March 31st, 2004 • 12:14 am
I attended a day-long “Executive Briefing” organized by Apple Canada yesterday in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The event was an invitation-only type of thing intended for people working in the education field (both K-12 and Higher Ed) in the province. My colleague and I were invited as the main computer technology people at our provincial resource centre for the French-language school system (which uses mostly Macs). Other attendees included representatives from the regional schools boards and universities and colleges.
The sessions were quite good. They were intended to brief us on the latest technology offerings from Apple, including Panther, Panther Server, iLife ’04, the Xserve G5, etc. Such information would have been more useful for me a few months ago, before I started exploring things by myself as part of the process of setting up an Xserve (G4) for our resource centre. Now, of course, I already know much more about the Xserve and Panther Server. But it was still interesting and I was able to discuss a number of outstanding issues with the Apple representatives and do a certain amount of “networking”, as they say.
The one thing that I took from the sessions is that Apple really does have a clear vision of where it is going. In a nutshell, ever since Mac OS X was first introduced, the Apple’s goal has been to provide a smooth, fluid, and consistent interface for technological services and features that are essentially based on established (or, in some cases, emerging) open industry standards.
You can of course argue about how successful Apple has been in realizing this goal so far, but there is no denying that the vision is quite clear — and you could sense, in the presentations, that these people were quite pleased to be working for a company with such a clear vision.
This led me to think about these other two software juggernauts that are part of my daily computing life, i.e. Microsoft (with Office X) and Adobe (with the Creative Suite).
Microsoft is in the process of launching Office 2004 for Macintosh. They have been extremely unresponsive when it comes to answering the questions of many Mac users about how far Office 2004 would go in embracing core Mac OS X technologies that have been missing in Office X. True Unicode support and support for long file names (i.e. longer than 31 characters, extension included) are two notorious examples. Will Office 2004 provide such support? So far, the information provided by Microsoft fails to mention either Unicode or long file names. Instead, we are getting gobs of marketing speak about typically bloated new features with limited practical usefulness.
What does this tell me about Microsoft’s vision for its Mac OS X products? Well, mostly, it tells me that what Microsoft’s MacBU is mainly interested in is maintaining its profitability by focusing on marketing-friendly features rather than actual usability and user-friendliness. When I asked the Apple guys whether they knew anything more about support for Unicode or long file names in Office 2004, they had to admit that they knew just as little as I do, that Microsoft was extremely tight-lipped, and that their excuse for not including such features in Office X was, of course, that it came so soon after Mac OS X itself, at a time where developers didn’t necessarily have all the necessary information and tools to add support for such system features to their programs.
In other words, for almost three years now Microsoft’s excuse for not supporting such obvious features has been that, in 2001, they were focused on shipping a native OS X version of their product as quickly as possible after the release of Mac OS X itself. At the time, this was somewhat understandable (although it could still be argued that, had Microsoft not added so much bloat and proprietary stuff to Office over the years, it would probably not have been as difficult and resource-intensive for them to port the suite to OS X — but that’s another story). Interestingly, however, in spite of this focus on shipping Office X as quickly as possible as opposed to taking more time to add support for core OS X features, Microsoft managed to add support for dialog sheets. When you do a “Save As” command in a Word document, the “Save As” dialog that appears comes sliding out of the document’s title bar. Presumably, this is an OS X-only feature that was probably much easier to implement in their code than support for long file names…
The problem with this excuse is that, after three years, it is wearing very thin indeed. Between 2001 and 2004, there was nothing that would have prevented Microsoft from releasing interim upgrades for Office X free of charge to existing users that would have added support for such features. Other software companies did just that: They released a native OS X version of their Mac product as quickly as possible, and then gradually fine-tuned it by adding support for core OS X features in incremental updates made available for free to registered users. That Microsoft chose to adopt another route is, to me, a clear indication of where their priorities really are. They are not in addressing user needs. They are not in embracing Apple’s vision of providing a user-friendly experience in the use of established open industry standards. They are in maintaining their monopoly and constant marketing pressure by adding more and more new features of doubtful usefulness while failing to address the real needs of their users. What, in a Mac OS X product, is more fundamental than support for long file names? Why have we had to wait three years and possibly even more for this feature to finally be included in the product (and in a paying upgrade too)?
The Adobe situation is somewhat different. They too have had a tendency to provide very few incremental updates and force their users to wait for the next major (and paying) upgrade to have access to certain core features. (Long file names, for example, are finally supported in the Adobe CS suite.) But at least they didn’t make us wait as long as Microsoft did. And their new versions are not entirely focused on adding more bloat to their already monstrous offerings. For example, the return of the “Control” palette (familiar to PageMaker users) in InDesign CS is a clear indication that Adobe is listening — to a certain extent at least — to user demands for fine-tuning in their products. The “Control” palette is not exactly a “flashy”, marketing-friendly feature. It’s difficult to explain in a few words to the uninitiated and needs to be experienced in actual work to really appreciate its usefulness. In InDesign CS, Adobe has also clearly made a conscious effort to improve the performance, just like Apple is doing with every new version of Mac OS X, which is always faster than the previous one.
Interestingly, however, Adobe’s level of enthusiasm for small details that might help improve other aspects of the OS X friendliness of their products seems to be pretty low. For example, the CS versions of their products still do not include dialog sheets. Since Microsoft, in spite of its obviously difficulties in porting Office to OS X, did manage to include support for dialog style sheets way back in 2001, clearly that seems to indicate that it wouldn’t be too difficult for Adobe engineers to add support for them to their own products. So why didn’t they do so in the CS versions? I can only assume that their own priorities are not really in sync with Apple’s own vision (as described above) either. Dialog sheets might seem like a small issue, but it’s not a purely cosmetic thing: With them, you can continue to work in another document in the same application while a document window is waiting for your attention. The old “Save As” dialog box, on the other end, is modal within the context of the application, which means that, as soon as you’ve invoked it, you cannot do anything else in the application until you’ve dismissed it. There are several contexts that I can think of where you might want to access another document window while a “Save As” dialog sheet is open — in order to see the window title (i.e. file name) of another document, for example, before choosing the name of your new file.
In other words, here again, I am afraid that, here again, Adobe’s vision and priorities are a bit of a “hot and cold” proposition when it comes to Mac users. (The recent demise of FrameMaker is another clear illustration of this.) The situation is not as infuriating as it is with Microsoft, but it does come with its own share of bitter disappointment and frustration.