Apple’s WWDC 2006: Looks underwhelming from here

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
August 8th, 2006 • 2:57 pm

With my dial-up connection, I haven’t been able to check out the Leopard preview pages that consist of large QuickTime movies yet, but on the whole, the feature set of the forthcoming Mac OS X 10.5 looks rather underwhelming.

The Time Machine feature is a welcome addition, since so few people actually have proper backups of their files. But if people don’t buy an external hard drive, they’ll still only have their internal hard drive with all kinds of versions of their files on it, and a single hard drive failure will still mean that they lose everything. I already use several different hard drives and do automatic nightly backups on them with SuperDuper!, so personally I won’t actually have much use for this feature. (I rarely have to retrieve an older version of a file that I might accidentally have deleted.)

The current user interface for Spotlight in Mac OS X 10.4 is so bad that it’s not funny. Yet, there is little indication in the preview of the improved Spotlight in Mac OS X 10.5 that Apple takes any of the current concerns really seriously. Searching on networked computers? No thanks. It’s already painfully slow when searching just on my hard drives… Boolean searches? Can already be done with raw queries. Doubt very much that the new Spotlight will be much better. Search “using specific file attributes — author, type, or keyword, for example“? Isn’t this already possible with the current (admittedly atrocious) interface. The MacInTouch report also mentions “pre-population of the Spotlight window with recent items, so the file the user wants will often be listed immediately, with no search required. Apple’s press materials also claim that Spotlight will be faster and offer richer previews.” So yet more claims that searches will be “immediate”… Sounds to me like Apple is still refusing to acknowledge that the current “search as you type” behaviour is utterly absurd and needs to be turned off for good. And there is no indicate that the user interface for search results will be any better than the current one. Spotlight needed a complete UI revamp, and it doesn’t sound like we’ll be getting one.

I suppose that the Spaces feature (yet another Apple product with a pathetically generic name that will make text-based searches impossible) will be a useful improvement in some situations, but it hardly sounds revolutionary. In fact, the preview page claims that you’ll be configuring your “Spaces” by “visiting the Dashboard and Exposé preference pane in System Preferences.” So the feature won’t even come with its own preference pane. It seems to demonstrate an utter lack of imagination in terms of UI design.

The new iCal might have several significant “under-the-hood” improvements, but the user interface itself looks identical to the current one—with all its fundamental flaws. After several years of having to endure the current interface, it looks like it’ll be more of the same for the foreseeable future.

The same thing can be said of Mail. So Steve Jobs is getting tired of sending himself email notes? Big deal. Real Mail users in the real world are just hoping to get decent performance and a proper interface for managing tens of thousands of archived emails. Instead, we get “30 professionally designed stationery templates.” Yet more crappy HTML email! Grrrrreat.

More generally, it’s really on the user interface front that things are most disappointing. There’s no real breakthrough, no major revamp, no new direction. What we get is essentially stagnation. I am not particularly interested in change for change’s sake. But clearly when RSS support is hopping from Safari to Mail and To-Do notes from iCal to Mail, that’s a sign that this application-centric model that we’ve been using for the past 20 years is finally showing its age, isn’t it? So maybe it’s time to try and break the mould… But I am afraid it won’t happen as long as Steve Jobs continues to listen to nobody but himself.

Elsewhere, Microsoft unsurprisingly terminates Virtual PC, a few years after having bought it from Connectix. Fortunately, other companies with far fewer resources appear to be making great strides, with products such as Parallels Desktop… (Boot Camp will be included in Mac OS X 10.5, but it will be the same as it is now, i.e. a feature that requires a reboot.) But what does that tell you about the capabilities of the Microsoft Mac BU when it comes to meeting new technological challenges?

While they are in cutting mode, Microsoft are also eliminating Visual Basic support from Office applications, which means that I can just throw all the lousy macros that I’ve painstakingly written over the years to try and make Word half usable out the window… Thanks, Microsoft! I am sure your AppleScript and Automator support will be terrific. You have such a great track record of supporting other people’s technologies, don’t you?

On the hardware front, the Mac Pro is mostly surprising in its enclosure, which is nearly identical to the existing G5 enclosure. Of course, it’s a great enclosure to begin with, and the Intel processors require less cooling than the G5, so there’s more room for other stuff. But it still shows a somewhat surprising lack of imagination and progress. The first tests posted by MacInTouch today indicate that it’s a pretty fast machine, but probably not quite as fast as Apple claims in real-world, day-to-day computing. With the inevitable quirks that will affect the first generation or two, it certainly doesn’t make me regret the purchase of a G5 Quad back in November 2005. (And let’s not forget that Adobe and Microsoft applications still have to run in emulation mode at this point in time.) I’ll be most interested to read reports about noise levels…

All in all, it’s certainly not a very exciting bunch of announcements. Apple might be keeping some new features secret (and some things might still change between now and the ultimate release of Mac OS X 10.5 in 2007), but I doubt that they will remain secret for very long, since the testing process will start soon. (Developers are getting a preview on DVD during the WWDC, and the AppleSeed program is currently being set up.) And I doubt very much that any of the secret features will change the overall picture.

The impression here is very much that we are not in a particular innovative period in the history of personal computing. There are incremental improvements and upgrades, and some fine-tuning, but no major breakthroughs, and certainly no signs that Apple in 2007 will take UI issues more seriously than they have been in the past few years.

14 Responses to “Apple’s WWDC 2006: Looks underwhelming from here”

  1. Jean-Francois Roy says:

    You have seriously discredited yourself by making the implicit assumption that what little the public has seen of an early release of Mac OS X 10.5 will actually stay the same all the way to the final release, a good 8 months or so away.

    Speaking from Moscone Center West, I can assure you that you have a very fragmented picture of the whole.

  2. danridley says:

    Okay, Mr. Grumpy-gills. (Sorry, the kids were watching Finding Nemo today.)

    Re Time Machine: I don’t think you should underestimate the usefulness of protecting against accidental deletion (or accidental changes), but I’m concerned that the disk space requirements make incremental backup an overly expensive option for many users.

    Spaces: no, it’s not revolutionary, but it’s a well integrated implementation of something that lots of people want. I think it’s a bit harsh to look at a clean, Apple-style implementation of a well-known concept and chastise them for “lack of imagination.” Apple’s imagination us Expose, and it’s even better than virtual desktops for many types of window clutter. Adding virtual desktops as an option doesn’t make them unimaginative, it just means this particular feature has been done before, many times, and lots of people have thought it through.

    iCal: the main interface looks the same, but none of the fundamental flaws you describe in the linked article have anything to do with the main iCal window visible in the screenshot. They may have fixed some or all of them, and I think it’s too early to call it a loss.

    Mail: the templates are a kiddie feature, certainly, but I don’t take issue with the Notes feature — I doubt it took that long to implement; it’s just a special message type and a Smart Folder for them, but providing some integration between notes and e-mail makes sense, and giving them a visually distinct look is nice in Exposé.

    RSS support in Mail just makes sense, and it seems like it completes the cycle — use Safari for Live Bookmarks-style RSS usage, and Mail for subscriptions.

    And to-dos: they’re manipulable from either Mail or iCal, and other applications will be able to tie into them as well. I think this will be fabulous — it doesn’t take much imagination to think of tying To-Dos to folders or files in Finder (or Path Finder, if Apple doesn’t do it); or to documents in Pages; or to users in Address Book — and then manage them centrally in iCal.

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    JFR: I think my heading makes it quite clear that this post is just my response to what little information has been made available. I certainly didn’t assume that things will stay the same all the way to the final release. This is just my initial response to what’s been revealed. I think I am entitled to my under-excitement :). It’s just my own subjective response… Nothing more, nothing less.

    Dan: Disk space requirements would be a huge concern for me. I know several Mac users who’ve quickly run out of space on their laptop or iMac because of all the music and video files that they have accumulated (more or less legally). If Mac OS X 10.5 keeps a full copy of each original MP3 file even after you delete it or edit its ID3 tags, that’s going to add up very quickly. I am all for features that make people’s data safer, but the real breakthrough here would be a guarantee that you won’t lose anything if your hard drive fails. That would imply the inclusion of a second internal hard drive or some external device included with every Mac.

    Spaces: We’ll see how it works in the real world. Exposé certainly didn’t change my computing life much. I occasionally use it, but the truth is that it took so long for Apple to come up with the feature that, by that time, I had already developed all kinds of habits to reduce window clutter, and Exposé certainly didn’t convince me to change all these habits overnight. I suspect the same kind of situation will happen with Spaces. Again, this is just my personal, subjective response. It could very well be that Spaces will help a lot of other Mac users reduce window clutter. It’s just probably not going to help me improve my computing experience much. So I am personally underwhelmed. That’s all.

    iCal: It might be too early to call, but the signs sure are not good. We’ve been living with these flaws in iCal for years. During that time, Apple received more than enough bug reports from me and others. They clearly decided that the current interface was good enough. Maybe they’ll fine-tune the current interface in 10.5. But I certainly am not holding my breath.

    As for notes and to-dos, again, I didn’t wait for Apple to come up with something in 10.5 to try and organize my own work. So for me personally I doubt that the new features will cause me to significantly change my work habits.

    The bottom-line here is, as a Mac user, I am always hoping for new UI breakthroughs, for the “next big thing” that will really change the way we experience computing. So that’s why I am not particularly excited about 10.5.

    Then again, as a MacInTouch reader noted, the one word that was conspicuously absent from Apple’s presentation was “Finder.” So maybe Apple does have one big ace up its sleeve that we don’t know about yet.

  4. soosy says:

    In case you missed it, Steve specifically said they were keeping some things “Top Secret”, so they won’t be in the Leopard Preview that was handed out. I noticed how most of the features they showed were somewhat self contained and avoided showing the Finder much. If you notice on the Spotlight page, there isn’t even a screenshot! I fully expect an upgraded Finder, with hopefully a significantly revised UI/look, to be in the final version.

    On the other hand, the dashboard style scroll bars shown in Mail’s new Notes type doesn’t give much hope for unification or consistency. :P (These are only briefly visible in the movie on the Mail page.)

    I do think the iCal, Task and Notes improvements are especially important in combating MS Exchange and its stranglehold. A few years ago I knew several designers who moved away from the Mac specifically because of difficulties in working with Exchange’s calenders.

    All in all, Leopard is actually looking pretty good to me compared to Tiger, which I sometimes view as mostly just Spotlight + Dashboard.

  5. Paul Ingraham says:

    Pierre, you are bang on, man, and I roll my eyes in the general direction of your pollyanna, apologist critics. I wish I had the time this morning to weigh in on some the specific issues raised in your post and in the comments, but alas all I can do right now is say thank you and YES, YES, YES to users calling Apple to a higher standard, YES to denouncing this ever more blatantly Microsoftian focus on flash instead of substance, YES to demanding bug fixes and useability enhancements instead of more feature bloat, YES to encouraging technology consumers to keep their standards from dropping any lower. Jobs is turning into a freaky fashionista CEO who has totally lost touch with the customers who made him what he is, and commercial success does NOT correlate with quality… as we have always seen with Microsoft and countless other examples.

  6. danridley says:

    Pierre, I’m curious what you would consider to be the last big UI breakthrough, that really changed the way you experience computing. For me, I wouldn’t say that’s happened since Mac OS X 10.0. My feeling is that Apple (imperfectly) consolidated pretty much every good thing happening in computing into OS X 10.0, and that from there it’s polish and refinement — and I’ve been seeing lots of polish and refinement since then.

    Looking over the last few years, there’ve been a multitude of small revolutions, things that have had a big day-to-day impact on how I interact with the system and that I don’t want to live without (Quicksilver, Spotlight, Dashboard, the Edit in TextMate input manager) — but I just don’t see a revolution waiting in the wings.

  7. Pierre Igot says:

    soosy: I agree that closer Exchange support/compatibility is important for some people—although we have yet to see a mass exodus of Exchange-powered businesses to open source-based solutions. I am not sure this particular development will change much in the overall picture. The MS stranglehold on business computing is a self-perpetuating thing that will not disappear overnight.

    Paul: thanks :). I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, and there is still lots of quality stuff coming from Cupertino, but I can’t help but feel that the pace of innovation has significantly dropped lately.

    Dan: Latest breakthrough from Apple as far as I am concerned? Probably GarageBand 1.0. Putting all this music-making power in the hands of “ordinary” Mac users in a very affordable package and a very usable (if still imperfect) software application… Terrific stuff. Pages 1.0 was quite encouraging too, but unfortunately the product has stagnated since its original launch.

    These were not huge breakthroughs, but they were breakthroughs just the same. GarageBand because it “democratized” music-making software. Pages because it provided some real competition for the MS Word monopoly. But there has been nothing of significance since then.

    I’ve experienced bigger breakthroughs with third-party developers. One of the biggest as far as I am concerned is LaunchBar, because it’s user-centric rather than application-centric and lets you do so much with so few keystrokes. And while it’s been around for a while, Spell Catcher X in its Cocoa incarnation has proven more indispensable to me than ever as a professional writer.

    Also, while Apple has been doing a lot of fine-tuning, it has also steadfastly refused to listen to customer feedback and add much-needed features or fix much-derided interface flaws. I mean, the whole Spotlight 1.0 interface is ridiculous, from the “search as you type” behaviour that wastes so much power doing completely useless searches to the moving targets of the search results list… And the lack of keyboard shortcuts for styles in Pages is unforgiveable.

    What I would really like to see from Apple is a combination of real fine-tuning and real innovation. And, in that respect, what I have seen of Leopard so far disappoints me.

  8. danridley says:

    I don’t agree that they’re not listening to customers. Spaces, for example, is almost certainly a cave-in to customer demand rather than an Apple-driven feature (I think Exposé was an attempt *not* to have to do virtual desktops). Backup has been a concern, both because of the Quick Picks theory of backing up selectively and because Apple Backup has been tied to .Mac, which doesn’t make sense.

    Now, I’m sure I’ll have pet peeves that remain unfixed. And probably every Mac user will find pet peeves that remain unfixed. But I do think that a lot of the upgrades in Leopard will be customer-driven.

    I use QuickSilver instead of LaunchBar, but I do think it’s fantastic. I guess the main reason I don’t chalk it up as a real revolution is because its surface features were in LaunchBar first, so by the time I got hooked on QS it wasn’t so new any more :-)

    Pages a revolution? Meh. It’s just a word processor… When it was just a rumor, i was hoping they’d produce something more semantic, like LyX done right. Instead, we merely got a good implementation of a consumer word proc.

    There’s plenty they could and still may do with Pages; WordPerfect and Ami Pro are/were bursting with good ideas ripe for stealing.

  9. Pierre Igot says:

    I find it hard to believe that the average Mac user has ever expressed a demand for something like virtual desktops. I don’t really see this as a “consumer” feature, more as a “power user” feature that Apple is trying to extend to a greater base of users. The problem, as I see it, is that power users have already developed their own strategies, and ordinary users their own habits to cope with window clutter (like closing windows all the time). So it’ll be hard at this stage to get a substantial portion of users to change their coping strategies/habits.

    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind Apple giving it a try. I just do think it qualifies as a breakthrough of any kind.

    I didn’t say that Pages was a revolution, only a (relative) breakthrough in that it finally provided a realistic alternative to MS Word, which has had a stranglehold on the Mac market for far too many years. In other words, it proved that it was possible to design a relatively feature-rich word processor without turning it into an unusable mess. (Pages does have some significant usability issues, but on the whole it’s an encouraging first step and has a remarkably clean interface.) Now if only Apple would move it further forward…

    Basically, at this stage I would like to see some major usability improvements in Mac OS X. Instead, we’ll get Spotlight 2.0, with probably more of the same glaring UI atrocities, and some new features (Time Machine, Spaces) that will face significant implementation and adoption issues and add to the overall inconsistency of the Mac OS X experience.

    To me, a real usability improvement (a breakthrough) would be something fabulously user-centric as opposed to application-centric. I am tired of having to deal with file extensions, of having to find out which application to use with which file, of seeing applications launch that I didn’t mean to launch, of having so little control over what does what and when.

    For example, I find it absurd that, in order to be able to edit the ID3 tags of an MP3 file, if I don’t want to add the file to my iTunes library, I have to find a third-party tool to edit those tags. Why can’t I just edit those metadata tags in the Finder?

  10. danridley says:

    It’s a matter of style, I’m sure, but I’ve never seen my existing habits as a major barrier to adopting new features or new styles of working. Quicksilver, Exposé, iTunes (back when I was still on Windows) — all of these things became integral parts of my daily computer use within a week of my first exposure to them. I think Spaces will be that way for me as well. (Then again, Spaces fits well with my workflow; I usually have three distinct sets of applications going: background tasks, development, and Web/email.)

    (The downside, of course, to being willing to adopt new features quickly is that I can procrastinate indefinitely by dinking around the system going, “what else can this thing do?”)

    I think the fact that virtual desktops are a power-user feature is a bit of a red herring, because I also think that, say, metadata editing in the Finder is a power user feature. Indeed, most of the enhancements that I can think of are power user features. (A big exception, in the metadata arena, is Web 2.0-style tagging in the Finder and Mail. Tags are a very simple subset of metadata, but something that people seem to grasp fairly easily.)

  11. Hawk Wings » Blog Archive » Reactions to Leopard Mail says:

    […] Pierre Igot at Betalogue has a similar view : Real Mail users in the real world are just hoping to get decent performance and a proper interface for managing tens of thousands of archived emails. Instead, we get “30 professionally designed stationery templates.” Yet more crappy HTML email! Grrrrreat. […]

  12. Pierre Igot says:

    Dan: I really have a hard time thinking of editing the ID3 tags of an MP3 file as a “power user” feature. In plain language, we are talking about changing the title or artist of a song. There are so many badly tagged music files out there. It’s something that I have to do all the time. And right now the options to do so are simply not good enough from a UI point of view. Either you have to invoke a modal (!) dialog box in iTunes or you have to click on the title or artist in the song list and wait until the text becomes editable—and then in both cases grapple with iTunes’s lame autocomplete feature that keeps changing the case of what you are trying to type.

    Simply put, it’s embarrassing. And this is just an example of a very common task that Mac OS X makes unnecessarily complicated.

  13. danridley says:

    I was describing editing metadata *in Finder* as a power user feature; as opposed to editing metadata in iTunes and other applications that are specific to a particular need.

    Yes, iTunes’ tag editing has some issues: the autocomplete text-case handling sucks, no doubt about it. And the modal dialog should give way to an inspector or drawer.

  14. Pierre Igot says:

    I still believe that we shouldn’t have to launch iTunes—which automatically adds the music file to its library—to edit a music file’s tags. The most obvious solution as far as I am concerned is basic support for editable meta data in the Finder itself.

    There was a stage during the development of Tiger where Apple had actually changed the behaviour of the Preview column in the Finder significantly, with full display of all kinds of tags beyond the basics (i.e. name, size, date created/modified). All the major tags of music files were displayed in the Preview column. That would have been a first step towards making the tags directly editable there.

    Unfortunately, Apple backtracked later on and removed all this from the Finder. So now in Tiger the Preview column doesn’t even show the artist/title of a music file. You have to bring up the Get Info window for that. And of course none of it is editable except for the file name and Spotlight comments.

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