|Saturday, February 3, 2007
11:21 - You can't learn instinct
Vista's got an uphill battle to fight. For the first time, a major Windows release is being covered by columns that—without exception—compare it to the Mac. Previous Windows versions could be described in a vacuum, whether on Windows-centric websites or on mainstream media outlets, and the readers would never hear that there's this thing called Mac OS X out there; or if they did, it was as an afterthought, like a tag at the end saying something like "It remains to be seen whether users will prefer this version of Windows or instead move to the competing Mac OS from Apple".
But the Vista coverage—even on MSNBC (via JMH)—is being written by journalists who simply can't ignore Mac OS X, or resist comparing Vista's features to stuff that the Mac has either had for years, is planning to bring out in Leopard, or has stubbornly resisted adding for its own seemingly inscrutable reasons. Love it or disdain it, Mac OS X is now the standard by which Vista is judged, not Windows XP.
Many of the raves about Vista are perfectly legitimate, as are the accompanying criticisms of the Mac: it's neat, for instance, that Windows will make all minimized icons "live" and continue to play in the Taskbar, not just QuickTime movies like on the Mac; I'm not sure how useful that is without Dock-style magnification, but it can't be denied that in the age of Exposé, in which everything is live as you sort through your windows, keeping minimized versions of running apps around as tiny little scaled-down live views instead of static icons ought to be a piece of cake.
I'm unclear on whether windows in the Flip 3D feature are live; it seems like they'd pretty much have to be. But it's a pretty good object lesson, too: Flip 3D is one of the best examples I've ever seen of Windows trying desperately to add a piece of functionality that the Mac has had for years, without making it look like they're blatantly copying it, and in the process managing to make it look better but work not quite as well. I mean, look: if your windows are stacked in a 3D representation, rather than all minimized side-by-side, you still can't see the contents of all windows at the same time, and you have to keep pressing Tab to flip between them. Without Tabbing, you have to rely on the relative sizes of the windows and the appearance of their title bars and edges if you want to pull one out of the stack; whereas with Exposé, there's no gratuitous flash, but there's also no need for Tabbing. you just see which window you want and click on it.
This is what's fascinating to me, though: tech journalists aren't just falling for the flash, like they might have done in the past. They're not saying Flip 3D is better than Exposé. They're saying it's almost as good. Similarly, they're not saying Gadgets are better than Dashboard—they're saying they're similar, and that they kinda prefer how Dashboard (and Yahoo/Google Widgets) work. Because they're not just relying on the Mac's screenshots before making their judgment (like I am, heh). They're basing it on first-hand knowledge... because they've all used the competition now. And in many cases prefer it.
The author of the MSNBC piece frames the whole discussion in an "I prefer Apple's industrial design and general OS atmosphere, so I switched back to the Mac" narrative, so I'm not going to pick his story apart or anything. I think it's interesting to see where he found Vista to be superior, namely in its ability to present more data in-context more effectively, like photo and music icons in Explorer windows. I'm not going to argue with that—we all know the Finder could stand to be improved, never mind the arguments that I would use to defend iPhoto against his criticism that it can't display photos in "folder" views (iPhoto is explicitly supposed to be a complete and unified interface that's divorced from the files-and-folders metaphor entirely, so you don't have to think about what folders your pictures are in—it's designed to operate on new photos you take with a date-stamping camera. if you have a folder full of preexisting images, you can make an album to hold them, just like a folder. But keeping the "folders" metaphor out of iPhoto is meant as a favor to users who don't normally think about dragging photos off their camera and putting them in folders in the first place; if you don't do that, iPhoto is a cleaner and more elegant concept).
Here's what gets me, though. Despite Microsoft's recent spate of petulant claims that all the whiz-bang-go-fast features in Vista and in Mac OS X Tiger were actually Microsoft's ideas and Apple just somehow managed to get them to market cheaperfasterbetter, it seems clear to me that these features in Vista can only have been implemented by people who don't understand what it is they're designing. They know what they have to measure up to, but they don't have new ideas of their own. They can always do more or shinier, but they just don't have the innate sense of why you do something. Case in point being the User Account Control feature described so illustratedly in this InformationWeek article:
With Mac OS X, if I need to make a change to a system setting or install software in a location that I don't have read/write access to, I have to authenticate to perform that action. For example, I want to change my IP address for my wireless connection, and my system is set up to require authentication to do such things. With the details expanded, I have a fair bit of information. First, I have to know the password of an administrator user for that machine. If I don't, then even physical access isn't enough; I can't unlock that preference pane. Second, I know the right it wants me to authorize: system.preferences (although I may not know what that means, it's there at least), and I know which application is requesting that right.
If I attempt to perform the equivalent action in Vista, I don't actually have to "authenticate" anything. There's no need for a password. Anyone sitting at this computer can take this action. What you see for UAC as an administrator is basically a dialog that says, "You want to do this?" I don't get any information about what I'm asked to approve -- all I get is a really long GUID-type number that's of no use whatsoever.
That illustrates the three worst aspects of UAC and why I think it's going to be called "User Annoyance Control." You get what is essentially an "OK/Cancel" dialog that most users will hit "OK" for without thinking, you may or may not get useful information as to what is going on, and you get locked out of your system until you deal with this. I have a problem with seeing how annoying people is enhancing security. When I say "annoyance" I really mean "infuriate," because you get UAC dialogs all over the place, and you're never sure when or why you're going to get them.
I hesitate to overuse the term "cargo cult", but sometimes it's just inescapable. What was that line about how those who don't understand UNIX are doomed to reinvent it, poorly?
Vista sure does look pretty... though, really, it is still Windows, so it's not going to do away with any of the classic Windows behaviors and metaphors like the Start Menu or the per-application menus, which frankly makes me just as happy—if modal menus or the Start Menu started being cross-platform workalike features I'd consider it as much of a loss to computing's genetic diversity as if the British and American accents were to converge and strip English of its endearing variability. But it also means that the Windows desktop metaphor is getting pretty fragmented. There's never really been a coherent and obvious path to take through the system—the "start at the top and scan down like you're reading a sheet of paper" thing never really made sense on Windows, and now with the Gadgets stuck to the right and the Flip 3D feature playing havoc with the metaphor of the "desktop", and with apps like IE7 now doing away with the traditional text-based menu bar entirely and replacing it with a few pictographic menus stuck to the right side of the toolbar, Windows has become a metaphor unto itself: rather than trying to emulate anything people are used to in the non-computing world, it's able to just assume people know how a computer works, and take off into the virtuality from there.
I'm unsure how this will impact users. Probably not much. It's all a concession to the reality that however much computing interfaces have sucked in the past, that's what we're used to now, so we'd better make the most of it. It certainly doesn't promise to break any new ground in usability; and as this Time article points out, some of the features that are going to be the most beneficial to users are the mundane ones that should have been implemented right in the first place, like sleep controls. The rest is just kinda ho-hum, especially after you've spent your five minutes playing with the translucency effects and sit down to start actually using the thing on a day-to-day basis.
The journalists reviewing Vista seem to keep coming to the conclusion that while it looks awfully pretty, it doesn't really do much to make computing any better of an experience, and the Mac—whose once-mind-bogglingly-glitzy interface now looks rather austere by comparison—seems to be all about getting down to efficient business and keeping your life in order over the years, whereas Vista jumps up and down trying to get you to pay attention to it, like a wrinkled ex-hipster in disco threads rocking out at a rave. Vista illustrates nothing so much as how less really can be more. I hate to sound like such a partisan, because really I'm glad to see that Microsoft is trying, and a great Vista would mean a greater Mac OS X in the future; but Apple seems to have won over the critical pundit market—which, though it doesn't exactly represent the computing world as a whole, is sure to have a pretty big impact on it. People are seeing in Vista that this is what we've been waiting for all these years, and... it's just kinda "okay, so what next?" I mean, if even the Penny Arcade guys are Vista-doubting Mac people now (you need to catch up), then Windows has been relegated—just like in the ads—to the older generation, the unhip, the workmanlike, the unintentionally nebbishy that tries so hard to be cool that it just embarrasses itself.