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ATPM 10.11
November 2004



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by Wes Meltzer,

A Civil War of Attrition

We have two kinds of partisan affiliations in the Mac world, overlapping. First there are the two camps on whether Windows sucks or is just different; second we have the Mason-Dixon line between the brushed metalheads and the Aquaphiles. Both have provoked civil wars, and both are built on waiting for Apple to give us new fodder for something to oooooooh or aaaaaaaaaah collectively about in Tiger.

I’ve done something unusual for this column: I will feature two major issues, with a bit of the debate about them, followed by links. If you like it, shout, and I’ll keep doing it.

First, though, I’d like to offer an apology. Those of you who are regular readers may have noticed my extended absence, which took up our October as well as September issues. Some computer problems and a busy schedule meant I couldn’t pay the kind of attention to the Mac blogosphere that it deserved, so my hiatus was somewhat extended. Thank you for your patience.

Well, then, let’s move along!

Showdown at the Brushed Metal Corral

John Gruber seems, to my eye, to have started the fight on this one, pulling his gun out of the holster and aiming it at the enemy. He says that OS X’s human interface guidelines statements regarding brushed metal interfaces are inconsistent and that Apple doesn’t obey them, not a new argument, but, like a presidential election, it can feel new every time.

The rules are pretty equivocal, though:

Windows have two distinct looks in Mac OS X. There is the standard default look of windows, as shown in the examples so far. There is also a brushed metal look available, shown in Figure 8-11. You can use a brushed metal window if your application:

  • Provides an interface for a digital peripheral, such as a camera, or an interface for managing data shared with digital peripherals—iPhoto or iSync, for example
  • Strives to re-create a familiar physical device—Calculator or DVD Player, for example
  • Provides a source list to navigate information—for example, iTunes or the Finder

Don’t use the brushed metal look indiscriminately. Although it works well for some types of applications, some applications appear too heavy when using this look. For example, it works well for the iSync application window (see Figure 8-11), but it does not work very well for the TextEdit document window (see Figure 8-12).

I happen to disagree vehemently with both guidelines 2 and 3 here, but I won’t go too deeply into that, because, well, there’s a lot more to be said and this column is all about what other people are saying.

Gruber points out the height of Apple’s inconsistency in brushed-metal HIG:

The release of Safari was a watershed; it’s an application which fits none of the HIG’s criteria for when brushed metal is appropriate. You could perhaps put forth a contorted argument that the ‘source list’ in Safari’s bookmarks view qualifies it, but that’s a real stretch. It’s quite obvious that the one and only reason Safari uses brushed metal is that someone at Apple thinks it looks better that way.

He also can’t resist remarking on the usability problems of metal windows: they look virtually identical in the foreground and the background, which means that it’s quite easy to accidentally close the wrong application’s window. (I’ve done it many times before.) Now, there’s something frustrating, says Pierre Igot at Betalogue.

Michael Dupuis sees the brushed-metal controversy as the sort of inconsistency that runs rampant in OS X. Think brushed metal, sure, but also think window borders, the “pro” metal theme and wooden theme, etc. Think inconsistency.

After all, he says, you could argue that NetNewsWire should be metal, based on Apple’s guidelines, and, uhh, that doesn’t really make any sense at all to those of us who use NNW. (If you decide that it does, I probably can’t tell you how, but nib hacking isn’t that hard—try it out.)

Both Dupuis and Gruber agree that the potential inconsistency, too, of a rumored coming fourth theme is all the more damaging to Apple’s traditional reputation as a company obsessed with consistency—the Classic Mac OS may not have been pretty, but it was awfully clear how something was supposed to look. Igot disagrees, saying, “[I]t looks like Apple’s new ‘theme’ in Tiger might just fit the bill.”

We’ll see what this new theme is used for and what it looks like, but the long-lost metal-window killer would sure make this happy user of Demetallifizer even happier.

Windows on Unhappiness

Mac users often complain about Windows. As I said earlier, it’s more that we can’t decide on whether Windows sucks or is just plain different, than that we uniformly hate it—but this doesn’t resolve the controversy that comes with Windows, in the Mac world.

First up, we hear from everyone’s favorite former Mac user, Evan DiBiase at MacAndBack, who says that he’s increasingly unhappy with Windows because of a variety of strange behaviors in Windows that he dislikes: Outlook 2003's IMAP handling, Cygwin’s peculiar secondary root, Windows’ inability to handle high-resolution displays, disastrously bad error messages and dialogs, weird and excessive noises, etc. He closes the article by saying, “I can do everything that’s important to me on a Mac, and end up feeling empowered. Windows just makes me frustrated…I’m starting to wonder if I made a huge mistake.”

Do you want me to answer, Evan DiBiase? The answer is, yes. This former Switcher—back before there was a Switch campaign—hasn’t looked back to crashes, unhelpful dialogs, stupid hardware incompatibility problems, and just plain incompetence from Redmond and most of the other software vendors. I gave up on Windows in 1998 and used SuSE Linux for four years, and then got a Mac. You have my empathy.

If you read the comments on MacAndBack, you’ll often feel the real tug-of-war between, to appropriate somebody else’s dialogue, the WinRelativists and the WinAbsolutists. I think WinAbsolutists, myself included, win with DiBiase’s examples.

Also on the Windows front, anyone who wants to use Firefox on the Mac will quickly discover that it doesn’t quite behave right in OS X. Why? Well, it’s missing a lot the Windows version has, Jeremy Zawodny and his commenters agree. Little things, like not being able to use Command-M to minimize or the phantom Exposé window.

This all adds up to Adam Kalsey telling us that he doesn’t recommend Firefox except to technically savvy users. He has a bunch of user interface critiques that, I’ll admit it, Safari would fall prey too, but then again, Safari fits the IE model better than the Firefox model.

Other Chatter From September and October

  • An extraordinarily exciting new blog for readers: 43 Folders, for power users who want to make their Mac that much better. It’s covered all kinds of exciting topics, my favorite being Quicksilver, so take a look if you want to get things up to speed.
  • Five parts in a great series from MacDevCenter, “Mac OS X for the Traveler,” by François Joseph de Kermadec. You can learn how to travel with your laptop, including traveling with and toting the ’Book, software and encryption, equipment and support information. If you own a ’Book and it ever leaves your desk, make sure you read this. Get them sequentially: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

  • Watson is going to be end-of-lifed, according to creator Dan Wood, due to Sun buying the software. I’d like to congratulate him on an awesome product; it was the first Mac application I bought, and I’ll be sad to see it go. Goodbye, Watson.

  • Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal’s tech reviewer and resident curmudgeon, absolutely loves the iMac. He’s glowing about its looks and its cost, and he likes the iApps. It’s not immediately clear to me why he chooses as one of his two primary flaws the absence of a digital memory card reader, but he did; the other was the usual (and correct) complaint that Apple gives short shrift to RAM in its machines. We’ll take Mossberg on our side any day; the man can sink a product like a rock, and having his recommendation may just make PC-toting Journal readers take a second look.

  • Khoi Vinh of Subtraction lists a bunch of tweaks he’d like to see in OmniWeb. It’s a great Web browser, sure, he says, but even Omni could use a little user interface help sometimes. He Photoshops a few differences, which he thinks might make a big impact.

  • Jason Kottke thinks Apple finally figured out what they have to do to be successful: Be “not about sales and market share but products and innovation.” He quotes our Dear Leader, Steve Jobs, and reminds us that Apple is essentially a luxury goods manufacturer like Bang & Olufsen or Calphalon—and what he leaves unsaid is that the hideous Gil Amelio- and John Sculley-era Macs (the 20th Anniversary Mac notwithstanding) were clearly not marketed at the luxury demographic.

  • Is Apple falling behind by not embracing a subscription model for music? Gary Robinson thinks so, and he says, for instance, “With a subscription model, no mental energy need be expended deciding what to buy and not to buy. You can focus on enjoying music, without that ‘tax’ on the experience.” I happen to disagree, because I would never buy music online if it had a recurring fee. (Then again, I’m a college student, which means I buy music when I have the money and don’t when I don’t. I hope Steve Jobs remembers that the demographic that buys the most iPods is mine, not Gary Robinson’s.)

  • Damien Barrett wants us to know that he loves Mac OS X because he’s learned Unix with it, and that gives him skills that scale outside the Mac world. He apparently helped clean out students’ Windows machines recently, and discovered the other factor that makes the Mac great: spyware begone!

  • Will Windows programs ever run on your Mac? Slate thinks so. They say that Java is the next big thing. Aside from the irony of the ’zine Microsoft pays for saying that Java is coming…uhh…haven’t I heard this before? Call me when the revolution comes. But I’m not saving up my minutes for it.

  • BusinessWeek thinks Apple is making a mistake by not licensing the iPod’s OS to other manufacturers. They liken it to not licensing the Mac OS. I will not even comment on this.

  • Aren’t you glad you don’t use IE/Win? I am. Especially when CNET News reports that IE users will not get any updates unless they buy XP SP2. Doesn’t Jaguar still get updates? I mean, I know Microsoft is planning on lots of updates in SP2, but for the tech world’s biggest corporation, would it be too much to expect a little something for free? Windows users already pay way more than Mac users for their OS. I predict a surge in viruses after no one bothers upgrading.

  • The Cornell Daily Sun is reporting that students are not happy with their Napster service. Why? Cornell IT says at least half of Ithaca’s best and brightest have iPods, which are useless with Napster service, and they’re complaining about having to pay for it when their free trial is up, if they can’t use it.

  • Unsanity makes lots of cool software. Some software that other developers sell is not so cool—especially the kind that deletes your home directory as privacy protection. Permanently deletes. That strikes me as a bit harsh.

  • Elliot Van Buskirk, who edits CNET’s, says that he loves—really, really loves, à la Sally Fields—the iPod’s latest click wheel. Apparently the company that manufactures it, Synpatics, has done some really slick work in the past, and was under exclusive contract with Apple to fab them. However, Creative has licensed them to make something for Creative’s latest MP3 player, except, of course, that just like the awful Dell jukebox it has a vertical scroll wheel. It makes perfect sense, as Van Buskirk notes, until you realize that making the circular motion with your finger is a lot easier than scrolling through a long list in an down-pick up finger-down motion. As usual, iPod 14, competition 0.

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (2)

Ed Williams · November 3, 2004 - 10:34 EST #1
(cyber-shouting) GREAT STUFF, WES! Great topics and very good coverage of them IMO. (The heavy-duty dudes like The Tog and his ilk have been slighted however.) In any case, let's all get it on, get dirty down on the floor.

Assertion: Aqua looks like an old-fashioned pinball machine. ;=)

I personally don't blog, btw, but I do write on topics that anger me, in well-considered bilious prose.

It was Daudet, I believe, who said "Hatred - the ange of the weak."

Ed W.
Wes Meltzer (ATPM Staff) · November 4, 2004 - 18:41 EST #2
Well, thank you very much, Ed... I really appreciate the praise.

I ordinarily cover Tog's writing (inter alia) whenever I talk about the topic of Aqua and metal, but I was attempting to restrict my discussion to within September's and October's chatter.

Perhaps I'll follow up on the Bloggable blog, if I ever get around to working on that again. If I ever have enough free time.

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