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Why do I have icon archive problems in OS X 10.3+?

Mac OS X 10.3 and later includes a feature to quickly create ZIP archives of folder contents. When you control-click on a folder, you’ll see “Create Archive of Folder” in the context menu. You can also access this functionality from the Action menu.

After you click on this option, a new file will be created with the contents of the folder compressed into a .ZIP file. This file can be copied to another Panther system and uncompressed by double-clicking on the file.

Unfortunately, that’s where the joy ends. There are several problems with this mechanism:

  • The ZIP archive is incompatible with older versions of Mac OS X. You can’t use it on Jaguar, for example.
  • When another ZIP application, such as StuffIt or WinZIP, is used to expand the archive it will probably lose some data.

The problem is that resource forks are not supported in ZIP file format. Despite what some engineers at Apple may think, there’s important information that is typically stored in resource forks:

  • Custom icons
  • Photoshop previews
  • Text file selections, markers, and metadata
  • Resources required by applications

When the ZIP archive is created on 10.3 or later, it puts the contents of the resource fork into a special MACOSX folder in the top level of the archive. When you double-click on the archive in 10.3, the contents of the MACOSX folder is magically joined with the files in other parts of the archive and the resource forks are re-created.

Unfortunately, other ZIP applications don’t have this “Magic Join” feature and will leave the resource data abandoned in the MACOSX folder.

Consider a scenario where a ZIP archive created with 10.3 or later is mailed to a project manager who’s running Windows. They see the ZIP file and uncompress it with WinZIP. The files are then copied to a server so that a Mac developer can work with them. And what happens when some of those files are resource files? They’re sitting on the server, corrupted, with no way to be recovered.

And it’s far from obvious where the data was lost. The sender checks his copy and it’s OK. The project manager didn’t see any errors. The developer scratches his head and wonders what that MACOSX folder is all about. After searching on Google for some answers, he may end up here.

There are a lot of great features in Mac OS X, but because of the problems mentioned above, we feel that “Create Archive” is not one of them. Do yourself a favor and avoid it.

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