Why Apple’s iOSification of OSX isn’t insanely great

Way back in 1985 I was seduced by Apple’s Lisa computer and started a career in the TMT industries. The Lisa was inspired by Xerox’s Palo research team, which created the first personal computer with a graphical user interface, the Alto, and then the Star workstation. The Lisa was a technical triumph, a commercial disaster, but it inspired the Mac, a cost-reduced version, and the rest is history. 

Xerox Star OS user interface

Xerox Star OS user interface

Not only did they innovate in terms of screen display, but vitally, they innovated in user input and interaction, using the now ubiquitous mouse. The mouse gave very fine precision control, so that bitmaps and vector drawings could be created, and eventually incredibly detailed 3D rendered worlds such as in the film Avatar. 

The first prototype of a computer mouse, as designed by Bill English from Engelbart’s sketches

The first prototype of a computer mouse, as designed by Bill English from Engelbart’s sketches

As a computer engineer, I worked on call logging and network management systems for BTS. At the time these were based on DEC PDP11 processors, PERTEC disk drives and DEC’s OS called RSTS, which if memory serves me correctly stood for Resource Sharing Time Sharing. It was of course a command line interface on a mini-computer – central processing with “dumb” green screen terminals.

It was as unlike the Mac as a user interface could be, but the other more mainstream “desktop” user interface was of course from Microsoft, MS-DOS, for the IBM personal computer. Many of you will remember this, but for those that don’t this is what it looked like: 

Note the date of this screenshot, 1989 some 5 years after the launch of the Mac.

Note the date of this screenshot, 1989 some 5 years after the launch of the Mac.

The problem with this interface was that unless you knew what arcane code to type, there was no clue as to how to get the computer to actually do anything useful. And if you mistyped these special codes, then all you got was an unhelpful error message.

But I digress a bit. The point is that set against a backdrop of computers where no thought at all had gone into making life easy for the user, the Mac’s interface shone out like a beacon, an insanely great product. There were other graphical user interfaces that followed, but they were all inferior. The resolution of the screens was one such area of weakness, and all seemed to be based on a command line underpinning – as was Windows 3.11 that was foisted onto the market in 1992. 

Original Mac user interface

Original Mac user interface

When Apple launched their revitalized operating system, OSX, the user interface followed the tried, tested and trusted desktop metaphor as popularized by the original Mac. Backwards compatibility was ensured by being able to run OS9 virtually, which meant that in essence, users could carry on as if nothing had changed, only migrating to the new OSX world when the applications they used had been ported.

On iOS

The next user interface revolution was triggered by Apple’s iPhone. Famously this ushered in the new era of “touch”. Steve Jobs made a great play of not having a stylus, users could use just their fingers to operate the new multi-touch device. And all was cool with the world: Steve said “Let there be touch” and so there was.

iWork doesn’t work

The iPad was simply an overgrown iPhone, and therein lie some problems. iPad has of course been tremendously successful, and if it works for you, that’s great. It doesn’t work for me because it’s so difficult to create content, and the cause of this problem is its greatest strength – the touch interface. 

Apple’s Pages in iOS on an iPad

Apple’s Pages in iOS on an iPad

This screenshot of Pages (Apple’s equivalent of Word) shows the elegance of the touch screen interface. Notice the lack of clutter, the use of white space between the various controls and the size of the controls. It’s designed this way because the device expects you to use your fingers to control it.

The problem I experienced was  trying to line up the on-page content – for example various objects in a diagram in Keynote (Apple’s equivalent of Powerpoint). As I couldn’t see what was happening directly under my finger, I couldn’t be certain that fine detail was as I wanted it to be. So while the iPad is wonderful for content consumption, I found it delivered a poor and frustrating experience for content creation, and having a computer focused purely on content consumption is ludicrous. It might as well be just a portable TV.

Due to the rampant success of iOS devices (by the way I love iOS as a phone interface), along with the decision to make iWork apps available on all devices, Apple have been seduced into porting the iOS design principles to the latest versions OSX version of iWork apps (Pages, Keynote and Numbers are Apple’s equivalent of Office). I call this process iOSification, and it results in products that make no sense, they simply don’t work. 

Here’s a screenshot of a slide I created as part of a video animation. This is the  fully iOSified iWork 2013 version of Keynote. As you can see, the control panel, or “Inspector”, not only overlaps the work area of the slide, but also extends to below the visible area of the screen, which means you have to scroll down to get at controls, which of course means you lose track of where the controls are, which means you become less productive.

The Inspector menu isn’t even tear-offable. It’s stuck there right over the work area, consuming about 25% of the work area. You can turn it off, so it’s not displayed, but there’s no convenient “Hide Inspector” button. You either have to remember a keyboard command, or you have to use a drop down menu option, all of which interrupts your workflow.

You can of course zoom out of the slide (or the page in Pages) and then zoom back in again, but this is also an inefficient way of working.

This is an appalling user interface.

By contrast, here’s the previous version of Keynote’s user interface, one designed for OSX, not iOS: 

Apple’s Keynote 09 on an OSX device, a MacBook Pro

Apple’s Keynote 09 on an OSX device, a MacBook Pro

The first thing you’ll notice is how small the control panel is – it still makes good use of white space, the controls aren’t crowded, but the whole thing is tightly elegant. This is because it’s designed for the primary interaction device of a laptop – a mouse (or trackpad) – the pointed of which takes up hardly any screen estate and provides a very high degree of precision.

You notice that as a result it’s hardly overlapping the work area at all (both views are the default view in Keynote, as close to the same magnification as I could make them). You might also notice that it’s a floating pallet, which means I can slide it nicely out of the way if it does obtrude into my work, or I can even slide it onto an external monitor.

So, iWork 2013 for OSX is a retrograde step and not an upgrade. It’s perplexing in the extreme that a company renowned for innovation and excellence in user interface design has made such a basic mistake. It’s probably the result of an introspective power play between iOS teams and OSX teams, rather than on focusing on what’s right for the customer.

The iOSification of OSX apps forces square pegs into round holes. Apple, Jonny Ive, Tim Cook, I implore you to look again at this strategy, understand better how your users use the different platforms you make, and refocus your efforts on making insanely great products.

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This was originally published @ www.silverbug.it