Back to apple

After 31 years of not owning an apple computer, I got a Mac. A Macbook Pro, to be precise.

During the past 31 years, I used DOS, Windows 286, 3.0, 3.1, 95, 98, 2000, and XP, then linux’s Gnome, kde, peppermint, lxde, and xfce.

My first impression, like anyone else’s, it seems, was that this is a beautiful desktop, and the display (retina) and the computer itself couldn’t be prettier, but I must also say that in three decades I have never ran into an operating system that so adamantly discourages the use of the keyboard.

I realize that a lot of it has to do with the fact that I don’t know the shortcuts, but unlike most users, the first thing I try to learn is where the keyboard shortcuts are (regardless of how intuitive it is to use the mouse, it’s a waste of time if there’s a shortcut available to do what you want to do), and I’ve found that there aren’t a whole lot of them, and many functions that do have them, have no indication of them in the application menus I’ve come across so far (xCode, finder, etc.).

The finder, which is the mac’s equivalent to Windows’ explorer gives the impression of having been included because it’s necessary, but its design and implementation makes me wonder if apple’s designers made it so poor on purpose, as if to discourage its use – this may very well be true, as many of the problems I’ve had to fix over the years stemmed from users carelessness with Windows’ explorer. But to use the <Return> key to rename files and folders is rather counter-intuitive; especially when the Finder’s Edit and context menus don’t even hint at a function to rename items.

The fun part of all this is that whenever I’ve had to look for an answer online and it happened to be in a forum (doesn’t matter which), there’s always a handful of useful answers followed by 50 messages ranging from moot arguments for and against what was asked to all-out religious wars.

All in all, though, I can’t complain. Considering that OS-X is bsd-based, having 2-years worth of linux experience in my bag has helped tremendously to find my way around the new system, but I’m still a bit daunted, as I have just weeks to learn what could easily be called a new paradigm in usability and be productive creating an app for iPhone/iPad.

Time to go to bed and put my brain to rest…


Cisco is like Apple. Only different…

Yesterday was the second or third time ever that I had to deal with a Cisco Pix (a glorified router, if you ask me). Before your jaw drops with secret admiration, I must come clean: I was just typing the commands that someone, who is knowledgeable on this, was dictating word by word over the phone so the router would do what it’s supposed to do – I was just his eyes and fingers for about an hour. This person, however, gets my admiration for having taken the time to learn to manage a piece of hardware as arcane as anything Cisco.

For those unfamiliar with what it’s like to set up a Cisco router, the best example I can think of from my experience today is that it’s exactly what it would feel if you turned off your computer’s monitor only to turn it on, for about a minute, for a quick peek every 10 minutes or so to see the results of what you’ve been doing. It’s a telnet interface (a text screen where you enter commands) and through the process, the device’s feedback is limited to a few error messages and nothing else: if it doesn’t complain about what you typed, you’re on track.

Cisco equipment is famously expensive (I’m sure it’s pretty good too, but then, it really takes effort to make a router that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, anyway), though the really interesting part of all this is the business model:

  1. Cisco makes expensive equipment that’s a bitch to manage.
  2. Cisco certifies users as Cisco-capable after they take one or more [rather expensive] courses.
  3. After spending a ton of money on getting certified I’d be hell-bent on recommending Cisco equipment (I want my money back, and so would anyone with an IQ higher than their waist size).
  4. Which takes us back to 1.

If there were a 3a, it’d probably read something like “The last thing Cisco-certified people want is for Cisco to add a user interface to their products that’s actually usable.”

The bottom line, though, is that the entire business model relies on the user-interface being as bad as possible. Were they to slap a web server on top of the configuration facilities (like home or small-business routers have), they would self-destroy, as they’d be, in effect, alienating their key evangelists and, in the process, they’d also cheapen their product in the eye of the consumer, as anyone’s teenage nephew would be proficient at it in a matter of hours, if not less.

After today, I think the only way they could make it worse (or better, depending on who you ask) would be to substitute the English commands, which start making a bit (a tiny bit, I must add) of sense after about an hour of being at it, with mnemonics (i.e. “A5” instead of “configure”).

But, how is Cisco like Apple? you might be wondering. Simple: both businesses rely heavily on the user interface of their products, only one couldn’t be better and the other couldn’t be worse.

Clean design?

Designers, architects, and engineers very seldom, if at all, get to clean their amazing creations, and those that end up doing the cleaning often complain in a vacuum, which means that the former never even realize what a pain in the ass it is to clean some things (houses, lamps, bookcases, kitchen, walls, you name it).

I’m aware of this because I sometimes have to clean my house or see the dirt left behind by the lady that does it most of the time. The problem, however, is endemic to the world of industrial design. It’s as if these experts didn’t have the common sense to know that nooks, intricate textures, and horizontal surfaces in general aren’t but dust magnets.

I’ve been a subscriber to a facebook group called “design d’autore” (possibly one of many) and every day she, he, they, I don’t know who’s behind it, posts pictures of designer objects. Houses, lamps, furniture, vehicles, you name it; if it’s pleasing to the eye, it’s there.

These are objects that are beautiful and award-winning, but I have to wonder about them really being as well thought as most people opine. They aren’t.

But then, even if they knew (which they don’t), it’s irrelevant as clearly someone who pays $1000 for a designer chair obviously will never do anything with it but admire it or sit on it.

dumb dumb dumb

Who am I to complain?

Three weeks ago as I was kvetching about the design change in Experts Exchange, someone pointed out that blogsperiment’s gray type over a dark background wasn’t precisely readable.

True. So, for the three people (counting myself) that read this blog, I hope you like the new theme. I’m not nuts about it but then, there’s a good reason why newspapers have white backgrounds…

Posted in Design. 1 Comment »

Wide screens are better because we say so

There was a time when both TV’s and computer screens shared proportions. 4:3 to be exact. For those that don’t get fractions, if your screen was 40” wide, it’d have to be 30” tall to follow the 4:3 ratio.

Movies were always different. Mostly because it is trivial to stretch a white canvas much wider than it is higher across a theater hall.

To show a movie made for cinema on a TV screen required that either the top and bottom be unused (black bands above and below the image) or that the sides of the image be cropped and viewers would be happy because not a single square inch of their brand-new 60” projection screen was being wasted.

DVD’s apparently forced the issue as, out of respect to the original, they would present the movie in all its wide glory, wasting about 30% of screen real estate.

TV’s then started being manufactured in the now ubiquitous 16:9 format, which was actually proposed back in the 70’s (the HDTV standard), which was all good. The 16:9 standard was actually proposed as a compromise between the 4:3 format common at the time and the formats used by most movies, which weren’t actually 16:9 (and still arent – see wikipedia to learn more than you ever cared about this and other trivial things that are unlikely to impress the beautiful brunette at the end of the bar).

But why computers? You’re probably wondering. Especially when most work done on computers (written documents) has always followed a tall, rather than wide, format.

When in doubt, as they say, follow the money. The cost of manufacturing an LCD screen is directly proportional to its surface area. Manufacturing a 14” screen with the new 16:9 ratio costs about 10% less than manufacturing the same screen using the 4:3 proportions (you get roughly 10% less pixels on a wide screen than on a 4:3 screen with the same diagonal dimension).

That’s how we ended up doing most of our work in wide-format screens (and wasting about 30% of their useful area because most of what people do in computers, other than watching movies, is better suited to taller display areas, and that’s without counting the space lost to tool bars and “ribbons” running ACROSS the screen as opposed to from top to bottom on one side). Utilitarian design is a dead art, me thinks.

I can just picture someone pointing this out at a board meeting and asking “But what will users say?” and just as easily I can picture someone else saying “They’ll love it… because we say so.”

iPhone syndrome

There seems to be a growing number of people who are up in arms over gmail’s new look. Resistance was prevalent enough upon its introduction that google-folk granted users the ability to change the density of the data presented.

Ever since the iPhone came out, everyone in the technological landscape has been trying to emulate it somehow. The most mundane example of this sort of thing can be found among religious fanatics’ inclination to imitate their leader’s handwriting regardless of how ugly or even unreadable it might turn out to be.

Likewise, techies and marketeers alike seem to live under the impression that anything that comes out of the Apple church is blessed by awesome design.

It’s hard to argue with this, as their user interfaces tend to be streamlined, elegant, visually attractive, and, most importantly, very user-friendly. However, just because Apple created doesn’t mean that there can’t be anything else or, God forbid, something better.

And so, when google saw how much people liked the iPhone’s interface, in their infinite (or googolish) wisdom, they decided that gmail ought to have that same look. Morons.

What they totally missed is that we still interface with our computers with a keyboard and a mouse, not with the tips of our fingers. If anything, screens are getting bigger, both on the desktop and notebooks, so I really see no reason in this environment for oversized buttons and list items one inch apart from one-another. What’s the point of having a bigger screen if we’re getting increasingly less information out of it?

The latest bastion to fall for this iDiocy is I have been participating in it for just a couple of days, and I had seen announcements of the “new look” every time I’d log on. Today they made the switch, and guess what: a very usable and, more importantly even, INFORMATIVE interface now looks like a damn iPad and, yup, has less information than before, requires more work to get around. On top of that, they botched it; it doesn’t render correctly in my browser (Firefox under kde).

Hell, I’m not 18 anymore; I need glasses to read, and I appreciate larger letters whenever I find them, but design, just for the heck of it, is plain stupid.

%d bloggers like this: