Day: December 10, 2002

Interface uniformity

Steven Berliner Johnson writes on the contrast between Apple’s trend towards using specialized apps–iApps–to handle different media types, and Microsoft’s rumored move towards integrating everything into one do-it-all file manager. This sounds a lot like the BeOS file system, actually.

This is a false distinction, in a way. While iTunes (for example) provides a certain lens onto the files it manages, and a handy one at that, it doesn’t eliminate the value of a good file manager. Indeed, the current version of iTunes can help keep your music directory organized in the Finder–as long as you like it’s organization scheme–and there are scripts that can let you organize different, if you don’t. iPhoto is a program I don’t use at all because it doesn’t leave my photos in their original JPEG format–it merges a bunch of photos into a single monolithic file, which I don’t like. (Many people choose their e-mail client based on how it manages files as well.) I can certainly see how iPhoto would be useful, but I don’t like being locked in–it makes it easy, as long as you do things its way. (It only communicates with one photo-hosting website, also.) Umberto Eco once wrote that the Mac is “Catholic” in its insistence that there is one way to do things. This isn’t always true on the Mac (though with the Unix underpinnings, in some ways it is moreso now), but iPhoto is definitely “Catholic.”

Johnson writes

Consider the default layout of iPhoto, which shows you a broad mosaic of all your digital photos scaled to fit the size of your screen. If you have more than a couple hundred pictures, this means each image is the size of a thumbtack, but Apple includes a handy zoom tool that lets you instantly zoom in and out to focus on a particular batch of images. It’s much easier to find the photo you’re looking for by scanning iPhoto’s mosaic than it is to pore over document names in a directory overview. (It also happens to look very cool, particularly the zooming effect.)

Now, you could conceivably apply the iPhoto zoom to all your data: Turn on your computer, and you see a list of document titles and tiny icons; zoom in on one section, and a spreadsheet comes into focus or a Web page; zoom all the way in, and the document appears on your screen at normal size, ready to be manipulated. This would be an innovative approach to file management, but also a spectacularly inefficient one because a spreadsheet or a text document reduced to 5 percent of its usual size is indistinguishable from any other spreadsheet or text document. But it works great for photos.

Arguably, Apple did just that with the zooming Dock, which is supposed to act as a holding-pen for any document we want to keep handy but not active. And Apple has been justifiably criticized for this feature, for exactly the reasons Johnson mentions.

Johnson quotes Bill Gates, who says:

Right now when you use Windows, the way that you step through your photos, the way you step through your music, the way you step through e-mail or files, they’re all different. You have to learn different user interfaces, different search commands. … The idea of Longhorn is to have one approach, one set of commands that work for everything, including all of those things. And so the number of concepts you have to learn is dramatically less.

Gates is missing the point. If I want to find something, regardless of what program I’m in, there will usually be a text field with a Search button next to it. The problem isn’t so much that users need to learn different applications as it is that different applications may not implement common features (like Search) in a predictable, understandable way. There’s no user advantage to one massive application that provides all the lenses I could want onto my e-mail, my music, my photos, and my calendar. And there can be an advantage to applications that narrow the context.