The Slow but Almost Certain Demise of Apple’s OS X Dashboard

How long until Apple takes Dashboard off the menu? Guess away, but the development community seems all but inoperative. I'd be sadder than usual to see it go.

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Matt Peckham

I’m a diehard daily OS X Dashboard user. Each morning I shuffle down a barely-lit hallway from my bedroom to my office, sit in front of a MacBook Pro in the dark and swipe the trackpad using three fingers to haul the entire screen right like a presentation slide-transition effect. I’m looking for the weather.

I get it using Apple‘s default weather widget, a basic proxy for The Weather Channel (“powered by Yahoo”). The widget hovers over a drab, gray backdrop that looks like the grippy underside of a floor mat. Next to it are other irregularly sized boxes: a calculator showing the number 192 (the square footage of a possible deck for a house), a calendar, a dictionary (displaying the word “cantilever”), the current temperature (minus seven degrees Fahrenheit in Ann Arbor, Michigan as I typed this) and a web cutout of a weather radar map.

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The web cutout is a custom piece you pull together using the scissors button in Safari’s toolbar. In case you’re glancing at your Safari toolbar wondering what I’m talking about, it’s not visible by default. You have to drag it out using “Customize Toolbar” and click it, which prompts a purple toolbar to drop from below the Bookmarks Bar, instructing you to select a resizable portion of the current web page. Do that, click “add,” and your custom swathe appears in Dashboard — a micro-browser bookmark that routinely refreshes whatever you’ve culled.

Getting a decent weather radar map working in Dashboard used to be a simpler matter. You could just download a handy widget called Radar in Motion, for instance — arguably the most elegant of the bunch — unencumbered by ads or stealth links that redirected you away from Dashboard to some vendor’s ad-littered web bazaar. Radar in Motion grabbed radar images straight from NOAA and The Weather Channel, then displayed the animations based on your location criteria. I’ve used it to monitor everything from derechos to tornados to the 2010 snowpocalypse.

But it started glitching a few years ago, and the time between fixes kept increasing. As I understand it, most if not all of the problems had to do with NOAA or The Weather Channel periodically reshuffling things on the backend (as sites are wont to do) and not Apple or OS X. But late last year the widget finally stopped working outright, and when I visited the author’s website, I discovered a post titled “Radar In Motion might have comes to its end“:

I recently noticed that the regional radar data from The Weather Channel has stopped working. You probably have noticed the same thing; you get an error at the top of the widget that says “Warning: Map could not be loaded.” Unfortunately, this has seemed like an inevitability for awhile. If you have visited The Weather Channel’s website anytime within the last several months, you noticed that they changed to an entirely new interactive weather map.

I’m not here to pick on the author of Radar in Motion (in fact I’d rather praise him for cultivating such a terrific little widget all these years). And I don’t blame him for gradually pulling support: Of Apple’s listed 3,896 total Dashboard widgets, I’m guessing only a handful are still being updated. Ars wrote a piece last July calling OS X Dashboard a “ghost town,” well, because it is. I haven’t noticed a new widget for Dashboard in ages, and the feature’s once vibrant development community appears to be in a tailspin.

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Visit Apple’s Dashboard page and it’s like time-warping back to 2005: an uninspired, low-resolution content filtering system that jams everything into tedious, way too broad lists. The page used to feel more lively. Apple had a “top 50” view that let you see the newest widgets or the most popular ones by download. That’s how I originally discovered stuff like Radar in Motion, weather alternatives like Weatherbug or Bjango’s wonderful iStat Pro. You also used to be able to see when widgets were last updated, but — no doubt to hide the fact that many if not most of Dashboard’s widgets are three to four years old — Apple’s removed that information, too. The sense you get is that Dashboard is barely limping along, its development community dwindling, it’s days numbered. If I’m right, it’s a shame, because I can’t think of another operating system approach that handles informational and toolbox widgets as well.

Take Apple’s design darling, iOS. If I want to switch between an informational app like The Weather Channel or The Free Dictionary in iOS, I have two options: I can find the app by swiping between screens — not the most elegant approach — or double-click my iDevice’s “home” button to slide the screen up and scroll through a list, four to a page, of everything that’s open. I’m not really complaining, because we’re talking about a matter of seconds, but at least when it comes to displaying information from auto-updated informational apps or giving you ultra-quick access to toolbox-style ones, iOS has to make size-related compromises.

The iOS-equivalent maneuver in OS X, assuming you don’t have (or want) shortcuts to everything on the Dock, is to click Launchpad, then poke around for the app shortcut.

Dashboard is so much quicker, whether you use it as a “space” (living just left of your desktop via Mission Control) or an overlay (as it originally debuted in OS X “Tiger”): a three-finger swipe right, another three-finger swipe left. It’s like lifting a page to peer at some text, then setting it back down. There’s no need to “launch” anything, because it’s already open. And where you’re actively monitoring data, from stock quotes to storm cells, the widgets quietly update in the background without the need to click refresh buttons.

Sure, there’s Notification Center in iOS, which gets at some of what Dashboard offers, but it’s too limited at this point. There’s no option to add a Dictionary widget that’d allow me to look up words by simply tugging the blind down and typing, for instance, or an option to tack on a tiny radar map. And Notification Center in OS X is even less widget-friendly, still playing the “notification” angle but without customization options for stock tickers or basic meteorological data.

You can always load utilities into OS X’s menubar (the top-right area next to the clock), and I’ve done that on occasion. But it’s kind of kludgy compared to Dashboard, cluttering up your menu space and still requiring extra clicks and poking around drop-down menus to launch stuff, say you want to look up a word or do math or scan a decent-sized weather map. In summary, Dashboard does what it does, however limited its role, better than anything else in iOS or OS X.

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How long until Apple takes Dashboard off the menu? Guess away, but the development community seems all but inoperative. Even Apple’s support feels halfhearted, splitting widget development tool Dashcode off from Xcode and updating it infrequently. When Mountain Lion emerged last summer, Apple yanked Dashboard from the Dock and relegated it to OS X’s backwaters with an unappealing backdrop (that default grayish image is called Pirelli, incidentally, which happens to be the name of an Italian tire company).

If Apple yanks Dashboard, I could build out a custom “space,” sure, or just clutter up my menubar again. But I’d be sadder than usual to see it go. I access it at least 50 or 60 times a day. It’s one of those eye-catching features I use to highlight Apple’s gesture controls when touting OS X to a Windows user. It’s been part of my informational ritual each morning (and throughout the workday) for over half a decade.