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Windows XP hits where Apple's Aqua misses?

Why is Apple's new user interface just prettier than the old one?

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Learning to live with Mac OS X I'm going to get a lot of stick for this, but it has to be said: Mac OS X's Aqua user interface isn't the revolutionary leap forward Apple thinks it is.

Believe me, I like Aqua. I didn't think I would, but it has grown on me. My initial concerns that ten years in the classic Mac OS groove would make the jump to Dock and Finder too far a leap quickly proved unfounded. To tell the truth, I even prefer it to Mac OS 9's Platinum look and feel now.

Aqua is cleaner and crisper than its predecessor. Its 32-bit colour and big, photorealistic icons are gorgeous, and its use of alpha channels to produce smooth drop shadows, translucent menus and inactive windows is impressive. You can't help but like the smooth, glassy buttons and widgets.

But that's the trouble, all Aqua does it tart up a fundamentally unchanged UI. It's like Quake and the Quake III Arena - id's latest looks phenomenally better than the first in the series but it doesn't really play any better.

Aqua does offer some improvements over Platinum. Attaching Save dialogs to the documents they apply to was a smart move, for example. Grouping OS X's equivalent of Control Panels into a single, extensible application was good, too. I particulary like Finder's new column view, which makes copying files from one folder into another a much quicker task. I also like being able to minimise windows into the Dock - much better than dragging them off the screen a la OS 9's Window Tabs feature or its Window Shade option - and hide applications at the push of a button. Docklings make a good alternative to OS 9's Control Strip. Personally, I hate the Dock's magnification gizmo, but I can see how some people would like it.

Aqua flows backwards

Then again, there are some backward steps. Getting rid of the application menu, for a start. Fortunately, Frank Vercruesse's fine utility, ASM, fills the gap very nicely, and I'd recommend it to anyone who keeps finding themselves moving the cursor to the top right of the screen to switch applications.

Marcel Bresink's TinkerTool is also an essential download for anyone who wants to make the most of the Dock. It activates some options Apple has mysteriously hidden away, including a blue triangle to show whichever application is in front and - best of all - makes hidden apps transparent. It also allows you to choose your own system fonts, providing a feature OS 9 users take for granted but oddly missing (until now) from OS X.

The window 'traffic light' buttons look cute, but they aren't as intuitive as Apple believes, and for any Windows user making the move to OS X, they're on the wrong side of the window. And why the heck doesn't maximise mean maximise? Putting a dot in the close button to signal that you've changed the document since you last saved sounds good, but since you're going to get an 'Are you sure?' dialog, is it really necessary? Actually, it is, but since it's not immediately obvious what the dot means, its questionable whether it's any use. Clicking on the green button should expand the window to fill the entire screen, allowing room for the Dock, and not some totally arbitrary window size. There's no point having it otherwise.

The point is, though, that Apple hasn't fundamentally rethought the 1980s' graphical user interface, it has just redesigned it. Under the hood, OS X is a giant leap ahead of the classic Mac OS, but Aqua is just one small step forward. A scroll bar is a scroll bar, no matter how cool it looks. Arguably, Microsoft did more to move its operting system's user interface between Windows 3 and Windows 95 than Apple has done between Platinum and Aqua.

Now here's the point at which I really piss off die-hard Mac fans: Aqua may look the bee's knees, but frankly, it isn't as innovative as Microsoft's upcoming Windows XP interface.

Flame on

Before the flames begin, let me just clarify that statement. I'm just talking about the user interface, not the technology that underpins it. OS X's Unix foundation is way ahead here (CNET agrees with me on this one, here). Aesthetically, too, Aqua wins hands down too. XP's Luna UI is just plain ugly. Microsoft has clearly been influenced by Aqua (heck, some elements look like they've been torn straight out of OS X) and its cool blue colour scheme, and such imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery. But the result is rather like what you'd get if you told a colourblind guy to copy a Monet: it's all loud, vivid colours. And, apart from some curver corners and alpha blending on menus and information panels, it's really just a colourised version of Windows 98's user interface.

So why do I think XP is more innovative than Aqua? It's not the way it looks, it's what it does to make the user's life easier. The XP user interface has evolved from being simply a graphical, visual way of issuing commands to a computer into a facilitator for many of the more complex tasks that users want to perform.

A case in point: XP's My Pictures folder, the equivalent of Photos in OS X's Documents folder, not only displays all the images as thumbnails, but provides a slideshow feature and various ways to preview the images the folder contains. Contrast that with Finder's simple one-file-only preview in its column view. My Pictures also contains its own list of picture-related tasks users can select with the click of a mouse, such as emailing them to someone and even compressing the image so the message doesn't take an age to send. All this without Photoshop and a knowledge of how how resolution and image size can change how big a picture file is.

File searches are integrated right there at the folder level, as are other tasks like renaming, duplicating or trashing files. Sure, you can do all these through menu bars and even contextual menus - XP is simply providing an alternative method that makes it more obvious what you as a user can do.

That damn talking paperclip's back

Microsoft has even integrated its Office Assistants into the XP user interface. Sure, they piss purists like me off, but I can see consumers really digging having Tamagochi-esque cartoon cats and dogs running around their desktops. If you don't believe me, just remember how popular After Dark's Bad Dog screen saver was five or six years ago.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I haven't spent weeks fiddling with the Windows XP beta release the way I have with OS X, and (before some smart-alec suggests I do) that I have not interest in migrating to Wintel. There may be plenty of inconsistencies and features that are just plain dumb in XP's UI, and there are some very disturbing issues emerging over how the new OS governs what you can and can't download or browse. What I'm saying is that, at some simple level at least, Microsoft has gone further than Apple to provide tools to make users, particularly inexperienced ones, get the most out of their operating system.

Now, is it just me, or do other people think that that's Apple's job?

Finder provides a perfect platform for Apple to make Aqua something more than a visual tool for moving files around. And I hope that, come this summer's Mac OS X coming out party, we'll not only get a much faster - Cocoa, please - Finder, but one that's radically more innovative than the prettily coloured file viewer it is right now. The Software Update Preferences Panels is definitely as step in the right direction - why should you find and retrieve updates when your system can do it for you? The customisable Finder button bar is a start, too, but it doesn't go far enough. Why can't we add aliases? Why can't we add AppleScripts? Why can't we add HTML pages as the backdrop to make dynamic folder views?

When Microsoft released Windows 95, all but the most blinkered of Mac fans realised Apple didn't have the monopoly on good user interface design. Please, Apple, don't let Microsoft convince the world it's got a better UI this time. You can kiss your consumer sales goodbye, if you do. ®

To be continued...

Related Links

You can find Frank Vercruesse's ASM 1.1 here
Marcel Bresink's TinkerTool 1.32a can be downloaded from here
For those of you looking for a powerful alternative to the Dock, James Thomson's shareware utility, Dragthing 4.0.2, available here, is worth taking for a spin round the block

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