Jeffrey Zeldman Presents The Daily Report

12 April 2004 1 pm | 2 pm

The Great Panther Disaster of 2004

In hindsight, Good Friday may not have been the most propitious day to upgrade my operating system.

My journey into Panther killed my Titanium Powerbook in stages. First came software failure: Apple applications such as Safari quit on launch; the machine could not find the network. Then came kernel panics. (This is where the machine reboots into a black and white Unix screen, spitting out Matrix-like error messages. To exit, you must type the appropriate Unix commands, which implies that you know what they are.) Finally, the machine would not boot, period.

It took three days’ heavy digging to restore the Mac to operability. Along the way I discovered a couple of Apple design decisions that make sense under normal circumstances but turn problems into disasters when things go wrong.

Research and Preparation

Before installing Panther, I ...

My research and preparation concluded, I did what ten out of twelve Panther users I’d interviewed said they had done: inserted the installer and chose the default (no-brainer) option, Upgrade.


When I first booted into Panther ...


Now, the operating system is rigged so that hyperlinks built into applications like Word and Photoshop launch in one’s default browser. Likewise, hyperlinks built into preference panels launch in one’s default browser. For instance, if you use Default Folder and click its preference panel to get the latest version, that click will launch your default browser. The web address — the working part of the hyperlink — is typically hidden from view, so you can’t copy and paste it into a different browser. This is fine when your default browser works, but useless when it quits at launch.

In prior versions of Mac OS X, a panel in System Preferences let you choose a default browser. (If one browser didn’t work, you could always choose another.) But in Panther, to choose a default browser other than Safari, you must open Safari and choose that alternative browser from within Safari’s Preferences. Which you cannot do if Safari quits at launch.

It’s a design decision that assumes all is well and makes no provision for times when things go wrong.


Around midnight, System Update informed me that a newer version of OS X Panther than the one I’d just bought was available as a free download, and recommended I install it immediately. Maybe that would fix the problems I was having. So I downloaded all 59MB of it, let the Mac install it, and then restarted.

The machine booted into Unix and began spitting out Unix error messages. Not being a Unix developer, I had no idea what command Unix required before it would let me back into Panther. Eventually I tried “exit.” It worked.

Next morning I decided to restore from backup and upgrade to Panther another day. Next time, I would use the more time-consuming but apparently safer “Archive and Install” option, which lays down a virginal new operating system and moves your old system — including third-party application preferences and support modules — to a separate folder.

I booted from my Retrospect disk, wiped the hard drive, and restored from backup. In the Startup Disk control panel, I chose Macintosh Hard Drive and restarted.

The Mac was now unbootable: a grey screen of death.


When a machine will not boot, you put an installation disk in your drive and reinstall the system. But I had a Retrospect disk in my drive. On a Windows machine, you can push a button to eject a disk and then insert a different disk. Not on a Mac.

On a Mac, there is no button. You eject a disk via the operating system. Which assumes that you have a bootable operating system. Which I didn’t.

The Mac approach is lovely and elegant except when things go wrong. When the Mac won’t boot, you can’t eject the disk, so you can’t replace it with the disk you need, so you can’t install a usable working operating system that lets you do things like ... eject a disk.

You can boot into the CD that’s in the drive but you can’t eject a CD you’ve booted from.

You can disconnect the power cord, wait for the battery to drain, and then void your warranty by disassembling the machine in order to remove the disk.

You can call a repair shop and let them void your warranty by disassembling the machine in order to remove the disk.

Modest suggestions

It took three days but I worked it out. My machine came back to life on Easter Sunday (make of that what you will).

As a consumer platform, OS X is years ahead of the competition. As a platform for computer professionals with a solid Unix background, OS X is also years ahead. But I wonder if Apple has lost sight of the non-Unix-oriented creative professionals whose loyalty supported the company through its hardest times. There are many of us. We admire what Apple designs, we remain commited to the platform, and we want the company to succeed. But a simple OS upgrade should not fail, should not induce panic, and should not waste three days of a user’s life.

If Apple cannot test its upgrades with commonly used system add-ons like Suitcase or Spell Catcher, it should make the installer smart enough to issue a warning:

You seem to be running some third-party add-ons. Either quit the Installer and disable them, or use Archive and Install. An ordinary Upgrade could send you to Hell.

Apple should also provide a means of ejecting CDs in the event of an emergency, and should not force you to use Apple-built applications like Safari and Mail to choose alternative applications like Mozilla and Eudora. Let You Know Who build anti-competitive hooks into its operating systems; Apple is supposed to be about choice.


Reader Chris Miller says,

There is a way to force eject a CD on a Mac: Hold down the mouse button as the computer starts up.

In over ten years of daily Mac use I somehow never came across that tip. And it sure is not intuitive, especially for a platform that prides itself on user-friendliness. Is a discreet Eject button too much to ask?

9 April 2004 10 am

A List Apart No. 176

In this week’s issue of A List Apart, for people who make websites:

Power to the People: Relative Font Sizes

by Bojan Mihelac

Relative font sizes may make websites more accessible — but they’re not much help unless the person using the site can find a way to actually change text size. Return control to your audience using this simple, drop-in solution.

Web Accessibility and UK Law:
Telling It Like It Is

by Trenton Moss

There’s been widespread speculation about the new legislation being introduced in the UK, which is intended to ensure that websites are accessible to people with disabilities. This article examines how these new laws will affect the way you design in the real world.

Highlights from recent Daily Reports

The Metrics, Reloaded
More on metrics, designing for people, and why our industry seems so focused on tools — on how instead of why and for whom.
Signs that the Apocalypse is nigh
Chomskying at the bit.
I have always been a nervous traveler.
If you’re eating enough fruits and vegetables, you must not give a damn about protein
Of all the kinds of conversation that recur on the web as predictably as hemlines rise and fall, the weirdest and least productive is the establishment of an artificial opposition between areas of expertise.
Happy Cog 3.0 redesign
Presenting Happy Cog 3.0, code-named “creme.” We’ve restructured the site to highlight our projects, services, and publications, and to welcome aboard lead information therapist Adam Greenfield of and Moblogging Conference fame. Risotto and liquid non-dairy creamers inspired the color scheme. The feeling is “Distressed Lite.”
Reinventing the Wheel
CSS layout is a pain in the neck. Why we bother.

There is more

More highlights and back orders may be found in our Essentials Department.