Aqua brings some calm to GUI surface

One of the most frequently voiced criticisms of the Apple Mac is that it is a computer for people who value form over function. This is not new.

One of the most frequently voiced criticisms of the Apple Mac is that it is a computer for people who value form over function.

This is not new; analysts at the introduction of the Mac in 1984 decried the presence of a graphical user interface because of its reliance on an "inefficient" mouse that offered little advantage to them over the clarity of a MS-DOS command line. Their conclusion was that once people got over the flashy graphics they would go back to using a more efficient approach. The reason they were wrong is because they couldn't understand the value of a human-centred approach to design.

Apple can and this is why, when Mac users are asked why they use one, they usually say that things "just work" or are "easier to use". On a hardware front, Apple has been doing a really good job of producing items that are designed carefully to enhance functionality and not just looks. Great examples of this include the iPod, the G4 iMac (with its "floating" LCD panel) and the Power Macintosh G4 case.

The software front has been a little more mixed since the introduction of Mac OS X's Aqua interface. To some extent working with Mac OS X since its first public release over two years ago has been like living in the home of an enthusiastic do-it-yourselfer who attempts to renovate every room of the house at once. Every point release of the operating system has brought refinements and outright changes that have shown good progress.

Unlike some, I do not believe the classic Mac OS was perfect -- far from it. In fact, despite a good 10 years of development from System 7, the interface hardly changed at all. Sure, the appearance was updated to have shades of grey instead of being black and white, and it gradually incorporated changes from third-party developers. But to me the changes never seemed as if they were part of a cohesive plan. Good examples include the Control Strip, the tear-off application menu, the traditional Apple menu and pop-up windows.

Aqua essentially does away with arbitrary add-ons in favour of a cohesive plan for the interface. Apple has produced a downloadable book called the Aqua human interface guidelines to help developers produce applications that are "good citizens in the Mac world" and offer the features hard-to-convince power users expect.

Yet it is the strangest thing in the world that the best examples of the Aqua human interface are in applications not produced by Apple.

It's not that most of Apple's applications don't look good. They do. Where they fail is with a lack of consistency in their interfaces that inhibits functionality and slows the user down.

Not only does Mac OS X's Finder provide an example of a badly written application in terms of performance, but it also provides a great little example of an inconsistent interface in its Zoom window function. Essentially, the Zoom button on a Finder window does something different than the Zoom window function on the Window menu. When bugs like these remain unfixed after more than 10 revisions of the OS you have to wonder what is going on.

Another example of a lack of forethought is the textured window appearance of Safari. The official Apple recommendation for the use of this is for applications that are single window, that provide an interface for a digital peripheral or for managing data shared with digital peripherals (iTunes, for example). Given that a web browser meets none of these guidelines, why did the Safari development team choose to use it? According to reports they simply did it because they felt Safari "looked better that way".

What Apple really needs is an interface tzar with teeth who could supervise interface development of any Apple product to make sure it lives within the spirit of the guidelines if not the rule.

After all, if I wanted to work in an OS where the interface changed in a seemingly arbitrary fashion, I would already be running Windows XP.

White is MIS manager at Cookie Time in Christchurch. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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