GarageBand 3: No support for Full Keyboard Access in startup window

Posted by Pierre Igot in: GarageBand, Macintosh
January 26th, 2006 • 10:31 am

This is the kind of stuff that just infuriates me. GarageBand 3 (part of iLife ’06) has a revamped startup window which appears when you first open it:

GarageBand 3 Startup Window

It illustrates the new emphasis on podcast authoring, etc. Fine.

But why on earth does it refuse to work with the keyboard? Why I am obliged to use the mouse if I want to press the buttons on this window?

Mac OS X comes with a built-in technology called Full Keyboard Access that is supposed to make Mac OS X applications more, you know, accessible. Some people are fine with using the mouse, but other people prefer the keyboard, either because they have a repetitive stress injury or simply because they are more comfortable with the keyboard. And Mac OS X fully supports this choice. Supposedly.

You go to the “Keyboard Shortcuts” tab in the “Keyboard & Mouse” preference pane, and there is an option for “Full keyboard access” (I guess the capitalization rules in Apple’s Style Guide are having some trouble getting attention in some Apple departments).

In that tab, you select the “All controls” option and then, from now on, all the controls (buttons, text fields, etc.) in Mac OS X windows can be accessed with the keyboard (with a combination of the Tab, Space, and Return/Enter keys).

Only this doesn’t work at all in the GarageBand 3 startup window. No matter how many times you press the Tab key, the blue halo that is supposed to appear and indicate what the focus is on never shows up. And no combination of keys works. You are forced to use the mouse.

Why does this infuriate me? Because:

  1. Full Keyboard Access is a system-wide technology provided by Apple. It’s supposed to make all Mac OS X applications more accessible. Granted, there are a number of third party applications that still don’t support the technology properly, including the Microsoft Office 2004 suite and the Adobe Creative Suite 2 applications. (And FileMaker Pro 8 still doesn’t support it either, even though FileMaker is a fully owned Apple subsidiary.) But GarageBand 3 is a brand new Apple application! In other words, Apple can’t even get its own engineers to fully embrace and support its own technologies! How on earth can we ever expect third parties to support them then?
  2. Full Keyboard Access used to more or less work in the startup window in GarageBand 2. It wasn’t obvious, because Apple’s engineers had somehow “forgotten” to ensure that the blue halo would show up properly around the big square buttons used in the main area of the window. The blue halo would only show up around the “Help” and “Quit” buttons at the bottom of the window. After you’d tabbed through those two, the blue halo would disappear and you would have to guess that the focus was now on the main square buttons. But at least it worked! In other words, GarageBand 3 is an upgrade that, instead of fixing the absence of the blue halo around the square buttons, actually eliminates proper support for Full Keyboard Access altogether!

How do such things happen? I suspect that it has to do with this new visual theme used in GarageBand and other iLife ’06, with the unified grey background and the flatter Aqua buttons. It’s yet another theme to contend with, and of course in the process of creating this new theme, Apple’s designers conveniently “forgot” to ensure that it was backward-compatible with essential existing technologies such as Full Keyboard Access.

It infuriates me because it’s yet another example of style superseding function. There has just been far too much of this happening at Apple in the past decade or so. (Just ask people with PowerBook G4 computers about AirPort reception.) It always seems to be the same story: One step forward, two steps backward.

We end up having to live with obvious flaws for years simply because Apple’s staff is not disciplined enough to follow their own rules and support their own technologies, and because the designers’ fancy and Steve Jobs’s trendy fashion sense always seem to have more power than legitimate usability concerns.

Meanwhile, we have frustrated Mac users such as myself submitting bug report after bug report, and nothing gets fixed. Worse still, new products come out, and instead of fixing the problems of the previous generation, they just introduce new ones or actually make things worse.

I know that I should probably be pleased that I am a Mac person and not a Windows user, because it would probably drive me crazy. The very few times that I have to use Windows PCs, I am always amazed at the number of basic interface flaws that I manage to encounter in the space of a few minutes of trying to use the software. Compared to this, of course, Mac OS X is a blessing.

But this doesn’t change anything to the fact that Apple itself is letting its own quality control standards slip. Just because they are not really getting any competition on the usability front from the PC side, doesn’t mean that they no longer have to pay attention to such issues!

OK, in the big scheme of things, the fact that you can’t use Full Keyboard Access in this particular window is probably no big deal, especially in light of the fact that it’s damn near impossible to use GarageBand without a mouse anyway. But there are just too many of these seemingly minor slips—small examples of carelessness that ultimately, cumulatively, give the impression that we’re just never going to get to the next level in terms of computer usability.

Can you just imagine how much less frustration there would be in our daily computing lives if all these “small” bugs and flaws were actually fixed once and for all? If established standards were, for once, applied consistently across all products? If Apple itself and all third party developers actually embraced the good technologies that already exist and are supposed to make our lives easier?

The way things are going, you have to wonder where the next user interface revolution is going to come from. If today’s software engineers can’t even follow today’s standards consistently, how can they be expected to come up with the next great thing, the next major usability improvement that will really make life easier for all of us?

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