User Friendliness Versus Hype

August 10th, 2012

When Windows 8 ships this fall, you can bet that Microsoft will tout the interface formerly known as Metro to the skies. Look at the wonderful, colorful tiles. See how they run across the screen, endlessly. Forget about pointing and clicking; just tap here and there and everywhere and you’ll experience the joys of Windows 8.

What Microsoft won’t tell you is that the way touch works differs depending on which end of the display you tap. They won’t tell you that even shutting down your PC will involve multiple steps that aren’t, at first glance, obvious. Sure, the Start menu may have been a questionable name for a function that also includes restarting or shutting down your PC, but at least the interface was crystal clear as to what you could accomplish. You didn’t need a cheat sheet or a good memory.

And what happens when you click-through the interface formerly known as Metro, only to discover a toned down version of the traditional Windows desktop? All right, there are icons in the tray, but no Start menu there either. And how to do return to the tiled interface anyway? Click on the lower left corner of the screen, a hot spot that brings up a tiny popup menu labeled Start. In Windows 8, the desktop is just another app that you can move in and out of, once you find the secret handshake; make that hot spot. Yes, so intuitive.

What will probably confound many users of Windows 8 is the schizophrenic interface. One app uses the interface formerly known as Metro, while the next runs in an almost traditional Windows environment. Having fun?

True Apple dealt with two operating systems early on with the first versions of Mac OS X. You had a Classic environment, a separate document window where you could run many of your older Mac apps with decent performance in an emulator. Only the line of demarcation wasn’t hidden in a hot corner. Classic, as I said, ran as just another app that you could leave or enter with a click. It wasn’t hidden away.

Unfortunately, in trying to seem flashy and sexy, Microsoft cannot understand consistency, or the need to make things easy to discover by their user base. Most businesses will probably avoid Windows 8 like the plague, and tech pundits who usually praise Microsoft now seem almost to want to bury them.

More seriously, Mountain Lion, despite those 200 new features, is regarded as a minor system update by some. That’s because most of the fundamentals of the tried and true Mac user interface are still there. Sure, there are curious changes that may or may not have logic to them. Consider the loss of Web Sharing. All right, I don’t think many of you used this feature, which dates back to the very first version of OS X, and allows you to run an Apache web server on your Mac.

Maybe Apple felt that there would be less to support, but the command line tools that let you activate and configure Web Sharing are still there. I suppose they could disappear with OS 10.9, or maybe Apple will get the message.

They did, after all, restore Save As in the face of customers who said that the Duplicae function that’s part of the Auto Save feature, which debuted in Lion, was an unsatisfactory solution. Yes, I suppose Mountain Line’s Save As feature is still not quite the same as the Save As that we all know and love. But it’s also possible for Apple to make a few more changes even before Mountain Lion’s successor appears.

I have to tell you, though, that Mountain Lion’s entire Modern Document Model can sometimes be inscrutable. Tech writer Matt Neuburg has a piece at TidBITS where he attempts to sort things out in a way that makes sense. However, I came away feeling that Apple had somehow become temporarily possessed by a team of Microsoft engineers when enhancing Auto Save. The interactions between two options related to document handling in the General preference panel seem to vary illogically depending on which combination you engage. You almost wish Apple would have left well enough alone.

At least you can rest assured that most third-party apps have yet to add support for Auto Save and other key Lion and Mountain Lion features. But I would hope the more confusing elements of this feature will be revised before a new version of OS X arrives. I suppose that depends on how many of you are complaining about it. Obviously, Apple listens, which is why a variation of Save As has been restored.

For the most part, however, Mountain Lion appears to be a surprisingly stable release. There are issues to be resolved, such as the reports that some of you are suffering from substandard battery life on your Mac note-book. But with published reports that Apple is soon to begin testing an 10.8.1 update to fix that and other issues, you have to think they are not going to abandon suffering Mac users.

But with all its imperfections, Mountain Lion is a lot nicer place to be than the interface formerly known as Metro.

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12 Responses to “User Friendliness Versus Hype”

  1. dfs says:

    ” Microsoft cannot understand consistency”. True, but OSX has problems of its own, of the kind a newbie might consider daunting. For ex., clicking the green circle in the upper left corner of a window produces different results under different circumstances. And, for me, the most maddening feature of OSX is this. Open a Finder window, call it Window A. Arrange it the way you want, with or without sidebars and toolbar, shape of your choice, icon view or whatever. Now close it and open any other Finder window, call it Window B. Now close it, and reopen Window A, which has now lost the formatting you so carefully gave it and acquired the look of Window B. There is no way of preventing this by “locking” a Finder window and instructing it to remember its designated format. I suspect one could compile quite a list of such OSX features, ones we old hands have learned to take for granted and barely notice, but which might drive a new adopter absolutely batty.

  2. Tim says:

    They did not
    They did not
    They did NOT restore “Save As . . .” in Mountain Lion! Read this and test it for yourself before you screw up your documents!

    • @Tim, I get your point. It doesn’t work quite the same as the previous version. But there are ways for it to perform essentially the same function with a little finagling. The option in the General preference pane, “Ask to keep changes when closing documents,” ought to help.


  3. Tim says:

    Hi Gene,

    The problem is, this is not a minor point. How many Mac users out there are running on the assumption that this new “Save As . . .” works just like the old one? A lot of people might have already overwritten their older documents, thinking their original states were preserved. This is irresponsible on the part of Apple. Call it something else, but do not call it “Save As . . .” if it is not truly what people think that is.

    • @Tim, What you are talking about is that you can make changes in a document, then invoke Save As, and expect the original document to remain pristine, exactly as opened and without those changes. That is not how Auto Save works. The easiest thing to do is just open the document, invoke Save As, and the original will not be altered, since you haven’t made any changes to it.


  4. Tim says:

    But then one might as well invoke “Duplicate” and be done with it. The point of the original Save As was that I could open a document, tinker with it to my heart’s content, and if I decided I liked those changes I could invoke “Save As” and the original document would remain untouched. But now, if I do this, the original document will be touched, and it will have been changed to a duplicate of the new “Saved As” document.

    This whole matter is not an issue for me per se. I use an older version of iWork that still uses the old “Save As” format. My concern, again, is simply for those Apple users who are under the illusion that the new Save As works just like the old one. It doesn’t, and Apple has a responsiblity to inform people about this no-so-insignificant difference.

    What you are suggesting that people do is great advice, but what about the people who aren’t following this thread? How are they to find out?

    • @Tim, In Mountain Lion, Save As is optional. It requires the “Option” keystroke to make visible in the menu bar, or to invoke instead of Duplicate. There are also several articles that explain the changes in Save As behavior. I expect the Save warning feature in the General preference pane helps restore expected behavior.


  5. Tim says:

    I just did a test with TextEdit. I have the “warn” feature on in system prefs, as you suggested. I created a document, typed “a” and named the document “a.” I closed it, re-opened it, typed a second “a” so that it now reads “aa.” I used the new Save As by holding down the option key. I saved it as “aa” and then closed it.

    I then re-opened the original “a” and it now says “aa.” Granted, I can use the Versions thing to find the original “a,” but all of these extra steps are really not my thing. I think the orignal system wasn’t broke and Apple tried to fix it. The fact that they tried to bring back “Save As” and that they incorporated “ask to save” suggests that they think so, too, or at least that a sufficient number of users thought so.

  6. DaveD says:

    dfs presented good examples of opening a Finder window and be surprised. The last time I saw good consistencies of desired window look and placement was in Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4). The Finder windows in Tiger acted like Classic Mac OS.

    With regards to the formally-called Metro UI in Windows 8, I am guessing that the odd reason to bolt into a desktop OS is to sell more “metro” smartphones. What other odd reasons could it be to put in-place a feature primarily geared for touch? It is not difficult to see the making of Vista 2.0.

    • @DaveD, I long ago gave up on a Finder that would reliably lock in size settings, but it works passably in Mountain Lion.

      I think Microsoft wants to settle on “Modern UI” for the interface formerly known as Metro.


  7. John B says:

    When did Metro become a “formerly-known as” name? I thought it was still Metro. If not, what’s it called now? Let me guess, MS had the original idea of using a symbol for its name rather than words.

    • @John B, It’s been reported already. It appears the name Metro applies to a German retailer, Metro AG. So Microsoft may use “Modern UI,” which is thoroughly pathetic. Maybe that’ll change before WIndows 8 shows up.


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