Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Issue with Design of "Sharing & Permission" Functionality on MAC OS X Leopard

I am a die hard Apple fan who has been using Macs for over 11-years. Some of the features that I like most about Apple computers is that they are more reliable, less prone to errors, and easier to recover from errors than Window-based PCs - at least based on my personal experience as a regular user of both Macs and PCs. Overall, I find that Macs are better designed than PCs.

Earlier today I came across what I consider to be a major flaw in the design of Apple's Leopard operating system. This issues created the most frustrating experienced I've ever had with a Mac, yet I believe that it can be easily remedied in future OS updates. In this post I will even offer up some of suggestions for how Apple can solve this issue from a user interaction perspective.

What's the Issue
Let's start with the lesson I learned: if you are running Mac OS X Leopard then don't mess with the system's "sharing & permission" preferences for your start-up drive.

So here's what happened. Yesterday I was fixing the "sharing & permission" preferences for my computer's hard drive, which is also my start-up drive. To the right, I've attached an image of the info window where these preferences reside. I made sure that the preferences for "admin" and "everyone" were set-up properly; these were set to "read & write" and "write only (drop box)" respectively. In the process I also set-up the preference for the "system" to "write only (drop box)".

Little did I know that by changing the permission for the "system" I had created a situation where my computer would be unable to start-up. This became apparent this morning when I turned on my MacBook and the system became frozen while on the boot-up screen where the Apple logo appears above a small and round progress indicator.

Since I have a high-comfort level with, and decent working knowledge of my MacBook I suspected that the change I made to the "sharing & permission" preferences could be causing this issue. That said, when I called a local authorized Apple representative here in Brazil (where I am currently visiting my parents) the rep was quick to tell me that this was obviously an issue related to a corrupted hard drive and that I would need to re-install my operating system.

Before going down this painful route, I decided to first take an alternate approach to resolve this situation based on my initial hunch regarding the source of this problem. I rebooted my MacBook as a hard drive by connecting it via firewire to my sister's MacBook. Then I was able to change the system's "sharing & permission" preferences on my computer's hard drive back to its normal state of "read & write".

After having encountered this problem, I checked a pre-Leopard version of the Mac OS X and confirmed that it does not allow users to change the "sharing & permission" privileges of the system. This helps ensure that people did not encounter the problem with which I had to grapple this morning. Check out the sample image on the left. As you can see when "system" is selected the "access" privileges cannot be changed.

Fixing the Issue
There are many ways that this issue can be resolved from a user interaction/experience perspective. Here are some of my suggestions, hopefully Apple will be willing to take one of these to heart:
  • When users change the "sharing & permission" preferences for the system, the OS should prompt the user regarding the impact that this action will have; better yet, they should not allow the user to make this change unless they change the start-up drive configuration.
  • If the user has been able to change the system's "sharing & permission" privileges, then the computer should display an error message that explains the situation and ideally the system should also provide the user with the opportunity to change the access privileges to the drive in questions - using the necessary system admin password, of course.
  • In the near term, Apple should make sure that all of its employees are aware of this issue. When speaking to authorized Apple service reps I was informed that this issue was definitely a sign of issues with my hard drive - most likely a sign that the HD was corrupted.

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