Another year, another OS X point-update, and another host of UI changes to our “eye-candy of the year” operating system. In the Irate Scotsman tradition, here are a few preliminary thoughts on Panther - based purely on the screenshots now at apple.com.
The first glance we get at Panther is the now-obligatory “desktop” image. With iChat AV and the new Finder running, it looks more than ever like My First OS. I’m a big boy now!
Very bright and colourful, most certainly. But hidden in there (and not very well hidden), are some crimes against UI design. This is hardly surprising, since Apple has reinvented its User Experience department to sit somewhere between Microsoft and Fisher Price. Let’s take a look at some examples.
The Finder is metal. First it was slow and somewhat idiosyncratic, and now it’s metal. The Finder is a largely inescapable part of OS X, and even this inner sanctum has now had its sanctity profaned by the Macromedia Director nightmare that is Steve’s “cool” UI. Path Finder’s sales may be about to mushroom.
In Safari style, the new Finder also chooses to get rid of its (simulated) NSToolbar; it seems that we’re now to add custom “places” to the left side splitview, and that all actions are reserved for the Actions popup in the now-spartan NSSchizophrenicMetalNotQuiteToolbar. Great. Speaking of that side section, a marvellous innovation greets us in the shape of an Eject button to the right of every volume in the list. Yes, right there between the main file display area (where your mouse pointer currently is) and the names of the volumes (which you’re moving your mouse pointer rapidly towards). Can anyone see what’s going to happen on an annoyingly regular basis?
One possible saving grace of the new Finder, depending on your personal philosophy, is that we witness the return of labels. Fiona has wanted labels back since the day she first used OS X, but she’s still slightly disappointed: these labels only apply to the item’s names; they don’t tint the icons as they did in Ye Olde Days. Perhaps that’s a good thing. What isn’t a good thing, however, is the introduction of yet another custom control, this time used to set labels via a contextual menu: welcome to the world, NSSchizophrenicMultipleRadioButtonsSlider!
(Notice how it also uses the "menu item as label" blasphemy,
only this time the item is actually enabled.)
Now we come a concern I’ve harboured for some time. I was determined to remain silent, afraid of ridicule by the trendies, but Panther forces me to speak out at least: I fear the Creeping Roundness. It seems that everything is becoming rounded these days, and Panther does nothing to stay the tide. When selected (in icon view at least), filenames of files in the new Finder have a round-edged selection, looking much like events in iCal. This means that, for “long” filenames (which for me is just about every bloody filename, now that I finally have the ability to name files with impunity on Mac OS), the filenames will wrap onto a second line even sooner than before, because the round-ended selection consumes at least a couple of characters worth of space. Before long, everything will be so rounded that the entire UI will be rounded areas within rounded areas, and 70% of your screen-space will be wasted with empty, coloured semicircles. What’s wrong with a corner every now and again?
General UI changes
I can’t be absolutely certain, but I think tabs are gone. Oh but don’t get me wrong: the concept of tabs still exists, and you still have your NSTabView and what have you. The thing is, they no longer look anything like tabs. In fact, they now inherit the “split-button-bar” appearance which Apple has been using on apple.com for well over a year. Another stage in the saga of UI evolution: taking UI elements from web pages, always the last bastion of usability! When you visit an Apple product page, you’ll typically see a long bar at the top, split into button-sections, each section taking you to a related page (Tech Specs, Features, etc). Tab views in Panther now inherit this appearance, as evidenced in many of the Panther screenshots on the web, including the one below (the new tabs are the “Printing” and “Faxing” button-things).
As you can see from the shots, window titlebars are getting darker in Panther, and indeed are now quite grey. Whether that’s a positive change for all you colour-matching press professionals using your new copies of XPress (sorry, couldn’t resist; I mean, using your copies of InDesign which you switched to long ago), remains to be seen. I notice also that table-column headers have changed in appearance, and now look more varnished, as shown in the latest (and, of course, also armoured) Apple application, Font Book.
Apple just can’t seem to settle for one basic appearance for more than 6-12 months (or rather Steve can’t). OS X must constantly be the poster-child for groovy-gooey trendy software, and to hell with UI consistency or sensible design. The overall fallen philosophy of the New Power Generation of Apple HIGsters is perhaps best summed-up by Apple’s own Panther promotional blurb: Apple tells us that when using the new Fast User Switching feature to change users and restore state, the new user’s desktop spins into view as the old one spins out of view, both mapped onto the sides of a cube (a la Keynote). By way of justification of this feature, the paragraph is entitled simply “Because we can”.
It's not all bad
There are, of course, some genuine improvements in Panther, not just in terms of features, (where there are naturally many improvements and additions), but also in terms of UI. Let’s now briefly explore two of them.
I dare say that the visual complaint I’ve heard most often about OS X pertains to the Aqua striped-backgrounds of windows and other UI elements; the “Prison Stripes”. They seem to be retiring, if not completely gone. We see in the screenshots that NSToolbars now seem to have less pronounced stripes. Window titlebars now have a gradient rather than stripes, and menus (at least as evidenced by the Finder’s contextual menus) are now also a solid grey, with actual separating lines for separators, rather than the gaps we’ve had up to this point. I feel that the new menus look cleaner, and my code-tired eyes certainly won’t miss the noisy stripes behind so much of the UI. When it’s really late, and I’ve been coding for quite a while, I could swear that those things move.
Hot Lesbian Action
Is it just me, or did Steve always seem to have a slightly lascivious glint in his eye? Well, Panther now confirms that the big man is a bona-fide pornmaster. The new Exposé functionality (I can’t read that name without hearing Eric Idle saying “Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more!”) lets you hide all windows with a single keypress. Whilst Apple wants you to think of this ability as letting you “see the contents of your desktop”, we all know that it’s actually to help you prevent your mum from seeing the filth you’re viewing in Safari (or indeed Quicktime viewer, if you have broadband). Thus, F11 shall henceforth be known as The Porn Key.
Seriously, though, I think I’ll genuinely get a lot of use out of Exposé, particularly the system-wide window-choosing ability (F9). My dreams would be fulfilled if I could invoke this whilst dragging. You did know that OS X lets you command-tab during a drag to switch applications, didn’t you? Wonderful stuff.
And for developers...
Finally, for folk such as myself (well, fellow developers anyway), we have another triumph from the Ministry of Silly Names: Xcode. No doubt narrowly escaping galvanisation, Xcode brings us a new era in Cocoa development: Project Builder seemingly shall now be with us only in spirit.
Whilst it seems that Xcode wants a Cinema Diplay in order to now fit all your files, targets and everything else in a single list on the left side, it does bring us some tantalising features. We shall now have code-completion from the project index. Developers have always been divided on this feature, but I think we can agree that it’s great to at least give people the option. I’ll certainly find it useful for autocompleting some of the ridiculously-long names of my instance variables and methods (ahem).
More interestingly, Xcode supports Rendezvous-enabled distributed builds. This has the potential to be a massively important feature for professional software developers. With other IDEs, networked parallel builds is often a paid add-on if it’s even available, but Xcode will give it to us more or less for free - and with all the auto-discovery goodness of Rendezvous. Very exciting!
We’re also going to get “predictive compilation”, fascinatingly. Apparently, it precompiles changes you’re making whilst you’re still typing them, with a view to being able to build very quickly when you then save and invoke Build & Run. It had better not be too eager to compile everything I type, though, or it’ll constantly be thwarted by my habit of typing the name of a class just so I can option-double-click to see its documentation.
On the whole, I’m looking forward to getting a chance to play with the new version of the OS - but then I’m a geek, so that should go without saying. Panther, from this very incomplete early indication, looks to be another rev of OS X which includes a couple of nifty new utilities, some “that would be really useful” tweaks and improvements, and yet another host of UI nips, tucks and aneurysms. All in all, just another big cat from Cupertino.
(Oh, and for those market analysts and hacks out there: don’t read too much into this developing trend of naming OS revisions after endangered species. Thanks.)