A worm in the Apple?

QuickTime 4.0 is like nothing you've ever seen on a Mac. Has Apple broken its intuitive user interface?


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Daniel Drew Turner
September 30, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Sept. 30, 1999

Everyone knows that Mac users are interface snobs, and Apple lives off it. Platform patriots may bandy arguments over speed, stability and performance, but there's little doubt that Apple's Macintosh operating system, with nearly 20 years of well-researched Human Interface Guidelines, sets the standard for ease of use. It's this one thing -- an intuitive, consistent and friendly interface -- that keeps the Mac faithful, well, faithful in the face of PC users' constant taunts of cheaper prices, abundant software and a few grim years in Cupertino.

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Now, in a successful bid to shore up its ebbing market share, Apple is moving aggressively into the consumer market, pushing candy-colored iMacs and clamshell iBooks to people who may never have known the comfort of booting up a computer and being greeted by a smiling Mac icon. But will those enticed by the luscious casings be happy with what they find on screen?

Maybe. Or maybe not. This year, Apple made its first recognizable break with the tenets of its own Human Interface Guidelines (HIG), which have for two decades been the guiding light of the company's operating system. As a result, the intuitive interface -- long Apple's strongest selling point -- has been compromised.

It began with the April 20 release of a preview of QuickTime 4.0, a significant technology update to Apple's multimedia player. Accompanying that update, however, was a makeover that violated almost every one of the company's guidelines. Not only has QuickTime 4.0 (QT4) lost the look and feel common to every other element of the Mac OS, it "breaks" if you try to apply to it the same user behaviors that have long been cultivated by the operating system, such as clicking on the upper-right-hand corner of a window to collapse it. And this crack in Apple's interface foundation is spreading: Upcoming Apple applications -- including the video editor Final Cut Pro and Sherlock 2, the next iteration of the Mac OS "Find" function -- are saddled with similar, and arguably damaged, interfaces.

Response has been overwhelmingly negative from developers and users. Online bulletin boards, like the Mac the Knife forums, have been flooded with complaints. A dissatisfied user named John Christie posted a Fix QuickTime page, noting that the new QuickTime "has an absolutely terrible interface." QT4 has even been inducted into the Interface Hall of Shame: "The new interface represents an almost violent departure from the long established standards that have been the hallmark of Apple software," says the Hall of Shame review, posted by Isys Information Architects, an interface design firm. "Ease of Use has always been paramount to Apple, but after exploring the QuickTime 4.0 Player, the rationale behind Apple's recent 'Think Different' advertising campaign is now clear."

If this new design philosophy proves to be a cuckoo, spreading and breaking the successful unity of the Mac OS, it could break Apple. After all, as some have said, if you want a poor imitation of the Mac, you might as well use Windows -- at least you get the newest games that way.

When you opened a movie file in previous versions of QuickTime, you got just that -- the movie in a standard window, with basic controls. At the bottom of the window there were small "play," "forward" and "back" buttons. A pop-up vertical slider (revealed with a click on the speaker icon) controlled volume. These were all standard Mac OS cues -- which made it difficult to distinguish QuickTime as a technology distinct from the operating system, which perhaps, to Apple, was a problem.

QT4, in contrast, presents a "player" that mimics the appearance of a real-world object -- a high-tech Sony Watchman, say. Instead of opening a movie in a simple, Mac OS-standard window, QT4 presents movies within thick borders, designed to look like brushed metal, that consume valuable screen real estate. In fact, if you open more than one movie at once, you can quickly cover your entire screen. Despite this expanse of pixels, the QT4 player offers none of the standard Mac OS window elements, other than the "close" box, which has been so thoroughly made over as to be almost unrecognizable; if it weren't in the expected upper-left corner, it might lose all of its functional cues. It takes some non-intuitive and time-consuming noodling to resize the window, and as for collapsing it -- forget it.

It gets worse. Again, the real-world object metaphor dominates far beyond the suggestions of the Human Interface Guidelines. It's true they condone the use of metaphors -- after all, what are files? -- to "take advantage of people's knowledge of the world around them," but they also advise designers to keep in mind the limits of the ability of the computer "to support and extend the metaphor."

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Case in point: QT4's volume control evolved from a vertical slider to a thumbwheel in the beta version. A thumbwheel? On a real product, which you can actually touch with a finger, a thumbwheel is an elegant technical solution as well as good ergonomics. On a computer screen, though, it's a disaster. Do you click and hold? Move the mouse upward in a straight line, or in an arc? It's difficult to figure out, and to use -- and this is the most-frequently used control in the application. The designers pulled back a bit on the final version and made it possible to control volume by dragging the mouse near the thumbwheel in a vertical motion; it works better, but not well, and the only way to come upon this trick is by trial and error. (Don't even bother clicking on the speaker icon as you used to -- that, for some reason, turns the sound off.)

QT4's other controls, including such basics as the "play" button, are at least as confusing. I've been using Macs for over a decade, but the QT4 "play" button has become a continual source of bafflement for me. Traditionally in the Mac OS, buttons have three states, all with distinct visual features: normal, pressed (highlighted) and disabled (grayed out). The buttons in the QT4 player hew so strongly to the high-tech color scheme that all the buttons appear disabled. Open the player without a file loaded, and the "play" button looks the same as when a movie is ready to go. What's more, if you press "play," it highlights (as a Mac user would expect), but then stays highlighted, and thus looks enabled. I can't count the times I clicked away uselessly before sussing this out.

There's more, far more -- enough to not only place QT4 at the top of the Interface Hall of Shame, but to engender criticism by Bruce Tognazzini, the founder of Apple's original Human Interface Group and publisher of the free webzine In a review of the new QuickTime, he writes: "In the hands of an amateur, slavish fidelity to the way a real-world artifact would act is often carried way too far. For example, in QuickTime 4.0, you cannot click on the little drag bar in the bottom center to open the 'drawer.' Instead, you must physically drag the bar down the screen. You cannot pass over the weird little buttons, like the one that looks like a shirt button on the right, and find out what they do. I guess since tooltips don't exist in the real world, the designers have eschewed them in their fake world. Another big mistake."

Finally, he adds: "I suspect you will see a lot more ego-driven design before things get better. I would suggest you do what I did, which was to move to a company that still prizes usability."

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Apple declined to comment on the changes in the QuickTime 4.0 interface or what they may mean for the future of other Apple interfaces. But design and usability are hardly trivial concerns: Look no further than the tremendous sales of Apple's iMac, which was marketed on the merits of its sleek exterior and ease of use. As Tognazzini puts it: "Apple's claim to fame is that you can plug the machine in and use it." He adds, "a forgiving and supportive interface provides a smooth road to entry -- as these anomalous interfaces [such as QT4's] come in, the road gets bumpy."

Roy McDonald, the president and CEO of Casady & Greene, which produces and publishes software for both PCs and the Mac, agrees, saying, "The homogeneity of the interface standards is one of the things that sells the Mac."

A cautionary example is the interface overhaul Adobe Systems gave Version 7 of Illustrator, its industry-standard drawing application. In the Mac version, long-standing keyboard and tool shortcuts were altered or eliminated. The changes were so unpopular with long-time users that there was a "huge backlash," says Adobe's Illustrator product manager, Ted Alspach; many disgruntled users decided against upgrading, which cost Adobe a significant chunk of expected revenue.

The Mac's "easy-to-use" design has long been one of Apple's strongest selling points. Schelley Olhava, an analyst at the market research firm International Data Corp., says innovative product design has been key to Apple's financial resurrection; she points to the iMac, with its art-school profile, as "the turnaround for Apple." Friendly design proved such a selling point, in fact, that it sparked a scramble among other PC builders who are now desperate to build more appealing-looking computers. (At Intel's recent Developers' Showcase, CEO Craig Barrett showed off an "Ottoman PC," complete with leopard-skin upholstery.)

Just as good design can entice, poor design (especially in the interface) can dissuade would-be buyers -- and worse, application developers, whose allegiance to the Mac is crucial to Apple's continued health. "Stable interfaces are necessary for the development community," says Tognazzini, who adds that when application designers can't count on the OS interface behaving a certain way, they have to reinvent the most basic processes with each product as well as risk increased support costs. Though some deep-pocketed companies such as Adobe and Macromedia can devote time and money to such efforts, the majority of developers, especially those in Apple's core markets of education and graphics, simply don't have the resources.

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Andrew Welch, president of Ambrosia Software, makers of the screen capture utility Snapz Pro as well as other productivity tools and games, says Apple's "crown jewel" is the usability of the Mac OS. "Absolutely, if usability goes down, it'll affect [Apple's] market share, and that'll affect us," he says. His own company might even reconsider new projects for the Mac platform if this happens: "If Apple no longer conforms to its own interface guidelines, why bother?"

Adobe's Alspach also foresees trouble if Apple has eased up on its commitment to the Human Interface Guidelines. He says that designing an application is "tough when [the interface] is inconsistent between operating systems," but inconsistencies within an OS make it tougher -- that is to say, more time- and money-consuming. "In Windows, you don't even know what controls do what," he says, offering the example of quitting an application. In the Mac OS, the "Quit" command is always under the "File" menu at the top of the screen, and can always be invoked by pressing the Command-Q key combination. On Windows, Alspach says, the "Quit" command's location in any given program is anybody's guess, and keystrokes from Alt-X to Alt-Q to Esc might suddenly dump you out of a program. Such confusion was alien to Mac users, but should the QT4 inconsistencies crop up in other Apple products, it may become familiar.

Apple has made no secret that it (mainly, interim CEO Steve Jobs) wants to transform the company from a traditional computer manufacturer to the maker of consumer items. In a February 1999 interview in Japan's Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper, Jobs himself has said that his goal is to follow Sony's example of establishing a strong brand image as well as achieving integration with consumer appliances. And so the iMac -- which changed the image of personal computers from foreboding technical monsters to cute consumer items. But hardware isn't all Apple makes.

Apple is as much a software developer as a hardware company. And just as Apple has poured a lot of time and energy into creating a distinct identity for its physical products, it seems to be doing the same with its software. QuickTime is one of Apple's most popular products, installed on almost all Macs and many PCs. Now, QT4 has streaming capabilities that give it a chance of displacing RealNetworks' RealPlayer in the streaming market much as earlier versions of QuickTime trumped Microsoft's Media Player. But before Version 4 arrived, QuickTime had virtually no interface, and certainly no distinct image. So, how would users identify QuickTime?

QT4 was given a "look" -- one squarely within the Sony/consumer product language, and one that follows the unsuccessful example of IBM's RealThings project, which attempted to graft onto computer applications interfaces that mimicked real-world devices. (A CD player utility looked like a CD player, a fax application sported a telephone keypad, for example.) Though critics can debate whether the RealThings paradigm was simply botched or misguided from the start, it's clear that QT4 designers paid it more heed than the original Human Interface Guideline's warning that marketing pressures can compromise usable design.

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Does anyone at Apple still care about the Human Interface Guidelines, or the ideas of usability and elegance that underlie them?

The Human Interface Group, which originally drew up the Human Interface Guidelines, still exists, according to an Apple spokesman, though he refused to supply any details on its composition or place in the company. However, sources both inside and outside of Apple say that the HI Group has been cut from over 30 people two years ago to fewer than 10. "There may be a handful of people left," said a former Apple employee. Of this handful, none are versed in interaction design -- the key to the Human Interface Guidelines -- and none are involved in specifying any of Apple's current products, say others familiar with the group.

Some say this state of affairs is a direct reflection on Steve Jobs, who has a "definite antipathy for interface designers," says Tognazzini, who worked with Jobs on the original Macintosh and Lisa projects. In fact, some at Apple say that Jobs was closely involved with the QT4 design, even dictating the overall look, though Apple spokesman Matt Hutchinson refused to comment. "Jobs refuses to acknowledge and realize the importance of interaction research," says Tognazzini.

Before Apple, user design was an afterthought to technology companies, if it was thought of at all. There was little need, after all -- technology wasn't supposed to be fun and easy; it was the exclusive domain of buzz-cut, white-jacketed lords of the lab. It's not too much to say that the 1984 introduction of the Macintosh ("The computer for the rest of us") changed that for good, making the interface a notable and salable item. As Tognazzini says, "The rampant copying of the Mac interface testified to the bottom-line effectiveness of good UI design." Do you honestly think there would have been a Windows 1.0, let alone 95/98, without the Mac?

Apple is now posting a profit and products such as the iMac and iBook have become minor cultural icons, so it seems strange to talk of the company as in trouble. However, when a brand jettisons the core of its identity, the thing that distinguishes it as it alone, the brand becomes just an empty name -- New Coke without Old Coke, Disney without Mickey. And there's no doubt that the Mac's friendly identity is what gets people onto the Mac platform and keeps them there.

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But that ease of use, based on a 20-year-old document that has apparently become as much samizdat as scripture in Jobs' Apple, is not what the Mac OS will offer in the future, if QT4, Sherlock 2 or other recently proposed OS elements are the wave of the future. (At this summer's Macworld Expo in New York, Jobs demonstrated a Unix-like "File Browser" he said would replace the Mac's familiar Finder, which provides the virtual space where you place and organize folders and files. The crowd sat silent.)

The faithful, the true believers, are hard to alienate -- but if you mess with the very foundation of their faith, expect some disaffection. New users, too -- once they get over the initial rush of having an orange clamshell for a computer -- may find little refuge from the frustration and confusion of other platforms if the Mac of the future follows the QT4 precedent.

Apple deserves great praise for making computers fun and friendly -- on both the inside and the outside. Now, if it could only learn from the New Coke story, and the benefits of sticking by its original formula.


Daniel Drew Turner

Writer and editor Daniel Drew Turner covers technology, design and politics.

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