Last Week on My Mac: Backstage heroes

If you mis-spent your youth on the stage, you’ll be only too familiar with what every Mac developer goes through each year. Around June, at WWDC, Apple announces the new play we’re all to perform in a few months time. It gives us fragments of the script, and sometimes helpful hints as to how we might interpet our roles.

Over the following months, each developer has a series of rehearsals, as Apple releases betas of the major new version of macOS. Some go well, but some are disastrous when they demonstrate that we didn’t understand what was expected. All the while, Apple is building its theatre around us. For some rehearsals, vital parts of the stage or even the building are missing, so we just have to imagine that they’re there.

Come the autumn/fall, we proceed to dress rehearsals, which are often fraught. By this time, Apple has been inviting members of the public to come and watch us too, so not only are we still working on our own performances but we can gauge the reception of those audiences. If we’re lucky, the final dress rehearsal goes well, Apple releases the shiny new macOS, and everyone comments about the building and stage, ignoring what we did. Except, of course, when someone has to ad lib, or forgets their lines entirely.

Every major release of macOS is miraculous, and in Big Sur, Apple has pulled off a double success in getting it all – well, pretty well everything – to work not only on a wide range of Intel Macs, but on previously unreleased models with a completely different architecture.

Of course, Apple has the resources to do this. Thousands of engineers and other staff have been working, in some cases for several years, to this one end. Covid-19 has been a major disruption which seems to have had its effects on some earlier updates, but somehow everything came together for the first performance. All except for the server problems of 12 November, for which we should be forgiving.

Here I’d like to sing the praises of the other heroes, many of them working backstage, who’ve made this all possible: third-party developers, many of whom have been hard at work rehearsing through the summer, regardless of vacations and Covid-19. Had it not been for their efforts, none of us would be upgrading to Big Sur, as we couldn’t do much without those key apps on which we rely. I’ve chosen three from the many, the fruits of whose labour I’m now enjoying, staple apps like BBEdit, Scapple, the Affinity suite, GraphicConverter, Dash, ChronoSync, Carbon Copy Cloner, PCalc, and many more.


Red Sweater’s MarsEdit is the cornerstone of my writing here. Almost every one of the 5,700 articles available here was drafted and published from this single app. Without it, there’d be no blog at all. Daniel Jalkut has added a fine implementation of Dark Mode and a tasteful redesign to ensure that it remains the best blogging app available.


Nisus Writer Pro is the only app I use for creating and maintaining the PDF Help files which are now in the great majority of my apps. I’ve been using Nisus as my main word and document processor for the last thirty years, initially for its superior interface and support for multiple languages and script systems. Currently, it serves me well for everything from day-to-day trivia like letters, to creating those Help books which you all read avidly, don’t you?

Other better-known apps have gone through all sorts of annoying fads, with ribbons and incompatible formats, at times becoming almost unusable. Although I have to know major products like Microsoft Word and Pages, for thirty years I keep returning to Nisus – now Nisus Writer Pro – for consistent and dependable results. If you’ve never seen it, it really does repay some days spent evaluating its free trial.


My final hero of the upgrade to Big Sur is the most backstage of the lot, as it just sits there, covering my back: Noodlesoft’s Hazel is a key part of my security. One of the common techniques used by malicious software to achieve persistence is to install a property list in one of the LaunchAgents or LaunchDaemons folders, which ensures that they come back every time my Mac starts up. I’ve set Hazel to keep a watch on those critical folders, so every time that Adobe or anyone else adds or changes a file there, I’m notified. Hazel does of course do a great deal more, and plays a central role for many with multi-app workflows.

Prior to Big Sur, Hazel has been a pane in System Preferences, which wasn’t going to work out well. So version 5, which is a paid update and a snip at $20, has been completely re-engineered to run as an app, with full Dark Mode support too.

You’ll no doubt have your own Big Sur heroes, but for me those are three who have made it possible for me to upgrade so early. As in so many cases, these exceptional performances on the first night didn’t even charge for admission.

Thank you, third-part software developers who have stepped up, given up your summer for often difficult rehearsals, and now shine at Big Sur’s opening night.