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Help Me Try Out a Help File Recipe

I've got an unusual request here today--I'm inviting you to tell me if this Help File idea is worth taking into print or too esoteric for bother with.

The topic in question covers those Mac programs that require you to run an installer. That's not the usual state of affairs in OS X, in which you can normally just drag a single file to your Applications folder (something I've applauded before). I've always wondered what these installers are doing behind the scenes.

A while back, I read a post on Mac programmmer John Gruber's blog about the installer for Google Desktop for the Mac; the posting noted that Apple's regular installer program lets you see what it will do beforehand if you select "Show Files" from its File menu.

A-ha, I thought--this would be a great tip to steal share with my readers. But when I've used Show Files with a few programs' installers, I've been treated to a painfully long list of files cited in a syntax that would only be familiar to Unix users.

For example, the installer for the Flip4Mac QuickTime plug-in reveals that it will add files to "./Applications" and "./Library." But you have to know that the "./" prefix means something at the root level of your Mac--i.e., folders that you'll see after double-clicking the Mac's hard-drive icon. You also have to know that the Applications and Library folders are both normal spots for a program to deposit its component files.

So I e-mailed Gruber and asked what sort of advice he'd give to a Mac user in interpreting these lists. His reply:

I would say, as a very basic rule of thumb, that nothing should ever go in the /System/Library folder, other than /System/Library/Extensions, which is the only location where kernel extensions may exist. But, in general, one should be wary of kernel extensions. I don't recall having installed one in many years.

I'm also always skeptical about any software that installed Input Manager extensions [in the /Library/InputManagers/ folder]. It's not a sign of bad design, necessarily, but it's the sort of thing where if you install more than one, you might start running into conflicts down the road.

But Gruber also expressed skepticism that it would be possible to provide a simple, clip-and-save type of list.

Here's where you can come in: If you've got a Mac running OS X, try using the Show Files command the next time you add a program that uses Apple's installer (the one listing six steps in the left side of its window, from "Introduction" to "Finish Up"). Take a look at that list--or just try typing "System" and "Extension" into the search form at the top, then clicking the gray triangle icons remaining below to see what matches those queries--and tell me if the advice here helps.

If enough of y'all say you now feel better able to assess a new installation, I can write up something for Help File. But if the prevailing response is "huh?", I'll have to wait for Apple to revise its installer so it provides clearer guidance.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 9, 2007; 10:06 AM ET
Categories:  Mac  
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Hmmm. I can't recall any program I installed that required the installer. I don't think that even the ext2 file system (so I could read Linux drives on the Mac) needed to be installed. Just drag 'n' dropped in applications.

Posted by: wiredog | July 10, 2007 8:28 AM | Report abuse

I don't know anything about Mac as have 2 PC's here. But do like the listing feature for the help files. As an additional comment I wish people would check spelling and grammar before submitting to columns.

Posted by: CanadianDad | July 10, 2007 10:58 AM | Report abuse

I've been seeing more and more installer-based programs, so I think this is a relevant topic. For example just Sunday I installed iConcertCal (an iTunes Visualizer add-on) and it used an installer too; since it's not simply dragged & dropped into the Applications folder I have no idea where it installed it's files.

Posted by: Chris | July 10, 2007 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I too see more and more installer based programs. Since Apple doesn't load up all the temp programs like the PC crowd, I see some companies/individuals sneaking in whatever they can. So now, when I install a new program, if the dmg doesn't say or show the drag to apps folder, I normally dump the program without installing it. On some web sites you can see the application's actual size, compare that to the dmg (or zip) and see what you end up with. Once I realize the new program wants permission to connect to the Internet, I see what iSnitch says. iSnitch allows you to grant or deny a program's connection to the internet. If it's not relevant to the actual program, I remove all traces of the program.

However, I do have a "huh," with this one: "using the Show Files command the next time you add a program." How do I do this? Is Apple+i?

Posted by: | July 10, 2007 11:24 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad this thing is getting some comments after all :)

Yes, hitting Cmd-I... er, Apple-I when the Installer app is in the foreground will open the Show Files window. You'll have to click the gray "disclosure triangles" in that window--they work like the ones in the Finder--to see all the gory details.

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | July 10, 2007 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: Anonymous | July 17, 2007 9:59 AM | Report abuse

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