• The Tiger Report: Apple Needs to Sweat the Details

    April 1st, 2006

    I had a pleasant conversation Monday with Owen Linzmayer, best known as author of “Apple Confidential 2.0.” He’s also written a pair of articles for InformIT.com, in which he complains about Tiger features he doesn’t like. To be sure, not all of the responses he’s received have been very pleasant, and some readers have expressed anger that Linzmayer dared to criticize Apple.

    To be sure, Tiger isn’t perfect; far from it in some respects. But as Mac OS X approaches its fifth anniversary, we should all agree that it’s progressed very far from the relatively slow and feature-slim 10.0. You couldn’t even burn CDs on that first version, and Apple had to admit it was designed more for early adopters and network administrators than regular people. It took the rush upgrade to 10.1, a free upgrade (except for those controversial shipping and handling costs), to begin to restore lost functionality.

    Over time, of course, Apple has added from 150 to more than 200 new features for each new release, and no doubt will continue to do so for 10.5 Leopard. Yet at the same time, Apple seems to have lost sight of the little things, tiny irregularities in the way things work that are probably not difficult to fix, but somehow remain untouched. Perhaps, in the onrush to deliver new operating system upgrades, these items have not been given the proper level of attention, and that’s unfortunate, because sometimes things do not just work, or at least work as they should.

    Rather than simply repeat what Linzmayer says, I’ll just contribute a few observations of my own, whether they match his concerns or not. Sure, perhaps I’m being a little picky here, but that’s what the Mac is supposed to be about. It may be easy to dismiss some things as just not that important, but in the scheme of things, every irregularity counts.

    One particular item that irks me is that the technique of moving a window around the screen depends on the particular interface design. If it’s brushed metal all around, you can drag it from any edge. But consider Safari, where the status bar at the bottom is an option that’s not there by default. When it’s activated, you can drag the window from the bottom, but otherwise you’ve got to reach to the title bar. Does that make sense to you?

    Consider the novice user, who is struggling to learn how things work. Why should it matter whether Apple or the application developer choose brushed metal or not? If you’re used to doing things by habit, as most of us are, why should you have to give pause to consider whether a document window is platinum gray or brushed metal before you can determine its movement capabilities. Now imagine the extra wrist motion needed to reach to the top of the window, particularly on a 23-inch or 30-inch display. It may not matter if it happens occasionally, but after hours of such behavior, maybe you feel the need to engage in a little exercise to strengthen your muscles.

    Another irritant is the printer status window, which appears when you’re outputting a document. Under Mac OS 9, the icon would show a document icon that would, by dint of its shading, reflect the progress of the job. Under Mac OS X, it’s there or it isn’t. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you output lots of large documents, you should have some sort of visual indication of what’s going on, just as Mail displays the number of unread messages in your inbox.

    Now the way Tiger handles its fax feature can be particularly troubling until you figure out how it works. Under Panther, the Fax button was front and center in the Print dialog box. For Tiger, it has become the Fax PDF option that appears only when you click the PDF button. In Fax’s former location is Supplies, which when pressed, takes you to Apple’s online store and its catalog of printer consumables. The feature isn’t smart enough, alas, to handle situations where Apple doesn’t stock the supplies you need. Oh well, maybe Apple is just trying to take attention away from its broken fax feature, and besides modems are optional these days. If you want to fax something, buy a standalone fax machine or a multifunction printer. Perhaps that’s the message Apple wants to convey.

    Another feature that’s eternally broken is the way the notification manager handles bouncing icons in the Dock. Yes, there are third party utilities that’ll turn them off, but there are legitimate reasons why you should be notified about the need to switch to an application. Maybe there’s a problem you should know about, but the incessant bouncing is just irritating. Wouldn’t it make sense to have it bounce for ten or fifteen seconds to alert you that something is afoot, then disappear for few minutes? Then, if you don’t respond you can get another brief bout of icon bouncing. Unfortunately, Apple’s famed Human Interface Guidelines don’t give developers a choice here, but then even Apple doesn’t always follow its guidelines these days.

    I’m sure you can come up with literally dozens of tiny, niggling annoyances that widen the gulf between near perfection and very good. I’ve long felt that Apple has rushed out its operating system releases a little too eagerly, and maybe that’s why it hasn’t been sweating the details as it should. Since they’ve given themselves more time to get Leopard out the door, perhaps some extra attention can be put on matters like these. What do you think?

    Oh, and by the way, you’ll hear Owen Linzmayer describe his own pet peeves about Tiger on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE.

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