July 28th, 2006 • 2:28 pm
There was a much linked-to story on Wired Online the other day by long-time columnist Leander Kahney.
In his column, titled “Why I Love Apple,” he explained how pleasantly surprised he was to discover that, when you try to resize the “Date Received” column in Mac OS X’s Mail application, Mail doesn’t just truncate the listed dates when they no longer fit, but actually adjusts the date (and time) format depending on the column width.
If the column is not wide enough to display the full-length “July 28, 2006” date in full, then, instead of truncating the date string and replacing the cut-out portion with an ellipsis (“July 28…”), Mail automatically switches to the “05-07-28” format, which crams more useful information into a tighter space. (Mail continues to use “Today” and “Yesterday,” for the last two days, however, even when the date format changes for the older dates.)
As well, if the column is wide enough, Mail not only displays the date string in full, but the time of the day as well, which is of course used to determine the sort order for messages received on the same day.
It is indeed a nice little touch in Apple’s Mail program. But is it really worthy of a “Why I Love Apple” headline? Here’s what Kahney writes:
Not all of Apple’s products are like this, of course (Aperture jumps to mind), but most of them are. They generally display an astonishing — almost fanatical — attention to detail that makes them not just easy to use, but a pleasure.
The problem here is that, while this feature is a nice touch, it doesn’t quite make up for all the shortcomings in Mac OS X’s Mail application, which have been documented extensively here and elsewhere.
Yes, Apple does still pay attention to small details to a certain extent, but there is also no denying that the level of attention to detail in Apple’s products these days is no longer up to the level where it once was. There are numerous details in Apple’s products that are simply and persistently wrong and make you wonder just how much attention Apple’s engineers do pay these days.
Unfortunately, this column by Leander Kahney is symptomatic of how the mainstream Mac press these days has become completely disconnected from the reality of Mac computing in the Mac OS X era. These Mac columnists are still using the same old clichés (attention to detail, pleasure to use, etc.) without providing any kind of balanced analysis.
Why doesn’t Leander Kahney mention the table view selection bug in Mail, for example? Now here is a “detail” that deserves Apple’s attention, and yet has remained unaddressed for years, to the point that somebody has had to write a plug-in to fix the problem.
I am all for praising Apple when it does things right. But by failing to maintain any kind of balance in his column, Leander Kahney actually perpetuates the clichés about Mac users and their sometimes excessive enthusiasm for seemingly insignificant details. There are many things that are wrong in Mac OS X’s Mail, and in Apple’s products in general, and Mac columnists have a duty to report on problems as much as they are allowed to share their excitement.
Ironically, if Leander Kahney had really explored all the details of this particular situation, he would also have noticed—and noted—that Mail also uses a similar trick when the user adjusts the width of the “Subject” column. When you reduce the width of that column, if some of the subject lines no longer fit, before Mail starts truncating them, it actually reduces the character spacing, i.e. the space between the characters. You can see this in action in this screen shot:
If you look at the text in the “Subject” column carefully, you’ll notice that the space between the characters in the second subject line (the one starting with “Re:”) is actually a bit smaller than the space between the characters in the third line. This is because the text of the second line doesn’t quite fit in the chosen column width, but does fit if the character spacing is reduced.
Of course, if you reduce the column width even further, Mail does eventually start to truncate the text. But first it goes through this intermediate stage where it tries to reduce the character spacing as much as possible while preserving text legibility. When it can no longer reduce character spacing without affecting text legibility, then it starts truncating the text (and reverts back to normal character spacing at the same time).
This is another small detail that Leander Kahney could have noted, and would have given more weight (i.e. more factual basis) to his enthusiasm. But at the same time he should also have noted obvious problems such as the fact that, even after all these years, Mail is still unable to properly remember column view settings on a per-mailbox basis.
Or the fact that there still is a dead space between the button icon and the button text label in Mail’s toolbar which causes Mail to fail to register a click on the toolbar button when the click is in that particular area. (The click is interpreted as a click on the title bar background instead.)
If you are going to talk about details, let’s talk about details.