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Living with Leopard: Book II — The Controversial Interface

When some of you first saw the Leopard version of the menu bar, I bet there were a few grumbles about its near-invisibility with some screen backdrops. Indeed, I suppose Apple’s interface designers took the hint and made it less transparent as time passed. At least, that’s what it seems based upon what Steve Jobs presented at the last WWDC and the finished product released last week.

So if you stick with the standard space travel motif that represents the heart of the Time Machine interface, the menu bar remains gray, with a slight level of translucency, and the labels are all clearly visible. The same holds true with the traditional Mac OS X ocean blue background. Some colors, however, may present obstacles to proper menu bar display, and you just might not want to use them, at least until Apple or someone provides a tool to kill the transparency effect. But even if Apple doesn’t come through for you, a third party will take care of it for you, because there are lots of things buried in the system that you can access via the appropriate command line, courtesy of Terminal.

In the scene of things, however, the menu bar doesn’t annoy me at all, nor am I married to a particular desktop design, but let’s move on to something that actually polarizes millions of Mac users.

Yes, I’m talking about the infamous Dock, which, as most of you know, is descended from the original NeXT Dock. Now to be perfectly fair, the NeXT computer attained a special, almost mystical, status among Mac users in the late 1980s and early 1990s, even though it was a total failure in the marketplace. There were lots of system add-ons that mimicked portions of the NeXT user interface, such as The Black Box from Andrew Welch.

Now of course, most of you know Andrew from his shareware company, Ambrosia Software, and the great Mac-only games and utilities he’s delivered over the years. These days, I’ve become a fan of one of their newest products, WireTap Studio, which combines a sound capturing application with fancy post-production features for editing your audio recordings.

Well, in those days, The Black Box brought the NeXT Dock and other interface niceties to the Mac platform. It stands to reason that, when the NeXT look and feel was combined with the Mac OS, some of the components of the former would appear in the latter.

When I first wrote about the Dock for CNET when the Mac OS X Public Beta appeared in 2000, my editor added the descriptive phrase, “cartoonish, goofy” to my article. That alteration, however, didn’t accurately relfect my personal viewpoint. In fact, the Dock never bothered me at all, and I was perfectly content to leave it at the bottom of the screen. I know some of you prefer to have it placed on the left or right ends your Mac’s desktop, but I like it just like it is, with the icons sufficiently large so I can tell one from the other.

With the arrival of Leopard, lots of you are complaining — with clear justification mind you — that the Mac OS 10.5 Dock, with its shelf and 3D-style reflections, is nothing more than a useless piece of eye candy. It is no more functional than the previous versions. It just looks different. In fact, the blue globes below an application that are supposed to show they’re running are often difficult to see, but I don’t agree. Once your eyes become accustomed to the new look, you will find the new order perfectly acceptable.

If not, just take a trip to the Terminal and enter the following commands:

$ defaults write com.apple.dock no-glass -boolean YES; killall Dock

Once you press Return, the Dock will restart, and will become 2D, very much in the fashion of the Tiger Dock. Or just move it to the left or right side of the screen, which conveys the self-same visual effect. Happy now?

Now other than its well-known performance hangups, I was always a fan of the Mac OS X Finder, particularly its column view feature, another NeXT influence. But you had to agree that performance could be pathetic under load, particularly when performing multiple copying operations.

From a performance standpoint, the Leopard Finder is a huge improvement. Not perfect mind you, but far fewer spinning beachballs, evidently the result of superior multithreading. The new file sharing scheme is also a revelation, because it makes both volume and screen sharing a piece of cake, hardly worth a trip to a Help menu. Compare that to Microsoft’s inability to figure out how to explain Windows networking without a pathetic setup wizard. What’s more, if a network share drops off the network, it doesn’t affect the Leopard Finder one bit. That’s also a huge plus.

Yet the critics still aren’t happy. The Finder’s blue/gray look is dull, drab, lacking sufficient contrast between the background and the various labels. Again, I just don’t agree. To me, the Finder is simple, elegant, fast and easy to manage.

Where Apple and I part company is the new flat desktop folder scheme, subtly embossed to indicate the ones with special purposes. The problem is that you have to look twice, or maybe three times, to see that embossing, so the subtle look’s purpose is defeated. This is a trivial issue in the scheme of things, however. All Apple has to do is fix the various image files to look more distinctive, and I’m sure third parties will deal with it soon enough.

At the same time, I understand that many of you aren’t enamored with these and other elements of the Leopard interface. Unfortunately, whatever Apple does, they can’t please everyone. But if they get enough negative feedback, they eventually get the message, and don’t be surprised if there are a few changes here and they way before Mac OS 10.6 appears.