What the Mac OS X Sandbox Means to Users

on November 4, 2011

There has been considerable unhappiness, even outrage, in the developer community since Apple announced that as of next March, all software sold through the Mac App Store would have to run in a sandbox, that is, its access to system resources would be restricted, the exact restrictions based on the type of program.

“Why the Mac App Sandbox Makes Me Sad,” wrote OS X developer blogger Pauli Olavi Ojala. “Apple’s Mac OS Lockdown To End Developer Independence,” screamed a headline on Forbes.com, though the article, by Roger Kay, was more reasoned in tone.

I’m sure Apple’s new restrictions will make life harder for App Store developers, and they may have to choose between the easy distribution offered by the App Store and the greater programming freedom of delivering their software the old fashioned way. But to consider this from the users’ point of view, ask yourself a question: What do most people like better, their computer or their iPhone or iPad?

My guess is that if you asked 100 people who used both a computer and an iOS device which they were happier with, 90 or so would vote for the iPhone or iPad. Mac owners probably hate their computers a little less than Windows users. But both types of systems have the same problem: They are full of software, often poorly written and poorly tested. that can cause all manner of mysterious, frustrating problems. This has gotten better over the years, but as long as there are atrocities such as the Adobe Flash plugin for Chrome, to pick an example not at random, there’s going to be trouble.

One thing Apple has learned from iOS as that a tightly controlled software environment is one way to produce a great user experience. iOS apps rarely crash and when they do, they don’t else with them.The arrangement is much more secure because apps’ access to the system is so limited.Yes, the sandbox can cause some frustrations for users. The restrictions on apps’ access to each other’s data is one  reason why document handling is such a pain on an iPad, for example. But I find it a price worth paying. And if the sandbox policy makes Macs more iOS-like in this sense, users will love it.

One very important caveat: My views on this would change dramatically if Apple were to restrict users’ ability to load any apps from outside the App Store, as they do for iOS. For people who use their Macs as creative tools, the sandbox’s restrictions could be a crushing burden; they almost certainly would for anyone who writes software, which is why Apple won’t restrict their freedom.

Apple does have a tendency to be heavy-handed  in its administration of rules, so I’m sure there are going to be some problems. But many of the fears seem to be to be vastly overblown. Roger Kay, for example, writes: “The longer-term consequence?  A lack of innovation in consumer software.” The fact is that iOS, for all of its restrictions, has produced an outpouring of highly innovative software, putting iPads and iPhones to uses that I am sure Apple never imagined.