Does the iMac make you see spots? Does the iBook remind you of a lunchbox? Is the Power Mac G3 a blue meanie? Apple’s gaudy Macintosh designs might not appeal to all, but they’ve certainly put the Mac back in the (ahem) limelight. Also this week, Matt Neuburg reviews CE Software’s venerable macro utility QuicKeys, we note the release of Mailsmith 1.1.4, and we tell you what Jesse James, Willie Sutton, Robespierre, and Adam Engst might have in common.
Mailsmith 1.1.4 Enhances Interface — Bare Bones Software has released a free update to Mailsmith 1.1.4, its powerful $80 email client. Version 1.1.4 revises Mailsmith’s composition panes, and mailboxes can now be sorted (and have their columns resized) independently of the Mail Browser. Mailsmith 1.1.4 also offers enhanced scripting and direct support for Open Transport 1.1.1 or higher and PPP connection management. The Mailsmith 1.1.4 update is 3.2 MB, works on Mailsmith 1.0 or higher, and is free to all Mailsmith owners. [GD]
The Story of a Mistaken Attribution — In TidBITS-490, I paraphrased the famous saying about robbing banks because "that’s where the money is." Unfortunately, in a bit of sloppy writing in a hotel room at 2 AM, I incorrectly attributed it to Jesse James.
As I’ve now learned from numerous messages, the quote is more commonly attributed to Willie Sutton, another famous bank robber who died in 1980. Normally when I make such a irrelevant mistake in TidBITS, I grin and take my medicine in email but don’t spend any additional space in an issue atoning for my sins. This time though, the situation grew more complex, since Ed Oliveri <[email protected]> pointed me to a Web page discussing Willie Sutton’s life that provided a quote from Sutton’s second book (now out of print) disclaiming responsibility for the quote and noting that he robbed banks for the thrill, not the money.
Then, to further complicate the issue, Steve Lamont <[email protected]> sent along a quote attributed to Robespierre: "When a Banker jumps out of a window, jump after him – that’s where the money is." Robespierre’s quote (assuming it’s accurate) predates Willie Sutton and the unknown reporter who invented the famous quote by quite a few years, so in the end, I’ll take my medicine happily, knowing that at least my mistake made for an interesting story. [ACE]
Back in 1988, when Microsoft Word couldn’t search and replace styles, a Classics student of mine named Adam Engst (what ever became of him?) put me wise to a solution involving macro automation, using CE Software’s QuicKeys. QuicKeys could simulate user actions, such as clicking a button or choosing a menu item; each such action is called a shortcut. And it could string shortcuts together into little programs called sequences. You could trigger a shortcut or a sequence by pressing a combination of keys or by choosing from a special QuicKeys menu. With QuicKeys, you could automate, or provide keystroke-based access to, all sorts of common or repetitive tasks.
QuicKeys immediately became indispensable on my computer, but shortly after reviewing version 3.5 in 1996, I stopped using it (see the "Mac Macros" series of articles beginning in TidBITS-347). The Finder, and other programs I commonly use, were becoming more scriptable through AppleScript or Frontier; QuicKeys was having trouble with newer systems; and OneClick provided more programmable access to a greater range of functionalities.
Now QuicKeys is back, with version 4. What’s new? Not much, really. CE Software added some new ways to create shortcuts: in the Finder, Control-click a file or folder, or drag it into a QuicKeys toolbar, to create a shortcut that opens it. Two types of shortcuts, when expressed as buttons on a QuicKeys toolbar, can now accept drag & drop of files and folders. There are some new shortcut abilities, such as locking a file, or changing Finder views. But what’s really important is that QuicKeys now works with recent versions of the Mac OS.
Macro My Mac — Installation is greatly simplified, without so many pieces spread out over so many folders, and with only one extension required (the QuicKeys control panel). However, if you’re upgrading, the time-consuming and confusing task of cleaning up from previous versions is left to you.
It’s a pleasure to have QuicKeys back on my machine, and to greet old shortcuts as old friends. I’d forgotten how accustomed I was to typing a certain command to hide the current application, or to bring the Finder to the front. I restored custom keyboard shortcuts for menu items that lack them, or whose real shortcuts I dislike. On my PowerBook, which lacks an extended keyboard, I immediately restored ways of typing Home, End, Page Up, Page Down, and so forth.
While testing, I removed OneClick; and this reminded me that QuicKeys’s abilities, though splendid, are fairly narrow. I have OneClick buttons that cascade my window positions, or present a list of windows so I can bring one to the front, or remember recently used applications and let me launch one from a list. QuicKeys’s inability to do those things made me feel initially hamstrung.
Still, QuicKeys quite adequately handles most of my habitual needs. It can cycle through windows in an application. It can collapse or expand the frontmost window. It lets me maintain a palette of commonly needed folders; using the palette, I can open a folder, or copy a file into it. And some of what QuicKeys can’t do can be accomplished by other utilities: it can’t keep a list of recent applications, but Apple Menu Options can; it can’t present a pop-up hierarchy of my hard disks, but The Tilery can; it can’t present a list of open windows, but TitlePop can.
On the other hand, QuicKeys is not a full-fledged scripting language (with variables and arithmetic and strings and the like), and generally can’t perform actions that require one. For example, I commonly ask OneClick to collapse all but the frontmost window of the current application; QuicKeys is incapable of that, because it can’t count the windows or cycle through them. QuicKeys can rename files according to certain preset templates, such as appending a serial number, but not in accordance with criteria that you create. QuicKeys can switch your TCP/IP configuration to one you’ve specified beforehand, but it can’t present a list of your configurations and let you switch to one – even though it can do just that with your running applications. In short, QuicKeys’s abilities are all highly specific and compartmentalized; it has no mechanism for generalizing them.
From another point of view, though, this limitation is an asset. QuicKeys isn’t a scripting language because it doesn’t want to be one. Many people are frightened by scripting languages: they can’t program, or they think they can’t, or they can’t be bothered to learn. So QuicKeys lets you create shortcuts and sequences through familiar interface features such as lists and menus and dialog boxes that present simple sets of predetermined options. It may not permit customization to the degree that a scripting language does, but there’s comfort in its confinement and clarity.
Ossify My Interface — One of the big troubles is that QuicKeys’s interface is far from clear. Its dialog boxes are rigid in infuriating, unnecessary ways. For example, you can’t give certain shortcuts a descriptive title; a shortcut that chooses a menu item automatically has a title which is the same as the text of the menu item. And for certain shortcuts where you can assign a title, the title is limited to 15 characters. The result is that, viewing your list of shortcuts by their tiny or predetermined titles, you don’t know what they do.
The native capabilities of certain shortcuts are so limited as to render them almost unusable. For example, ScrapEase lets you maintain multiple clipboards: you trigger a ScrapEase shortcut to copy selected text, which you then name in a dialog; then later you can trigger another ScrapEase shortcut to let you paste whatever scrap you choose from a list. But you can’t easily delete a scrap: you must open the QuicKeys editor, find any ScrapEase shortcut, open it for editing in a dialog, press a button to bring up another dialog listing your scraps, select one and press Delete, confirm the deletion in yet another dialog, and then dismiss the whole nest of dialogs one by one. The result is a reluctance to use this feature, because management is so inconvenient.
Creating a shortcut requires navigating a mysterious nest of hierarchical menu items. Consider the following actions: collapse a window; switch to the rear window; switch to the next application. Who would ever have guessed that these are accessed, respectively, through System Tools -> Mousies, System Tools -> Specials, and System Tools -> MacOS [sic] Specials? And each of these choices just brings up a dialog; you must still find the desired function in yet another menu. So even if you know that a certain shortcut type exists, you don’t know where to find it; either you spend all your time guessing, trying different menus and dialogs, or you look in the manual.
CE has done nothing to resolve the problems engendered by dependencies of one shortcut on another. Such dependencies can make understanding your shortcuts difficult, and editing them hazardous. For example, in a sequence you can include a Decision shortcut, which is the QuicKeys version of an "if" statement: if a certain situation is the case, QuicKeys triggers a certain other shortcut. But this other shortcut must exist separately. So when you examine your Decision shortcut, in a modal dialog, you don’t know what it does, because it calls another shortcut, which you can’t examine because you’re in a modal dialog. Conversely, when you look at the list of your shortcuts, you see that other shortcut, with no understanding of why it exists: there’s no indication that it is called by a separate Decision shortcut. So you might easily delete it, thereby rendering your Decision shortcut powerless; or, more likely, you’re afraid to delete anything, because you have no way of knowing what dependencies you might destroy. In effect, as soon as you have shortcuts or sequences of even the slightest complexity, they become unmanageable.
The same is true of toolbars. To include a shortcut on a toolbar, the shortcut must exist separately. But when you’re looking at the list of your shortcuts, nothing tells you that a shortcut is associated with a toolbar, so you can easily delete it, thereby accidentally removing its button from the toolbar. Conversely, when you’re editing a toolbar, you’re shown a list of your toolbars and a list of your shortcuts, but you’re not shown any association between the two. And if you’re editing a toolbar, what’s one of the main things you’d probably like to do? Edit one of its shortcuts, of course. But you can’t; shortcut editing and toolbar editing happen on two different tab panels.
It appalls me that CE has given no attention to these and similar problems. Far from taking the opportunity of this revision to address such long-standing issues, they’ve maintained an arcane and archaic interface that dates back twelve years, merely dressing it up with some colors and Appearance Manager-compliant buttons.
Shoot Myself in the Foot — None of the above means that I don’t like QuicKeys 4. I love it! It’s stable, it’s fast, it’s reliable, it doesn’t seem to slow or interfere with my Mac’s operation. And it has always had these interface problems, so I’m used to them. But I’m disappointed with CE Software for not fixing them, especially since I’ve been writing about them in TidBITS for years. Of course, this is the company that acquired WebArranger, one of the coolest programs in history, then failed to understand it, failed to support it, and eventually discontinued it. CE Software has no record of following my advice. But if this is the best that CE can offer its customers who have waited patiently for three years, it’s a bad sign. And why would such a clumsy interface attract new users?
The QuicKeys manual is poor. Too much of it is devoted to self-promotion; phrases like "time-saving" and "work more efficiently" appear frequently, as if the reader needed constant reminding why the program was purchased in the first place. Far too little of it is devoted to teaching and explaining. There are many errors. It’s also badly laid out, with fonts that don’t harmonize, and a short, wide two-column format that makes the PDF version illegible on most any monitor.
In one respect, though, CE improved the manual. QuicKeys Script, CE’s OSA-compliant scripting language for driving QuicKeys from other programs, is no longer hidden away from view; it is described in the manual, and in place of syntax specifications using arcane mathematics-like symbols, there are now easy-to-read tables.
I’ve explained, in an earlier essay, why you need a macro program. And once upon a time, QuicKeys was the only game in town; so you needed QuicKeys. But no longer. There’s OneClick. There’s KeyQuencer. There’s PreFab Player. Plus, the Mac OS itself is more scriptable than it used to be, through AppleScript or Frontier. With QuicKeys 4, CE Software has failed to acknowledge this competition; so far from taking renewed responsibility for the care and feeding of this fine, classic program, they’ve left it with a poor interface, a muddy manual, and limited capabilities. The result is that users have few reasons to choose QuicKeys over the younger and hungrier competition. That’s sad.
QuicKeys retails for $100; competitive upgrades are $50. A 2.3 MB 30-day demo version is available for download.
Apple’s recent iBook announcement has reinvigorated discussion of Apple’s hardware designs, with a focus on Apple’s use of color, although Apple isn’t the only computer maker to ship machines in non-neutral colors. SGI ships bruised-looking graphics workstations, IBM promotes a charcoal look in its Aptiva series, and Steve Jobs’s own all-black NeXT systems got the ball rolling a decade before the iMac.
By presenting a range of distinctive choices, the various flavors of the iMac – and now the iBook – are the first personal computers to put color at the forefront of a computer purchasing decision. Buying a computer used to involve consideration of price, speed, capability, capacity, and expandability. Now, the mere fact that options are available makes it impossible to buy an iMac or an iBook without considering color. The rest of the Macintosh industry – indeed, a variety of industries – are eagerly following suit.
Does color matter? Is it an important criterion for a sophisticated device that could scarcely have been imagined ten years ago? Is it an indicator that computers – like telephones and automobiles – have become commodities distinguished largely by appearance and experience? Or is color merely the loudest stunt Apple could pull to gain attention and, thereby, to re-establish itself as a successful company?
Monoculturosis — Until the iMac, many computer users based purchasing decisions on price and specifications – as long as the job gets done, who cares what the machine looks like? And besides, flashy designs just drive up development costs. Thus, conventional wisdom held that little effort need go into industrial design: dull grey or beige boxes do just fine.
This perception obscures the fact that the design of "boring" computers is deliberate. Any cultural anthropologist will tell you that business design sense changes slowly. Business culture in many ways minimizes (and even erases) differences between individuals, cultures, and societies. Business emphasizes commonality in the marketplace – the trade of goods or services is what’s important, not the individuality of the participants. When traditional businessmen need a suit, their choices of cut, color, and styling are restricted, with personal expression largely limited to ties. Personal appearance and grooming are similarly circumscribed: businessmen generally aren’t permitted long hair, earrings, or visible tattoos, while jewelry is limited to wristwatches. Businesswomen – themselves recent admittees to the business world – face more complicated but similarly restrictive choices.
Computer designs have followed similar conservative patterns partly to fit into the artificial monoculture of the business world. In addition, desktop beige exudes neutrality, a blandness necessitated by the need to put one type of object – the computer – into any number of physical environments.
What a Difference Difference Makes — Since the inception of the beige box, the economics and market for computers have changed. Originally expensive, arcane tools for specialized operations, personal computers gradually became easier to use, less expensive, and more integrated into everyday activities. Eventually, personal computers became luxury items for individual use, and – particularly with sub-$1,000 PCs – information and entertainment appliances within the reach of consumers.
Apple has always existed at the periphery of this process. Apple arguably invented the personal computer market in the late 1970s with the Apple II. Despite successes in education and amongst individual users, Apple systems never dominated the business world, where they faced IBM, the megalithic manifestation of business culture itself – which, naturally, required its employees to wear virtually identical suits.
With the Macintosh design, Apple spurned business culture. With its distinctive face-like facade, the original Macintosh offered no conformity or neutrality: it refused to blend in. Although Macintosh designs became more PC-like over the years (particularly as Apple’s market share fell and as the company tried to court the business market), Apple continued to display flurries of design individualism with products like the slim Macintosh LC, the original PowerBooks, and even one-shots like the Macintosh TV and 20th Anniversary Macintosh. Apple systems also sported unique features and new technologies that contributed to and reinforced the loyalty of Macintosh users. Design remains a major part of why we maintain relationships with our Macs, such as our ever-faithful SE/30s.
Macs have always been different, and using a Mac has always been as much of a personal statement as it is a tool for getting work done. But in the last few years, Macs had become easy to ignore.
Color Screams — When Apple revealed the "Think Different" slogan, the company was posting substantial financial losses and even die-hard Macintosh fans admitted Apple was in trouble. Whatever was the "same" wasn’t going to work: in addition to putting Steve Jobs at the helm and formulating a semi-coherent operating system strategy, Apple needed a bigger idea of what represented "different" for their products.
That idea, like it or not, is unique design and color. It’s simple, easily understood by anyone able to compare the Mac to another computer visually, easily lends itself to recognizable advertisements and promotions, and once again makes the Macintosh impossible to ignore.
If the iMac were released as a compact consumer machine with traditional platinum casing, would it be the huge success that it is today? No; the design and the colors pushed iMac above the competition because it grabbed attention. The sale of nearly two million iMacs over the past year can’t be accounted for by their speedy G3 processors or by their pricing, especially when competing against much cheaper PCs. And it proves the economics of the computer market have changed to permit significant development costs for a low-cost consumer machine rather than only for high-end models: more consumers are buying computers.
Good advertisers take novel ideas and run with them, which is exactly what Apple and Chiat/Day did by blanketing billboards, buses, and magazine spreads with the iMac: just the appearance of a translucent Bondi blue and white gumdrop computer was enough to grab attention. Brightly colored iMacs on a white background have been the basis for astonishingly simple ads: an overhead shot of five fruity iMacs above the caption "Yum" doesn’t indicate even that the multi-hued objects are computers, but does provoke intrigue.
The advantage of standout design cascades to other areas of advertising, such as catalog retailers and in-store displays. In the past, these areas used color as surrounding elements to spice up what often amounted to flat beige boxes. Now, an iMac can be the center of attention on its own. Media tie-ins work even more elegantly. When the television camera pans across the desk of your favorite sitcom character, viewers don’t just see a computer – they see an iMac and understand that it’s an Apple product, not a run-of-the-mill PC. In this age of incessant advertising, being different stands out.
Apple’s translucent coloring also gives the impression an iMac or an iBook is a toy, which turns out to be good. People want to touch them, play with them, lift them to see they’re as sturdy as the handles suggest – they aren’t afraid of this complicated piece of technology. That appeal has spread to peripherals and add-on products, from laser printers to game controllers to Ethernet hubs. These are machines that people recommend to their parents, grandparents, children, and friends.
Painted Black — All this is not to say that color is here for the long run or is appropriate in all situations. Colorful translucent plastics are ripe for being emblematic of late 1990s style. ("What were we thinking?" we’ll no doubt say, echoing anyone who has looked recently at styles from the 1970s.) The colored Mac styling is bound to go away fairly quickly because it’s comparatively loud; loud make a splash, which is exactly what Apple wanted, but tends to lack staying power. In fact, we’re already hearing rumblings about the colors of the Power Macintosh G3s not being appropriate for some business environments, and the iBook has taken similar flak. If Apple wants to gain the good graces of the business market, they’ll have to figure out a Macintosh design compromise that fits in while standing out, much as wearing an expensive Italian suit might do for an individual.
However, for now Apple has met the needs of their primary customers. The iMac and iBook are flashy and cheap, and work well for education and home users. The blue and white Power Macintosh G3s combine power and innovative looks for the creative professional market. And the PowerBook G3 Series offers plenty of functionality in a sleek black case, albeit one that’s undoubtedly the next in line for a makeover.
But the success of the iMac will impact products from other computer makers. We’re beginning to see announcements of computers that look suspiciously like the original iMac, such as the eMachines eOne and E-Power system from Future Power and Daewoo Telecom (which has sparked a lawsuit from Apple). Amusingly, both products lack floppy drives.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – even if it proves to be illegal – and, in the end, consumers and the press will invariably compare anything vaguely iMac-like to the original.
The Color of Money — We can’t claim Apple’s new color scheme is solely responsible for the company’s impressive turnaround during the past two years. It’s no accident that these machines are also top performers, and that Apple has managed to reduce inventory and forecast demand better. But color can’t be marginalized as a superfluous gimmick – with it, Apple has recognized that the Macintosh design has always been fundamental to its success.
However, Apple also can’t afford to rest on its laurels. Innovative design helped put the Macintosh on the map, and it has certainly brought the Macintosh back from what many pundits trumpeted as the grave. Apple will undoubtedly continue to mine the colored vein for some time to come, particularly for consumer-oriented computers, but the company must continue to innovate in the design space to stay ahead of the copycats and to keep the Macintosh in the public eye.