Why I like Apple

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh, Mail
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:

Narrow Subject column in Mail

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.)

Etc. etc.

If you are going to talk about details, let’s talk about details.

6 Responses to “Why I like Apple”

  1. ssp says:

    Hm, being the negative person that I am I would have written a paragraph on the same details with the heading ‘Why I hate Apple”.

    Because, um, smartly resizing dates haven been there for ever. The Finder’s column view has had it in many Classic Mac OS versions.

    What is really upsetting about the situation in Mail is that you can carefully adjust your date column to be narrow and then Mail will just resize everything when you do a search via Mail’s search field. After the search is cancelled (i.e. the search field is cleared), you original column widths aren’t restored and the wide date column is back. I’ve hated Apple for this one pretty much on a daily basis since the X.3 days…

    cf Radar # 3521147 if you can.

  2. sjk says:

    After the search is cancelled (i.e. the search field is cleared), you original column widths aren’t restored and the wide date column is back.

    Searching also seems responsible for the horizontal splitter bar between the message list and preview panes to sometimes forget its original location. And it’s tricky dragging that splitter bar so the message list is correctly centered without truncating the top and/or bottom row of characters. It needs a “snap-to-fit” behavior or something that makes it easier to select the desired number of rows in the message list, and not forget that setting.

    Pierre might be able to describe that better than I did. :-)

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    It’s true, I hadn’t noticed that the date format changed in the Finder in list view too. I guess it really is not even remotely new.

    That said, I wouldn’t go as far as to title my post “Why I hate Apple.” Because then people would complain again that I am being too negative :).

    The truth is that Mail is a decent mail client, but could use a lot of work, because there are many so-called “details” that are just wrong.

    The disruption caused by a search is one glaring example. It’s just unforgivable. It’s like Apple is completely focused on maintaining a single-window interface at just about any cost. I would much prefer a separate search results window, especially since I don’t use the message preview pane at all myself and am used to opening and viewing single messages in separate windows (although obviously the search feature also causes disruption for those who do use the preview pane). But it doesn’t look like Apple cares much about my preference in that respect anyway.

    I guess such “details” simply are not on the mainstream Mac press’s radar.

  4. Andrew Aitken says:

    Apple’s problem is that because their OS’s have a history of having wonderful useful little details in it – people get used to having it, and complain when the details aren’t right ;-)

    I cannot imagine anyone discussing such small bugs on a site regarding any other OS, and that shows what high standards Apple works to.

    Sure these are legitimate issues, and hopefully they will be fixed – but overall Mail.app is a pretty good mail client, and is certainly better than the competition.

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    I think people have a right to complain and demand better products. And I think Apple has to accept that its users are demanding users. On the other hand, I never forget that things could be much, much worse. That’s why Apple is still getting my money, after all these years.

    But they really do need to make a moo-less MacBook. :)

  6. Simanek says:

    Apple definitely gets a lot right. Take a look at any DELL laptop and all of the external buttons and grills. Just ugly in my opinion. And even if I move to Linux I’ll always miss the elegant placement of the Apple Command Key. They certainly considered where your thumb would comfortably be so that you could easily hit the other necessary key. The ‘Control’ key on PCs and its parallel function to the Apple Command key on Linux and Windows is completely awkward.

    However, I agree that those little details leave us wanting even greater quality and logic as we become more sophisticated computer users. Maybe some of the details are slipping in OSX as you said, but Apple has never provided a more stable and competitive system (even if you are, no doubt, a huge fan of System 7). I guess in hindsight, if I would have known as much as I do about Windows and Linux back when I was a Mac zealot using OS9, I probably would have come to the conclusion that Apple was junk aside from all of the great little details. Actually, I probably would have said the same about Windows considering what an improvement 2000 and XP are over their predecessors. Anyway, I try to keep all of the system crashes, PRAM resets and preference errors of OS9 in mind whenever I feel like bitching about OSX. Except the Finder. There’s no reason that shouldn’t be at least as functional as any Linux file browser. :)

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