Apple gilds the lily

The new Macintosh operating system may annoy both geeks and rookies.

Published November 2, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

Change can be good, but change for change's sake rarely is. For this lesson, Apple CEO and avatar Steve Jobs need look no further than his own Palo Alto, Calif., neighborhood, where august (in local terms) houses are being razed only to be replaced with tacky "monster homes." And that's what we have with the Mac OS X public beta, the long-awaited Apple operating system with the robust underpinnings of Unix. But for a layer of compatibility, this operating system throws out almost everything -- the ease of use and maintenance, the customizability, the efficient interface -- that makes a Mac a Mac, and offers little in return.

As Janelle Brown noted in her Salon review of Mac OS X, I may be setting myself up for accusations of being a Luddite (or simply a stick-in-the-mud), but I think it's important to focus on what is lost in the change from the current Mac OS user interface to the Aqua-fied OS X. After all, even as Windows was slouching toward such "modern" OS features as preemptive multitasking, Mac users could point to Apple's seminal, research-driven Human Interface Guidelines, which helped shape the Mac's UI into one of the most usable and intuitive in the computer industry. But, as noted previously, Jobs, who seems to be the prime mover behind OS X, also seems to have little regard for interface engineers. And it shows.

It's true that OS X offers more graphical goodies than the platinum theme of Mac OS 8 and 9, including translucent menus, throbbing save lozenges, photorealistic icons and multicolored window widgets. But after the first blush wears off, the new interface reveals itself as more hindrance than ideal helpmate.

The candy colors, for example, drew the ire of graphics professionals immediately after the first public demo of OS X in January. All the multicolored dollops, went the plaint, would pollute their perception of color in their work. In the recently released public beta, there is a quick option to drain these colors from the on-screen widgets, but here's a tip for prospective interface designers: When a feature can be eliminated with little end effect, or even a slight improvement, it's time to ditch the feature. As for the translucent menus? They're good for reminding people of Apple's style-setting computer casings, but try to read one of these menus when it ends up over a page of dense text.

Photorealistic icons, where your hard drive icon actually looks like an internal drive gruesomely ripped from the guts of your computer, brings up a more philosophical problem: The whole point of icons is to abstract meaning, from a specific item to a more general class.

Facing a door with a photo of Ross Perot on it, some men may decide to go elsewhere, fearing a lecture on tariffs studded with folksy yet incomprehensible sayings. Adorn that same door with the generic image of a man, and many will make a different decision, stepping inside for a little relief. What, then, to make of an icon of a compass and a loupe? You don't have to start tossing around semiotics terms such as "unarticulated narrowcast codes" to see there's a problem here.

A simple label -- you know, words -- might help, but OS X, perhaps loath to sully its pictures with ordinary, humdrum letters, strips icons of labels where they'd most help -- in the "dock." Ah, the dock.

The dock -- that launcher, application menu and minimizer at the bottom of the OS X screen -- may catch a few eyes, but from an interface design standpoint it's a mess. It tries to replicate the combined functionalities of the Mac's familiar launcher, Apple menu, application menu and "windowshade" feature (all of which are banished from OS X). That's a lot to jam into one horizontal bar. It's all too easy to end up with the same enigmatic icon, sans descriptive but unaesthetic label, representing a minimized application, a minimized document from that application, a running application and a button to be used to launch the application. What's more, if you place multiple folders -- MP3s, URL shortcuts, minimized windows and documents -- in the dock you end up with a Rockettes-style lineup of identical, generic icons. It's true that you can "scrub" over them with the mouse to reveal their names, but is that what you want to do if you have dozens of files docked? In an attempt to reduce the clutter of the average user's desktop, OS X simply displaces it.

But perhaps OS X's greatest problem for those who use their computers day in and day out is that it not only forces a sea change in how one works but requires users to conform to its system if they want to achieve any kind of OS satori. It's OS X's way or the highway, and there are plenty of other operating systems waiting to ask you where you want to go today.

The traditional Mac OS offered what Bruce Tognazzini, one of the founders of Apple's original Human Interface Group, called a "spatial" orientation -- that is, you could place a file anywhere in the virtual desktop environment. This allowed for dragging and dropping files as well as arranging your work patterns with any or no organization. OS X replaces this with abstraction, partially as a result of its Unix heritage and its stronger resemblance to its actual parent, NextStep, the operating system developed by the company Jobs headed during his forced sojourn apart from Apple. As a result, OS X binds you into keeping all your files in a "Documents" folder, your applications in another folder and so on. The desktop browser windows are evidence of this, with big, Playskool buttons that lead you to each of these. The problem is, do you work that way? If you're like me and almost everyone I know, you have hundreds of files and dozens of applications and utilities. Is it easier to sort through, say, all your personal correspondence mixed with business papers mixed with pictures? There are ways to get around this, by hacking up the preapproved folders into little fiefdoms, but these methods allow you to work in spite of the OS, not with it.

Granted, there are some technical marvels at work in OS X, and even a few great UI innovations. OS X's BSD base promises stability up the wazoo. And getting the "Classic" environment, in which older Mac applications can run natively, works very well. It's not totally transparent -- there's a noticeable launch sequence and a jarring (or comforting) switch back to the traditional Mac OS look and feel -- but the fact that Apple engineers basically got the Mac OS running on NextStep is a nifty technical feat. Add in the fact that running the Classic environment incurs no noticeable speed hit (unlike running the VirtualPC emulator on a Mac) and the boys in the lab should be proud.

They should also be proud of OS X's "sheets." Unlike in the current Mac OS, where alert and dialog boxes float freely and offer no hints as to which window they affect, in OS X they slide out of the relevant window and remain attached. It's a crucial feature, especially in a system like OS X where you can continue working in one application even as another hits a wall. The Disney-ish way the sheets unfurl from each window is more than a bit cloying, true, but overall it's something every UI should adopt.

What's perhaps most disturbing about the new OS is that it's not clear exactly who OS X is for. The geeks who'd love the BSD microkernel, command-line power and such have no need for Aqua's pretty colors. Conversely, the beginning users most likely to be lured by shiny new objects could care less about protected memory and the like. They may appreciate a more stable system (to be fair, the last few iterations of the Mac OS have been rather solid for day-to-day use), but OS X with its arcane Unix physiology promises to change troubleshooting from an amateur's to a professional's job. And traditional Mac OS users, in Web sites, newsgroups and mailing lists, are loudly protesting that this isn't what they signed on for; this isn't what they've defended over the years; this is no more the Mac OS than Windows is.

It's a paradox Jobs himself might appreciate, but a paradox may not be what you want on your computer.

By Daniel Drew Turner

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

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