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A Quick Dip into Aqua, the Mac OS X Interface

One of the few surprises at last week’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco was a first look at the new Mac OS X user interface. Although the new operating system was announced in mid-1998 and its technical features (like preemptive multitasking and protected memory) are known, those things don’t have the potential to stir up the ire and interest of Mac users quite so much as the notion of tampering with the Mac OS look and feel.



So when Steve Jobs said that he was going to show off the Mac OS X user interface, which he claimed has been one of the best-kept secrets within Apple, I perked up. Sure, Mac OS X can do some whiz-bang things under the hood and not turn your Mac into putty when an application crashes, but what will I be looking at for several hours each day? How will Mac OS X affect the way I interact with my computer?

It’s important to note that the demos at Macworld Expo, both during Jobs’s keynote and in the Apple booth, represent the closest look at Aqua so far – and it’s not much. A limited preview is available from Apple’s Web site, but questions remain about elements not demonstrated at Macworld. No doubt there will be tweaks and revelations by the time Mac OS X is released later in the year.


The Look You Want to Feel — The success of Apple’s iProducts, from iMac to iBook, has shown that appearances do matter, that the look of something can often determine its success, regardless of other technical merits. So it’s no surprise that Apple’s emphasis on look is moving to its software as well.


Overall, Aqua is surprisingly sparse and clean, and will be familiar to anyone who has used a Mac. The gray fill of the current Platinum interface is replaced by white, with a subtle horizontal line pattern similar to the iMac’s faceplate texture. Aqua gets its name from the use of a watery, translucent look for interface elements like buttons and sliders; the top navigational elements at Apple’s Web site use a similar effect.

Aqua also employs soft drop shadows to windows and menus to provide a more polished appearance and emphasize layered items. I’m surprised that I like the effect as much as I do, since drop shadows are overused. Other effects, like animation, make an appearance in Aqua. Rather than a dull black outline to denote a default button in dialog boxes, Aqua’s method of highlighting a button is for it to light up and slowly pulse like the iBook’s and iMac’s power button.

One noticeable departure from today’s interface is the placement of window controls for close, zoom, and minimize (the successor to WindowShade, which collapses the window into a new element, the Dock). All three are now round buttons located at the left edge of the title bar, and follow a traffic light metaphor: red closes, yellow minimizes, and green zooms. For people who are color blind or who still use grayscale displays, the buttons also feature a roll-over effect when you pass your cursor over them: the close button displays an X, the minimize button displays a minus sign (-), and the zoom button displays a plus sign (+). The new controls also function for both active and inactive windows, so you can close a background window without bringing it to the foreground.

It will be interesting to see how current Mac users adapt to the new arrangement. There’s bound to be a bit of frustration from users who have been zooming their windows from the right side for years. Plus, a few TidBITS Talk participants have pointed out that putting destructive commands (the close button) and nondestructive commands (minimize and zoom buttons) next to one another invites danger.


Less Clutter, Less Confusion — In Mac OS X’s Finder, the title bar sports one other button: a transparent blob at the right side that toggles Single Window Mode. Unlike the current user interface, where burrowing deep within a folder structure can leave a scattering of overlapping open windows, Single Window Mode displays only the active content. If you’re using the Finder in Single Window Mode, only the current directory is shown; within an application, you can have multiple files open but only the active one actually displays.

Long-time Mac users may scoff at the Single Window Mode, but I think it’s a great idea. Computers can be intimidating to new users, and part of that intimidation is caused by complexity; a screen full of windows that aren’t in active use is complex. Sticking to the current task reduces clutter and confusion. Luckily, it’s easy to toggle between modes by clicking the Single Window Mode button, though it’s odd to have what appears to be a system-wide preference on every window, whereas the other controls are window-specific.

Modal dialogs are also now specific to the windows they belong to. If you close a file that hasn’t been saved, the standard "Do you want to save changes?" dialog is attached to the file’s title bar, and remains there until you’ve acted on it – but you can still switch to another application. Also, dialogs are translucent, letting you see the data beneath them. It’s hard to tell from the demo if this is actually a useful feature or an example of eye candy. Still, the translucency adds yet another level of visual polish that isn’t found in current operating systems.

The Dock Is In — A new interface element to the Mac OS is the Dock, an area along the bottom of the screen where you can store apparently anything. The Dock resembles the Windows Task Bar, but you can drop inactive applications, frequently used folders or files, or favorite QuickTime movies into the Dock. The Trash is also now a member of the Dock, rather than its own element on the desktop. During Steve Jobs’s demo, he repeatedly minimized items to show off the way they move: windows don’t just disappear and appear in the Dock, but rather stretch and shoot their way to the bottom of the screen like an animated sheet of rubber sucked down by a vacuum cleaner, a transition called the "genie effect."

A docked item appears as an icon, either generic (like a folder) or as a preview of the item’s content (such as images or QuickTime movies, which can continue to play). You can specify whether the Dock always appears or is activated when the mouse moves to that area. You can also specify the size of the Dock icons dynamically. And as the bottom of the screen fills up, the icons automatically shrink to accommodate more items. One of the highlights of Jobs’s demo was the Dock’s capability to enlarge each icon as the mouse passed over it, resulting in a shifting sand dunes effect whereby the adjacent icons resized in diminishing proportions.

The Dock demo elicited the biggest wows of the talk, and though it’s certainly snazzy, I wonder how effective it will actually be. It feels random to have your applications and documents and whatever else just hanging out at the bottom of the screen. The placement also begs the question of what will happen to the current Mac OS’s tabbed windows, which also occupy real estate at the bottom of the screen. I rely on pop-up windows for quick access to email attachments, file downloads, and aliases, and it’s unclear if I can transfer that functionality to Mac OS X.

Finding the Finder — Long-time Mac users will also have to become accustomed to the idea that the Finder lives in a window by itself. (In fact, the Mac OS X Finder looks like a variation of Mac OS 9’s Sherlock 2). It features buttons to access your computer, applications, documents, favorites, and people, plus a button labelled Home that takes you to a main directory of your choice (whether it’s on your machine or on a network). The Finder works as a single window view by default, but you can also open multiple windows as in the existing Finder. The Finder also incorporates a third, split-pane column view, inherited from Mac OS X’s NeXT origins. As you navigate the file structure of your hard disk, new columns appear to display a horizontal hierarchy of the structure.

Although putting the Finder into its own window sounds alien to most of us, it makes sense for new users. Under the current Mac OS, tell a new user to switch to the Finder, and they’re likely to reply, "Huh?" That’s because the Finder and the desktop are synonymous to most of us. The Finder will become the tool to find information, instead of a catch-all for file and application icons. It’s also good that you can choose which view to use. It’s no secret that Jobs has advocated the split-pane browsing method for years. And allegedly it took quite a bit of work within Apple to convince him that the Finder should offer traditional navigation as well as the split-pane view.

Graphics, of Quartz — Mac OS X’s 2D graphics capabilities come from Quartz, a rendering engine based on PDF (which is a vague descendant of Display PostScript used in the NeXT operating system). In fact, much of the effects mentioned so far, like translucent dialog boxes and menus, drop shadows, and resizable Dock icons, are due to the Quartz engine. Another example is the use of anti-aliased text, though hopefully this feature will also be a user-definable preference. Although I find well-designed aliased text is easy to read, others find most if not all anti-aliased text alarmingly smudged, especially at small sizes. (See "Better Typography Coming to a Screen Near You" in TidBITS-403).


Having built-in PDF support means that applications will be able to save to PDF without additional software. However, it’s not clear if Quartz will provide many of the more subtle features of PDF, such as forms, routing information, and digital signatures. Jobs did demonstrate the Quartz PDF Compositor, an application that could easily add, manipulate, and export PostScript-based artwork with drop shadows and variable transparency.

Good Enough to Lick? During the Macworld Expo keynote, Steve Jobs reinforced his unusual oral fixation on Apple products by claiming that they were good enough to lick. Certainly, the interface looks different from the softly beveled appearance of Mac OS 8 and later. But is the Mac OS X interface just iCandy? Will the pulsing glow of an OK button really make a difference? Yes and no. The new look adds pizzazz to the interface, which is both cosmetic and functional. It’s an implementation of Look Different: for someone who has never used a computer before, the interface is clean and inviting.

But the new design also serves a similar function to the iMac’s external design: it will be harder for Microsoft (or others) to add pulsing buttons and animated windows to their operating systems without acknowledging that they’re copying the look of the Mac. Computer makers are finding that they can’t directly copy the look of the iMac, and it’s likely that Apple could pursue companies that infringe upon the Aqua interface. Surprisingly, this has already begun to happen. Apple’s lawyers recently sent cease-and-desist letters to a site for posting a "skin" titled WinAqua for use with the Windows interface-customization tool WindowBlinds. Apple also apparently asked Casady & Green to yank an Aqua-looking skin for SoundJam.




The demonstration at Macworld Expo was definitely a fun peek at Aqua, and it will be interesting to see more details emerge as the estimated Mac OS X release date of the middle of 2000 nears. Numerous questions remain that weren’t answered in the demo. For example, the Apple logo appears in the middle of the menu bar; is it the functional Apple menu we’ve used for years, or just corporate branding? Either way, what happens in a program that has more than the standard handful of menus? Does the logo slide aside, or do menus wrap around it? Also, how much of the interface will be controlled by the user? Can I specify solid buttons and scroll bars if Aqua’s watery elements make me seasick? Only time – roughly six months if Apple can keep its intended schedule – will give us these answers.

We’ll have to wait longer for the more difficult answers, however. As Apple embarks on the next major revision of its Macintosh operating system, how durable is the interface? What happens in a few years when the translucent, bright-colored look is out of fashion – not only onscreen, but in case designs as well? Will we look back on the Aqua interface someday the way we look back on bell-bottomed pants or fluorescent leg-warmers? Will the Mac OS interface change according to Apple’s ad campaigns?

It’s possible. However, at the Expo keynote, Jobs began his introduction to Aqua with a black-and-white image of the first Macintosh interface. The crowd laughed, but the joke had two faces: that original screen looked so foreign compared to the colorful displays on our modern desktops; yet at the same time its windows, icons, menu bar, and Trash can are elements we see on our Macs every day. In other words, interface change is not bad in and of itself, but it must be managed carefully to be both comfortingly familiar and invitingly different.

Poll Preview: Think Different about Aqua? For this week’s TidBITS poll, we’re asking, "How do you feel about Apple’s new interface for Mac OS X?" Preliminary correspondence suggests four approaches: "Love it!", "Seems OK", "I’m worried", or "Hate it!" Does Aqua float your boat, or is destined for a watery grave? Register your opinion today on our home page!


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