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ATPM 3.07
July 1997


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The Personal Computing Paradigm

by Michael Tsai,

The Wait For 8 Is Over

In fact, you might even be reading this from a copy of Mac OS 8. Who do we have to thank? The new Apple. That’s right, Apple’s a different company now. It seems that the old Apple died with the Copland project about a year ago. The new Apple is all about setting realistic goals and meeting them. If 95% of the feature set for a system software release can be done by the deadline, then ship the part that’s done. (The Microsoft counterpart to this strategy is to simply rename the product. Windows 97 is late? Then let’s ship it “on-time” as Windows 98.)

This strategy is far better than delaying the whole release for two months until everything planned for the original release is ready. Users get (most) of the features they want, and Apple gets to jump up and down for the press, joyful that it’s shipped x consecutive software releases on time. Plus, Apple ships more releases per year, which brings in more money. When a company has lost money for as many consecutive quarters as Apple, every little bit helps. Finally, Apple receives more customer feedback on how it’s doing. The company has become more responsive to user suggestions, probably because of the new distribution strategy.

Little Improvements That Add Up

The first thing you’ll notice after installing Mac OS 8 is the new Finder. It has most of the features planned for Copland’s Finder. List views have grey backgrounds indicating by which column the list is sorted. However, I find them distracting and wish they could be turned off. White guide lines make it easy to find information that goes with a file or folder. Relative dating uses “Today” and “Yesterday” in place of the day, month, and year for recently modified files. The new Finder is not perfect. You can’t reorder or resize the columns in list view. There is no sorting by a hidden column, nor can you change whether sorting occurs A-Z or Z-A. But, most of the original Copland Finder is there, and that’s what counts.

Probably the weirdest change is the relocation of the Help menu. The Balloon Help menu first appeared in System 7.0 and took its place next to the Application menu on the right side of the menu bar. When System 7.5 added AppleGuide support, the icon of the menu changed from the Balloon Help question mark to the AppleGuide question mark. Now, the icon is gone completely.

Apple’s user testing showed that new Mac users (the ones most likely to need access to AppleGuide and Balloon Help), didn’t realize that the question mark was a menu. The users I’ve talked to had the same reaction. Apple’s solution was twofold. First, the Help menu icon was replaced with the more sensible word, “Help.” Second, it was moved to the left side of the menu bar, where it’s grouped with other menus of the currently active application.

In general, I think this solution makes Mac OS easier to use. As a user, though, my preference is to return the Help menu to the right side of the menu bar. In Mac OS 8, the Help menu is shifted to the left or right depending on the width of the current application’s menus. It doesn’t make sense that menus common to every program change location. “File” and “Edit” don’t move around, so we always know where to find them. Remember, one advantage of Apple’s new distribution schedule is that it can be more responsive to user feedback. Tell them what you think.

Another change is important. Mac OS 8 has drop-down, Windows-style menus. When you click in the menu bar, the menu drops down and stays down even if you release the mouse button. Apparently this makes things easier for users with experience on other operating systems. The OS 8 team did an excellent job of adding this “feature.” Menus seem to be smart, in that they behave like System 7 menus if you pull them down and behave like Windows menus if you click and pause.

Contextual Menus

A bit late, I must admit, but contextual menus are finally here, and Apple has done an excellent job of implementation. When you control-click an icon in the Finder, or in any other program that supports contextual menus, a menu pops up under the pointer displaying a list of commands directly relevant to the selected object. This feature has been available on other operating systems for years, with one important difference: it required a two button mouse. The Mac’s single-button mouse has always been more accessible to new users, and it’s far more comfortable for advanced users. Plus, contextual menus are a nicety. You don’t need to use them; they just make life easier. So new Mac users won’t know about (or need to know about) contextual menus. This eases the learning process, and promotes the Macintosh way of gradually revealing new ways to accomplish tasks, letting the user decide which to use.

In addition, contextual menus are extensible, meaning that developers can write plug-ins to enhance the menus’ functionality. There are already a number of shareware plug-ins available, which do things like change the type and creator of the file, make it invisible, etc.

July 1997, Early AM

Probably the first thing you’ll notice with Mac OS 8 is the new look. The way the menus, popups, buttons, sliders, windows, and the rest of the user interface look in Mac OS 8 is part of the Apple Grayscale Appearance (also known as the Platinum Appearance). This is very similar to the interface make-over presented by shareware products such as Aaron and Kaleidescope, only it’s slightly different and more complete. The Finder’s new look, for marketing purposes, appears quite modern, but it hides what it really represents. You see, Mac OS 8 is the first release to ship with Apple’s Appearance Manager. You might have heard about the Appearance Manager in the context of Copland’s theme switching. Unfortunately, theme switching is missing from Mac OS 8 (one of the casualties of shipping on-time) but with the release of Appearance Manager 1.0, the groundwork for theme switching is in place.

The Theme Manager will ship with a later system software release, possibly Mac OS 8.2, but again, that’s not the main issue. What is significant is that the Appearance Manager is probably the single most important feature in Mac OS 8.

To programmers, the Appearance Manager represents a library of common Mac OS interface elements. Rather than writing individualized code to implement these elements, programmers can use standardized tools provided by Apple engineers via the Appearance Manager.

The Appearance extension (which is, incidentally, required in Mac OS 8) represents a lot for users, too. Programmers won’t waste time reinventing the pop-up menu or designing press-buttons, so they will have more time to work on the application software itself (adding features, bug-testing, shipping to the public sooner, etc.). Applications written using Appearance Manager controls will look like Mac applications. This is great because the “Mac look” is no longer as consistent as it once was, partially because developers each wrote their own interface elements in slightly different ways. The Appearance Manager gives developers a common set of tools to work with. This will should help revive a standard of quality in Mac interfaces. Finally, when the new Theme Manager ships, users will be able to switch themes as they’ve been told about since Copland was introduced.

Final Comments

Mac OS 8 represents a triumph for Apple, but not for the reasons you might expect. It is not “the ultimate Mac OS,” nor is it a “killer product.” Contextual menus and the Appearance Manager are the triumphs, along with spring-loaded folders and other Finder enhancements that I haven’t discussed. They are useful today. More importantly, they lay a foundation for future enhancements, while improving the Macintosh user experience. They lay the groundwork for greater things in the coming months and years. The promises of Copland have taken a long time to come to fruition, but pieces of the project have started to trickle in.

My main gripe is you can no longer set global Finder view options. This complaint is shared by everyone I’ve talked to who has used OS 8. This will be a perfect test of Apple’s iterative development approach - how well it responds to issues that users feel are important. I’m optimistic that something will be done, probably in Mac OS 8.01, schedule for September or October.

Not too far off in the future, Rhapsody promises to be a re-invention of the Copland-Gershwin plan, different yet equally worthy. Apple’s first developer release for Rhapsody will be late next month. These are exciting times.

We Have A Winner! was the first person to correctly identify the type and creator codes in last month’s Personal Computing Paradigm. Congratulations CatIncalif.

Here are the correct answers:
R*ch BBEdit creator
Dk@P DocMaker Stand Alone Document
ttro TeachText Read Only Document (also SimpleText)
CARO Acrobat Reader Creator
SIT! StuffIt Deluxe creator
8BIM Photoshop creator

[apple graphic] “The Personal Computing Paradigm” is © 1997 by Michael Tsai,

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