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  • The Leopard Report: Don’t Change Too Much

    December 12th, 2006

    It’s a sure thing that the Mac OS interface is very far from perfect. It’s also a sure thing that things can get worse and that features can be piled upon features without a lot of thought about integration and reach a point where utter confusion can result.

    Indeed, I’m sure of you feel that the first version of the Mac OS was the pinnacle of graphical user interface development and that things went downhill from there. The need to add more capabilities to meet the needs of customers and simply to remain competitive with other operating systems bred complexity.

    It’s easy to bash the way it’s done on Windows. Power users will tell you that there are loads of features that aren’t available on the Mac. This may well be true, but the first question is how many of those capabilities do you really need? Even assuming there is a purpose for them, how well are they implemented? Are they buried beneath multiple-level dialogs, or stuck in right-click menus? Can regular people harness their power? Is an set-up wizard used as a substitute for a decent interface?

    I think even dedicated Windows users will have to confess that Microsoft has problems making hard tasks simple. Microsoft will tell you their customers want them to innovate, to make the operating system do more. However, that doesn’t explain why you feel you might need a degree in computer science to grasp everything.

    In Windows Vista and recent applications, Microsoft has simply hidden the standard menu bar labels and substituted them with icons in the standard interface. While it’s possible to restore the “Classic” view, one wonders what purpose is served by changing an interface design that has been successful for well over two decades.

    It is perfectly true that all is not perfect in Mac OS X. I’m sure more than a few of you don’t like the fact that form sometimes triumphs over function and that not everything is consistent or simple. Even though Apple has a fairly complete set of “Human Interface Guidelines,” some of these standards are tossed out the window with home-brewed applications.

    Now I’m not talking about the design differences in the way icons are delivered in Mail compared with other programs. I’m more concerned with the way things operate, and the things that force you to stop and think before proceeding. Something that is supposed to “just work” shouldn’t be designed that way. From time to time, I’ve complained about different application window motifs, and how their behavior changes when it comes to moving the windows around the screen.

    For Leopard, Apple is going to want to tout more than 200 new features. I don’t have any secret knowledge of the final lineup, and I’d take most of what you’ve read so far with a grain of salt, beyond the limited number of features listed at Apple’s Web site.

    My concern is how much things will change, and whether those changes will require much of a learning curve. One of the hallmarks of the Mac OS has been that if you learn how to perform interface-rated tasks with one application, you will have the skills you need to access similar functions in another application. While some companies may vary things somewhat, you know where to look to open a document or to quit the application.

    So what is Apple going to change? What will they add? Will the new features be tacked on to look good in the marketing department’s laundry list. Will things change just to pad the list?

    In an ideal world, I’d like to just install Leopard when the time comes, and arrive at the new features naturally, rather than have to search through help menus, make a good guess, or look for the appropriate online tip and trick. I want to be amazed, not confused.

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