The Eclectic Light Company

Last Week on My Mac: Passwords and patchwork quilts

Writing good product reviews is surprisingly demanding. When most were published in print and the big magazines had sizeable editorial staff, they set up their own in-house labs complete with a hardware suite. These days testing is left more to the ingenuity and facilities of a hard-pressed freelancer, and I suspect in many cases lacks that former engineering objectivity. In some cases, I fear that reviewers merely compile a digest of claims made by product vendors, and spend precious little time using any of the products in anger. The end result can be a list of features without any real insights, which only goes to demonstrate how you get what you pay for.

When tackling password managers, I faced a serious problem: how to populate each product with a realistic set of existing passwords, given that I currently don’t use any third-party app and all mine are stored in Safari. A little searching turned up horror stories of resorting to scripts which laboriously opened each in Safari’s Preferences window, and copied their contents in turn. Indeed, one product includes a whole app whose sole purpose is to do exactly that. Just as I was starting to assess a selection of products I came across a clue: look for the hidden menu command to export all stored passwords.

There, in Safari’s Preferences, cunningly concealed under a More button whose ellipsis gives not a clue as to its purpose, is the command. Nowhere in Safari’s skimpy Help book is there any mention of this, nor the ability to export passwords. Oddly, though, the snippet shown by Google does explain how to export passwords using another menu command, but when you read the linked article that information is nowhere to be seen.

I’ve searched high and low to discover whether this is new in Safari 15, but its only release notes are for developers and don’t mention it.

Such features don’t get added to Apple’s apps by accident. It’s not like one of the Safari engineers had a few days to spare, and thought they’d add it to while away the time. A decision will have been made to add the ability to export (and import) passwords. Someone will have decided where and how to add this feature, and decided on the CSV format to be used. Then at least one engineer will have been assigned the task, and taken more than an hour or two to implement and test it.

One reason why this command may have been added recently to Safari is Monterey. Among its lesser-known features is a new System Preference pane Passwords, which includes exactly the same feature in identical camouflage. It’s as if the same engineering team was responsible for both of them.

Where you might have expected this feature, in Keychain Access, it isn’t. The one master tool for working with your keychains and their contents is like Sleeping Beauty, slumbering until the prince comes along to bring change. Select all your passwords in any keychain, and the command for Keychain Access to export them is disabled, still waiting for its prince. For that part of keychain management, you have to use Safari or the new Passwords pane. Perhaps no one told the engineers responsible for Keychain Access what was about to happen to Safari.

So, at the end of all this, there’s a valuable new command to export passwords from Safari and a new pane in System Preferences, which nobody knows about. And if you look in the tool for managing keychains, password export isn’t supported at all. It’s no small wonder that third-party password managers draw a blank when it comes to importing passwords from keychains or Safari, even though, when you know how to export them, most are able to import the CSV file competently.

This isn’t just about documentation – release notes, Help books – but about the deep disconnect within Apple in which valuable features are added to a flagship product like Safari but pass unnoticed. It happens because of Apple’s sheer size. With many thousands of engineering teams, working across different continents and time zones, connecting them in any coordinated way seems impossible.

There are times when Apple looks like a large community making a patchwork quilt together: you just have to hope that everyone knows they’re crocheting four-inch squares, and no one takes a sudden fancy to circles or triangles.