Has Apple finally lost the plot?

Macs have always had a loyal following because they are so user-friendly. Now, however, the faithful are spooked. The new generation hardware looks great - from the iMac to the 'supercomputer' G4 - but is design beginning to take precedent over functionality?
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If you could hold Apple's QuickTime4 Media Player in your hand, it would be a neat gadget - brushed metal surround, palm-sized screen in the middle, thumbwheel for volume on the left, sliding drawer at the bottom to hold your audio/video clips and "channels" to Internet sites with streaming data. People would glance over your shoulder and covet it.

If you could hold Apple's QuickTime4 Media Player in your hand, it would be a neat gadget - brushed metal surround, palm-sized screen in the middle, thumbwheel for volume on the left, sliding drawer at the bottom to hold your audio/video clips and "channels" to Internet sites with streaming data. People would glance over your shoulder and covet it.

Unfortunately, though, the Media Player isn't real. It sits on, or in, your screen, uselessly swallowing up screen real estate. Who cares about simulated brushed metal surrounds? Let's have a bigger screen.

The whole thing, along with glimpses of Apple's next-generation operating system, called OSX, has the Mac faithful spooked. They have begun to murmur that maybe Steve Jobs knows a lot about eyecatching hardware - the iMac, the iBook, the "supercomputer" G4 - but maybe he has taken his eye off the ball when it comes to software?

Apple has started shipping OS9.0, the latest version of its operating system, which like the 8.5 version, will run only on the newer RISC-powered PowerPC Macs, rather than those powered by Motorola 68000 chips.

OS9 has a host of interesting new features, including multiple users, voice recognition of passwords, fast encryption, Internet searches, and slightly faster operation. Many of these are features that Windows users might welcome.

But Macintosh users are more worried by the inclusion of QT4, with its strange "feel", and the extension of that design to other facets of the Mac interface. This interface has 20 years of hard work behind it, so one would think that Apple had it off pat. In fact it does, in the form of itsHuman Interface Guidelines (HIGs), which specify to programmers how programs should lay out the windows and what commands should do what.

The HIGs are very annoying for programmers new to the platform but very comforting for Apple users. (Cmd-W always closes a window, Cmd-Q quits the frontmost program, Cmd-F is for find, and so on.)

Except that now Apple is ignoring its own guidelines. The Media Player just doesn't look right. Since its launch in April, it has garnered howls from the Mac faithful and entered the Interface Hall of Shame at www.iarchitect.com/shame.htm (where it sits among such pearls as the helpful Windows NT dialog box which says "Error: the operation completed successfully"). It has earned its own Fix QuickTime4 page, seeking a petition to get it changed back to something more like QuickTime3 where the controls seemed designed for a computer user not a gadget owner.

The unkindest cut of all came from Bruce Tognazzini, who founded the Human Interface Group at Apple. He's not there now, which may be why he felt able to say that "in the hands of an amateur, slavish fidelity to the way a real-world artefact would act is often carried way too far... I suspect you will see a lot more ego-driven design before things get better".

Ego-driven design? Who can he mean? There are rumours that Mr Jobs, the "interim" chief executive at Apple, had plenty of input to the design of the new QT4 interface. In an interview with Time magazine recently, he recalled that Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera, said: "I want Polaroid to stand at the intersection of art and science". Mr Jobs commented: "I've never forgotten that. I think that that's possible, and I think a lot of people have tried."

Mr Jobs is also keen to establish an eye-catching brand identity for Apple's software, as well as its hardware. He likes the way that Sony, for example, has created such an image for itself in its handheld products. Clearly, that message has been passed to the interface design team. But the protests over QT4 caused no change. And meanwhile, in OS9, the "gadgety" feel includes other parts of the operating system, too. Sherlock2, an enhanced search facility, has this disadvantage - you can't reduce the window to a title bar with a single click, which is a step backward in functionality from OS8, introduced in September 1997.

Apple's reviewer guide describes this as "engaging, functionally oriented design". The new DVD-enabled iMacs come with DVD Player, a program whose principal interface looks like brushed metal and is, of all shapes, circular. Circles are not good interface design because the closer you are to the centre of a circle, the less margin you have for error in pointing. With a rectangle, the margin for error stays constant over a larger area of your target.

Even iMovie, the home movie-editing suite now provided on high-end iMacs, has the QT4 interface. It is worrying; it does suggest that usability, long the staple of the Mac, is being left behind in order to come up with something that looks new.

But any worries over those subtle changes pale in the face of the naked terror evinced by some early demonstrations of "Mac OSX Client", to give the supposed successor to Mac OS9 its full title. This is the program that will run on newer Macs, and is expected some time next year.

At a conference for Apple software developers in the summer, Mr Jobs said that Mac OSX would have a "brand-new" Finder (the program which gives the Mac its user interface). One person at the conference reported: "The new NeXTStep-based Finder will support viewing contents of local volumes or remote directories by icons above a results window. Frequently accessed folders, whether stored on a local volume or over a network, can be parked on a "shelf" for easy access; Steve Jobs used the analogy of a car radio's tuning buttons."

Car radio buttons? You can see why people are feeling worried. The suggestion is that Mac OSX will look like and run very like Unix, with its hierarchical file structure and three-letter suffixes denoting files' properties and origins.

Mr Jobs's presentation was met with silence. Perhaps that spooked him. Certainly, OSX Client has not been seen in public since. And given that operating system upgrades are believed to have earned Apple about $25m in the past year, it would be a disaster if users avoided the next version because they didn't like it.

Mac OS history

March 95: Mac OS version 7.5.1 released.

August 95: Microsoft's Windows 95 released for PC.

March 96: update to Mac OS version 7.5.3.

September 96: update to version 7.5.5 - later called the most bug-plagued version of the MacOS ever.

April 97: release of 7.6.1, one of the most stable Apple operating systems.

September 1997: Mac OS8.0 released. A significant step forward.

January 1998: release of 8.1 update, the last version which can run on older 680x0-based non-PowerPC machines.

June 98: Microsoft Windows 98 released.

September 98: Mac OS 8.5 released. Runs only on newer PowerPC-based machines. Adds "Sherlock" Internet search feature and numerous enhancements. The developers' notes on the website take up 85 pages, compared to the 10 or so of previous OS releases.

May 99: release of OS8.6, which uses less energy while adding various tweaks. Said to be the pre-condition for the release of the iBook, because its lower battery use would prolong the iBook's usability.

October 99: OS9.0 release.

Early 2000: OSX for users scheduled. Windows 2000 (over)due.

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