Package installation

John Siracusa on Delicious Library for the Mac:

As is customary, the background image helpfully includes the “installation instructions” (if you can even call them that). [ those being “drag the icon to your application folder to install”—sil ]

I’m pointing these things out not because Delicious Monster is unique among Mac developers in the quality of their artwork and their attention to detail, but because they aren’t unique. Nearly every popular Mac OS X application is a single-icon drag-installed affair, sporting an attractive icon, distributed in either an internet-enabled or meticulously decorated and arranged disk image. Even open source applications like Fire and multi-platform ports like Mozilla meet this standard on OS X. Heck, even Real gets it right. Real software…think about that!

The is an example of the best kind of peer pressure. There is simply a “climate of excellence” on the Mac platform. Any developer that does not live up to community standards is looked down upon, or even shunned. Commercial, open source, freeware, shareware, it doesn’t matter: pay attention to detail, or else.

Windows users, think about what your typical download and installation experience is like. How many dialogs are you presented with? What do the file names and icons look like? Do you have to run an installer? What kind of manual clean-up is required afterwards?

Linux users, when you look at the carefully laid out disk image contents in the screenshot and links above, think about how far “desktop Linux” has to come before it can even begin to think about details like how single-icon drag-installed applications are arranged in their disk image windows.

Yes, I know, all of this is “pointless” and “dumb” because looks are meaningless. It’s the software that counts—the code, the bits, not the packaging, right? And so we come to an important difference between Mac enthusiasts and other computer users. Mac users understand that the packaging counts too (and are willing to pay for it). Happily, you get a lot of nice things “for free” on the Mac platform these days: composited windows, large icons, rich disk image and application bundle standards, etc.

And why don’t we have this on Linux? Well, the ROX Desktop does, which is why I always liked it so much; it just doesn’t have a lot of the other stuff that makes a good desktop environment, and it doesn’t have enough applications (or enough developers). And we’re not going to get it on Linux either, not with the packaging system in the mess that it is. Now, one big hope for sorting out packaging (if you ignore everyone saying “make Red Hat and SuSE use .debs”—Jono, I’m looking at you here) is autopackage. And what do they say about single-drag-and-drop installation?

What’s wrong with NeXT style appfolders?
One of the more memorable features of NeXT based systems like MacOS X or GNUstep is that applications do not have installers, but are contained within a single “appfolder“, a special type of directory that contains everything the application needs. To install apps, you just drag them into a special Applications folder. To uninstall, drag them to the trash can. This is a beguilingly easy way of managing software, and it’s a common conception that Linux should also adopt this mechanism. I’d like to explain why this isn’t the approach that autopackage takes to software management.

Update: As of 21st May 2003 I’d consider AppFolders broke on MacOS as it appears that most Mac software is now shipped using installers, even Apples own software. Wise is also forging a business in InstallShield style wrappers. It seems they really are too simple at this stage in the game, even for the Mac.

Gordon Bennett.

I'm currently available for hire, to help you plan, architect, and build new systems, and for technical writing and articles. You can take a look at some projects I've worked on and some of my writing. If you'd like to talk about your upcoming project, do get in touch.

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