Why a beachball?
The icon originates from the NeXTSTEP Operating System, as do many other OSX elements. (realtime scrolling, system-wide drag and drop, & the Dock) I find the beachball to be a particularly interesting choice for a waiting cursor. It has nothing to do with time. Icons are suppose to immediately convey meaning in order to give feedback to the user. Outside of Mac OS, a spinning rainbow beachball or pinwheel hardly says: “Wait, I’m busy.” But, maybe, that’s the point…
In the book What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, John Markoff quotes Steve Jobs as saying that: “Doing LSD was one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.” I believe Job’s psychedelic experimentations gave him an understanding of the state of consciousness in which a person (or OS) loses the power of voluntary action.
The intention of the beachball is to take the user on a hypnotic trip. The beachball transcends the user beyond time and space to a realm where a halt, a process, or a glitch is only a tick on the cosmic clock. It metaphysically spins past the context of the desktop, the computer, and even death to expose endless realities of forking pathways and processes.
As the meaning of the beachball has changed over the years, from psychedelic-rainbow-wheel to beachball-of-death, so has its representation in the OS. In OSX, each application has an event queue that gets feedback from the OS, including the mouse and keyboard. The beachball is displayed by the OS if an application takes too long to process the events in the queue. In versions prior to 10.4 it was 2 seconds. It was upped to 5 seconds in later versions.
The indication of a system hanging has potential to cast a negative light on the OS, and subsequently, the corporation that profits from it. In OSX 10.6 (I haven’t tested on 10.5) the beachball has been quarantined to only display while atop the flooded application. This identifies that it’s the application’s problem, not Apple’s.
Another tactic for controlling the impression of lag within the OS, is not allowing the beachball to be screen recorded. I made a little application that spawns processes to invoke a beachball, it’s called Wait. If your on a Mac, download it, try screen recording it or simply bask in the multi-spectrum immobile worm-hole… (You’ll have to force quit it to kill it)