System Folder, alongside folders of other system files, including Fonts and the new Extensions used to patch the system with extended features.

Leopard Prefs


The Control Panels folder (above) contained the various controls; they could be launched by double clicking or could be selected from the Apple Menu. Once launched, they behaved like freestanding mini applications contained in their own window (below).

Leopard Prefs


The Control Strip

In System 7.5.3, Apple released the Control Strip (below), designed primarily for laptop users as a shortcut to settings presented in the Control Panel. It used Control Strip Modules, a separate collection of miniature plugins that had their own repository in the System Folder. Each controlled a square of the strip, and typically popped up a control menu, such as the volume control below.

The Control Strip itself could be repositioned anywhere on the Desktop and floated on top of other windows. The tag control on the right end could be zipped back and forth to reveal all or just part of the entire strip, and arrows on each end could be used to cycle though the modules.

Leopard Prefs


Control Panel Overload

While Mac Control Panels proliferated (below), the interface didn't change much throughout the lifespan of System 7, even after Apple renamed later versions as Mac OS 8 and Mac OS 9. Those versions did use the new Copland-style appearance (below).

Leopard Prefs


Leopard Prefs


Leopard Prefs


NeXTSTEP Preferences

Rather than breaking out each preference setting as a separate mini app, NeXT used a component interface in Preferences (below), which was closer to the original Mac design used prior to System 7. Individual sections were referred to as preference panels.

Leopard Prefs


Apple originally intended to repackage NeXT's operating system with a Mac appearance under the name Rhapsody in 1997. To make it more familiar to Mac users, Apple presented individual Preferences as a list (below top), and once opened, the settings would be presented as a standalone Control Panel-style window (below bottom).

Leopard Prefs


Leopard Prefs


On page 2 of 3: Mac OS X System Preferences.