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Is Apple Finally Ready to Repair OS X Interface Problems?

While Lion and Mountain line seem to be reliable enough, a number of Mac users prefer to stick with Snow Leopard, 10.6, which was released in 2009. The critics suggest this is the Apple version of Microsoft’s Windows XP dilemma. There’s a perfectly good OS, but the newer versions aren’t so tempting or compelling, for one reason or another.

With Microsoft, you can understand the issues with Windows Vista, where there were some good ideas, but it was saddled with performance problems and driver incompatibilities. It didn’t do near as well as Microsoft hoped, but Windows 7, which didn’t look a whole lot different, fared far better. In a sense, Windows 7 was little more than a glorified service pack for Vista, with a different name so as not to carry the baggage of its predecessor.

It may well be that Microsoft will need to make the appropriate fixes in Windows 9 to remove the stench of Windows 8, but I suppose it’s always possible customers will surprise us all and buy loads of licenses anyway.

When it comes to OS 10.7 and 10.8, Apple has been sharply criticized for making interface changes that, beyond the desire to integrate the look and feel with the iOS, don’t make sense in a practical way. Making scrollbars part time may be sensible on a smartphone, where you need to save screen space, but not on your 27-inch iMac. Reversing the direction of scrolling, which Apple calls “natural,” simply throws a convention that’s lasted for over 25 years on its ear. Again, this is designed to make it work the same as on an iPhone or iPad.

Now with these two interface changes, a couple of checkboxes in System Preferences will restore behavior to the OS X tradition. It’s not such a big deal.

That iChat is called messages, and iCal is called Calendar, for example, shouldn’t be a show stopper either. They are just names, and you may be upset over the so-called skeuomorphic excesses in the Contacts and Calendar interfaces. But they’re just pictures that do not really hurt the functionality of these apps.

However, using grayscale icons in the Finder and iTunes sidebar does hurt. You may have to look twice to see what they represent. Where’s the sense in that?

Well, a few weeks ago, Tim Cook made design guru Jonathan Ive head of Human Interface for Apple. His tastes appear to be diametrically opposed to skeuomorphic. In addition, the release of iTunes 11 was held up for a month for further revisions.

Something has returned!

When you install iTunes 11, the sidebar is hidden. A check of the View menu restores it and, sure enough, the color icons are back in all their glory. But that’s not enough to have delayed the app by a month. Inserting different icons in an app can be done in minutes rather than hours or days. Clearly the iTunes engineering team had a lot of other things to do, but the gesture is nonetheless appreciated.

So I wonder when Apple might restore color to the Finder sidebar. Sure, there are third party solutions, but this is also something that could be accomplished quickly. It doesn’t have to wait for 10.9. Unless you’re color blind, you won’t complain.

On the long haul, however, just how will the possible restoration of interface sanity impact development of OS X, particularly OS 10.9? Will the leather stitching effect vanish from Calendar? Will Apple’s apps become more consistent in the look and the feel?

Clearly, the need for change comes at a time when Microsoft, for better or wise, is at least trying to do something altogether new and different. Windows 8 may not do much of anything to help a PC user’s productivity, but I suppose you can’t attack Microsoft for taking a chance, only the results. While I wouldn’t want Apple to totally revamp OS X and change interface conventions that have been tested and proven since the early 1980s, there’s plenty of room for change. In addition to finding a cool 200 new features with which to entice you to download OS 10.9, Apple needs to take a large look at every nook and cranny and fix all the inconsistencies, and, if possible, consider restoring needed features that were left on the cutting room floor for no obvious reason.

I also hope that Apple doesn’t fall into the touch everywhere syndrome. Touch makes sense on a smartphone or tablet. It makes sense on a Mac’s trackpad, but nowhere else. On the other hand, enhanced voice recognition isn’t such a bad idea, although I can see where it would become highly disturbing in a busy office. But if you must talk to your Mac in your home, I suppose only your spouse, partner or child will care.

A possibly useful alternative to touch, however, is a way for OS X to recognize hand gestures from a distance. This can be done with your Mac’s FaceTime camera, although that would present a problem with a Mac mini or Mac Pro, unless you’re using an Apple display or someone else’s display with a built-in Webcam.

All right, restoring color icons in iTunes 11 is just one small step. But it gives some hope that Apple will, at long last, cut back or eliminate the OS X excesses.