Apple just announced Mountain Lion, the 10.8 version of the Mac operating system, scheduled for delivery in late summer of this year. I dutifully installed the developer preview; it works, mostly (see here for PCMag’s list of notable features, and here for a quick video tour.). More important is that less than a year after the introduction of OS X 10.7, we now have two data points and can draw a line…and the slope confirms our expectations: Mac OS X begat iOS but, now, iOS fathers Apple’s Unified User Experience.
iOS leadership came about for two reasons.
The iOS platform overtook the OS X platform in under four years, and more iOS devices were sold in 2011 (156 million) than all the Macs ever sold (122 million).
No one, Apple execs included, expected such an explosion. But here we are: The son of OS X is now the Big Daddy and everything else must line up behind it. Imagine an alternate universe in which Scott Forstall, Apple’s iOS czar, hadn’t won the decision to pick a version of Mac OS X as the software engine for the iPhone. (Scott is also the “father” of Siri. He convinced Jobs to buy the company and to put substantial resources behind it after the acquisition.)
Just as important, iOS provides a fresh (or “fresh-ish”) start. iOS is a rebirth, rid of (many) sins of the past. Because it must run on less of everything — RAM, MIPS, screen, power –engineers were “forced” to shed the layers of software silt that accumulate inside any OS. This gave iOS designers and coders the opportunity to rethink the User Experience (UX), and to pass these ideas back to the Mac.
As examples: The multi-finger trackpad gestures, inherited from iOS, are welcome additions to OS X, they help us find our way in a maze of application windows. So are the full-screen apps with their felicitous and subtly size-conscious ways of hiding and revealing menubars and the Dock. The animation may differ between the smallest 11.6” MacBook Air and a large 27” screen, but physically it feels the same.
Under the hood, we discern an iOS-inspired ways of installing and uninstalling applications. In another trick learned from iOS, Lion manages application state from fully on to fully off and, more interestingly, various levels of readiness in between.
[For an in-depth and opinionated discussion of the technical aspects of OS X Lion -- including glimpses into the Mac’s possible future -- you can spend $4.99 on Mac OS X 10.7 Lion: the Ars Technica Review. It’s available in Kindle e-book form, but not as an Apple i-Book. You can also turn to Fraser Speiers’ lucid discussion of iOS multitasking here, with videos here.]
In 2007, while clearly coming from the same company, the Mac and the iPhone had markedly different UXs. The phone’s small screen was the biggest reason for the differences. When the iPad came out in 2010, some folks joked that the new device was simply a Brobdingnagian iPhone, perfect for the fat-fingered. But the size-appropriate translation of the iOS UX onto a much bigger screen hinted at things to come…and, indeed, later that year Apple announced its intention to further adapt iOS user interface ideas and fold them into the Mac.
If the Mac is a now-traditional personal computer, the iPad is a more personal one, and the iPhone is really personal. (This should please Messrs. Ballmer and Shaw at Microsoft. According to their hymnal, there is no shift to a post-PC era, it’s turtles, err… PCs all the way down to smartphones.)
For a company that prides itself on simplicity and elegance, it only makes sense that Apple would offer a consistent UX across all its devices, a GUUX, a Grand Unified User Experience. Apple customers should be able to move easily and naturally from one device to another, selecting the best tool for the task at hand. Add another unification, iCloud storage services, and Apple can offer more reasons to buy more of its products.
It’s a lovely, soothing theory.
In reality, the Grand Unification isn’t there yet. We still face antiquated limitations, bad bugs, aging applications, and capricious flourishes.
Let’s start with the menubar at the top of the OS X screen. It worked well on the original Mac with its small screen and lack of multitasking, but on today’s 21.5’’ or 27” displays and the many applications they contain, the menubar is bad ergonomics and leads to confusion. Novice and experienced users alike are often misled: If you unintentionally click outside the app window, the menubar at the top of the screen becomes associated with another app, or with the Finder:
On apps such as Pages, it gets worse: You have to deal with two menubars, the one inside the app window, and the one at the top of the screen. Why does Apple cling to this antiquity?
(Friends tell me that it would be difficult to move the top menubar into the app. Perhaps…but more difficult than moving from the undebuggable OS 9 to the Unix/NextStep-based OS X?)
In Microsoft’s Windows, each app window carries its own menubar, there’s no need to move to the top of the big screen to access the File menu, there’s no confusion about the context of your action. Furthermore, when you close an app’s last window, the app quits. Apple recently started doing something similar, but it’s apparently limited to a few utility programs; big apps don’t quit when their last window is closed.
Why not take a few good ideas from Windows?
Moving to bad bugs, the Mac’s Mail app is still an abomination, an app that was either poorly architected or poorly implemented or both. It keeps quitting or freezing on my machines. All on its own — meaning with no prodding by this user — Mail will spin the dreaded beachball for tens of seconds. Is it talking to itself?
Another of my favorite apps, Preview, will suddenly lose part of its mind:
With the Mountain Lion announcement, Apple execs tell us that OS X is now on a once-a-year release regimen. Great…but what about iWork apps? When will they be updated?
I have a long list of iWork bugs, and some are really embarrassing. Take a simple Numbers graph and copy it into Pages:
Works fine…but it loses its title and legend when copied into Word. It must be Microsoft’s fault, right? No, the same thing happens when the chart is moved to Apple’s own Preview:
(When I tried it again, just to make sure this wasn’t a “luser” error, Preview crashed on me.)
Speaking of Microsoft Word, the US version knows the punctuation rules for both US English and French. Not my version of Pages…which is why I have to keep Word around.
Some apps aren’t merely not improving, they seem to be going downhill. The Lion version of Address Book made it harder to manage multiple books, and the app ignores some of Apple’s own UI conventions, such as double-clicking at the top of the window to minimize it.
I’ll finish this litany with Apple’s skeuomorphic flourishes. This apparently is a new fashion: Make computer objects look more like the “real” thing in order to provide familiarity. Sometimes, as with the faux stitched leather and bits of torn paper in the iCal app, familiarity breeds contempt:
The Address Book is even worse, I won’t reproduce it here.
Sure, a good UX needs to extend a welcome mat, but we don’t need extraneous, functionally pointless simulacra of the physical world. Perhaps these details are just a case of brainstorm hysteria in Cupertino: “Idea: Put a rod and hoops at the top of each window, hang drapes on the side and give users a choice of styles!”
Let’s end on more measured notes.
- Bugs and brain flatulence aside, a Grand Unified UX is the right idea. Who will argue against making it easier to move from one Apple device to another? Especially when using fresh and successful iPhone/iPad constructs as the model.
- Lion and Mountain Lion are transitional versions, and the awkwardness shows…but they’re moving in the right direction. Mountain Lion, even in its buggy preview form, shows a large number of nice improvements over Lion.
- It’s been a very long time – three years — since the latest iWork release. But this lull is very likely due to Apple’s focus on the first set of iOS releases. Sooner or later, we’ll see a fresh iWork that cures the most glaring bugs — and that makes OS X and iOS file formats more compatible.
Lastly, having spent a little more time with Mountain Lion, I hope we’ll get the newer version of Safari ASAP. At the top of the list of neat improvements: we’ll be granted the ability to search directly from the URL bar. Yes, finally, just like Opera, Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer…
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