The ripples that the introduction of the iMac created in the placid surface of the computer industry are still being felt. While Apple has used lawsuits and injunctions to prevent Intel-based competitors from copying the machine’s looks, the funky, colorful spirit of the latest generation of Macintoshes is spreading — like some funky, colorful fungus — through the plastic case, down into the OS and the applications that run inside. This is a catastrophically bad thing.
Users have long had a fascination with customizing their computers. Back in the day, Apple shipped a rainbow-colored corporate logo with every boxy, gray Macintosh and many of them found their way to the sides of the machines, stuck there in miniature christening ceremonies. Today, that spirit thrives in almost every new software release to hit the Net: customizability is rife in modern applications — not only for a program’s functionality, but increasingly (and unfortunately) for its visuals as well. Hard-coded application-specific interfaces are endemic. Skins — user-customizable interface overlays — are the latest rage. “Non-standard!” is the new rallying cry. And all this portends dark days to come — perky, shiny, translucent days, yes, but dark as night.
Part of the Mac’s fundamental appeal has been the consistency of its user interface. Apple understood this when the computer was released sixteen years ago and even went so far as to document the way programs running on their funny new box should look and should work. Nobody had ever done that before. In these jaded times, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary the whole notion of a consistent interface is: since 1984, every scroll bar, every button, every menu in (nearly) every Macintosh program has looked and worked the same. There have been many subtle — and some significant — improvements over the years, with different versions of the operating system, but the core elements of usability and elegance have remained the same. Cupertino once thought the notion so important an advantage that they repeatedly went to court to prevent its wholesale duplication by competitors.
The iMac changed all that. The Machine that Saved Apple has been too successful by half, and it’s lessons have been too well learned. Suddenly, Apple — or, rather, the whole of the computer industry, Intel and Microsoft included — have become dazzled by the notion of cool, of whatever makes people stop and drop open their mouths and go, “Whoa…” With increasing frequency, long-established, long-comfortable, long-respected interface conventions are being flouted in favor of something that looks really, really bitchin’. No matter how hard it is to use.
There have always been programs more concerned with form than function. Kai’s Power Tools, for example, produces beautiful images for those clever enough to figure out its utterly non-standard, difficult-artist-inspired interface. But now even Apple — long consistency’s standard-bearer — is getting into the act. You would think that they’d have learned their lesson with HyperCard.
Case in point: QuickTime 4. QuickTime 4 looks great. You can almost pick it up off the screen and swing it around, scanning for signs of life. It’s got drawers and knobs and probably a belt-hook on the back, for when you’re off-ship, exploring alien worlds. But for anyone familiar with the conventions of the Macintosh interface, it might as well actually be from outer space. It looks — and, more importantly, works — like nothing from this planet. Anybody who has ever tried to change the playback volume in QT4 has uttered a curse and wished that Apple engineers had more to do than be inspired by their portable CD players.
Another example: Sherlock 2. You can argue that the interface for QuickTime, for most people, basically involves double-clicking on a file. Great. They don’t have to worry about all the gewgaws that have replaced everything they expect to appear on a Mac’s screen. But Sherlock is actually used. Daily. By millions of people. Many of whom don’t care one bit for the prettified deviation from their computer’s standard. “Well, yes, most buttons on the Macintosh are rectangular, but this round thing is what you push in Sherlock. How do you close it? Um. I have no idea. Maybe that’s how Apple keeps people watching the ads.”
And if Microsoft’s browser wasn’t packed with such great functionality, Internet Explorer 5 would be seen as a scheme to undermine Apple’s interface advantage. Like QT4, IE5 looks wonderful. Totally non-standard, of course, but wonderful. It’s Aqua-Mania: not Aqua, but an incredible simulation. If you can’t wait for Apple’s next-generation interface (and who knows how usable it’ll be?), why not let IE give you a peek? Because it can’t bring along every other program you run. It’s an attractive island unto itself.
Netscape has even gone Microsoft one better, by allowing the latest release of their browser, Netscape 6, to be completely customizable. You can slap new “chrome” on Netscape 6 and change the graphics and move the buttons and make it look and act like pretty much anything you want — with one unfortunate exception: Mac OS. In this brave new world of glamor-shot user interfaces, using the native interface controls is considered too old hat to bother with. Netscape has thoughtfully giving you enormous freedom, at the expense of what you may actually want.
The list goes on and on and on. And on. And on .
Before the introduction of the Macintosh, a good decade and a half ago, every program available for every computer available limped along with a unique-unto-itself user interface. What you learned using VisiCalc helped you not at all when you switched over to AppleWriter. All AppleWriter’s lessons were lost on PFS File. It was, in retrospect, the Dark Ages, a time that nobody with a memory of what it was like would willingly return to.
The Macintosh — with one hammer-throw — changed all that, and changed the computer industry as a result. The benefits of a common interface and a consistent look-and-feel have been universally adopted. It works, and it gets work done. It seems a shame to sacrifice over a dozen years of common-sense progress at the alter of cool. It seems foolish to ignore every lesson that’s been painfully learned about user productivity in the face of translucent plastic. It seems suicidally stupid for Apple to toss aside one of their core competitive advantages in the name of making pretty pictures.
Turn back, Apple; turn back before it’s too late. Even people who think different should still use their brains.
GREG KNAUSS is a computer programmer by trade, yet he has written for Suck, TeeVee, Worth, and now Macworld.com. A Web site he created, Metababy, is up for one of this year’s Webby Awards.