The Desktop Critic: Why Stainless-Steel Software Stinks

Apple, as anyone can tell you, is flying high these days. Its stock, reputation, and sales are soaring. Most of this good fortune stems from Apple's return to its former focus: design. Sensational, rule-breaking, irresistible design. After all, without its translucence, shape, and color, what's the iMac? A Performa.

If you ask me, Apple's chief designer, young British hotshot Jonathan Ive, should get as much credit as Steve Jobs for saving Apple. But Ive isn't designing the software, and that's why we need to start worrying. For the last year, the company has been adopting a new standard-interface design, one that features a brushed-stainless-steel look. There's nothing wrong with trying to apply Ive's attitude of brazen freshness to software. The problem is that different doesn't necessarily mean better .

You can learn to dislike the new interface look in a growing tide of Apple software products: Final Cut Pro, Sherlock 2, iMovie, Apple DVD Player, and most prominently, QuickTime Player 4. You'll quickly discover that their new designs do away with many long-established and very important Mac controls. For example, the "metal" windows lack standard title bars. Without title bars, you can't tell which window is active. Nor can you window-shade these windows–a meaningful loss. Gone, too, is the zoom box in the upper-right corner, one of the most prominent Mac advantages over Windows. There is a nonstandard resizing handle in the lower-right corner–but in QuickTime Player it serves only to change the QuickTime movie's size, not the window's.

There's more–much more. You can find an overly harsh but deeply impassioned list of QuickTime Player's design deficiencies at the Interface Hall of Shame Web site
( http://www.iarchitect.com/qtime.htm ). A few examples of what they're saying: Buttons no longer dim when unavailable–the Play button, for example, dims whether a movie is loaded and playable or not. Apple blatantly favors cool-looking icons and buttons over informative ones but refuses to add pop-up "tool tip" labels; I dare you to figure out what QuickTime Player's shirt-button button does by looking at it. Nor is there built-in help–the Help command simply dials up Apple's Web site. And the "tray" that slides out of the bottom of the window shows a bunch of identical, nameless black squares representing your stored movies; has no scroll bar; and doesn't open at all if the window is near the bottom of your screen! Finally, there's the volume control. Making it a thumbwheel is the height of the New Stupidity–it's almost impossible to turn a tiny round thumbwheel with that most linear of pointing devices, the mouse. "Watching new users try to adjust the volume can be a painful experience," says the Interface Hall of Shame article.

The online reaction to this increase in bad design has been swift and punishing. MacOpinion.com: "The latest crop of industrial designers at Apple have to be rounded up and killed." Salon.com: "Does anyone at Apple still care about the Human Interface Guidelines?" The founder of Apple's Human Interface Design group himself (long since gone from Apple), interface expert Bruce Tognazzini, wrote that "no one apparently ever checked to see whether the design worked." In the first week following its release, over 15,000 people downloaded Window Fixer
( http://www.teamdraw.com/raul/stuff ), a free patch that strips the stainless steel off Sherlock 2.

The beleaguered Apple of 1997 may have cared what its customers thought. These days, however, Apple suffers from a dangerous disease: arrogance reinforced by success . In other words, the company thinks it knows what it's doing. (The chief arbiter of interface taste is, by all accounts, Steve Jobs himself. Jobs, says former coworker Tognazzini, has "a definite antipathy for interface designers.")

But it's not too late. Apple can have its stainless steel and its arrogance, too. It can fix the problems without losing face. It's not the new look that's the problem; it's the features . In some "point-oh-one" update, Apple could restore our beloved gizmos to the title bar and window corners, fix the volume and tray controls, and add online help.

Let's just hope Apple does so soon. The release of the biggest Mac software-redesign project in history, Mac OS X, is only months away. If relatively small-scale projects like QuickTime Player and Sherlock 2 are any indication of the direction the Apple ship is taking, the time for a course correction is right now.

http://www.davidpogue.comCrossing Platforms

March 2000 page: 176

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