13 Nov 95
Look & Feel Be Damned
Here's a little tidbit from Ambrose Bierce's DEVIL'S DICTIONARY: "'Logic' n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding...."
Computers are nothing if not excessively logical information handling devices. The human being is an amazing, organic machine that specializes in chaotic, passionate activity. Put the two together, and you've got trouble.
That's why one of the most original and fast-growing fields in computing in recent years has been that of "interface design." The issues of "interface design" have become increasingly important in program critiques. They're now graded on their "usability." Compare the widespread loyalty to the consistency of the Macintosh interface with America Online's software, which still refuses to even follow conventions established 3 years ago with Windows 3.1.
Hiding The Machine
This wasn't a big deal in computers a few years back. Businessmen and scientists were simply overjoyed to have the power and efficiency of a personal computer like the first IBM model. Part of owning one, using one, was "learning it." Books and training videos sold like hotcakes, and a whole genre was born: the "Dummies" and "Up 'n' Running" books. Someone who could whip up mystical insight from a maze of Lotus 1-2-3 data, and talk with a Hayes-compatible modem in it's own "AT" language set, was a gifted yuppie of the highest order.
Then came Apple's Macintosh. To introduce the new computer, Chiat/Day writer Steve Hayden's "1984" TV advertisement portrayed those office-bound IBM savants as gray, robotic lemmings, loyally marching off to a drab future of boring computing dread. But the Mac: it was cute (even developed a cute, monosyllabic name), huggable, made baby-like "drip" sounds, and talked to you with pictures and zooming windows. It freed the user from morose conventionality. The computer "for the rest of us" was a cartoon in a box, and what was nicknamed a "point-and-drool" interface was an instant hit with compuphobes and artists.
Despite a legendary premium pricing scheme, Macs were successful because Apple enforced a fascistic adherence to compatibility standards. The software and hardware were mated seamlessly, though somewhat ambiguously, and what was supposed to work ... DID work. The user was relieved of the burden of tending to the machine so that one could tend to one's work. This stood in stark contrast to IBM machines that featured an open architecture: third-party developers concocted shortcuts and workarounds that plunged users into a maelstrom of configuration woes.
The Macintosh trumpeted what is now being touted by Microsoft as "document-centricity." You don't run programs, you work on your documents, your images, your recipes, and the programs are silent servants that dutifully give you the tools to do so. It's UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS in RAM. To this day, Mac users tend to sound like they're married to their particular, favorite program -- the one that has always been there when the user wanted to go to work.
Windows programs -- well, Windows programs have always been selfish about the limelight. Often, whatever you installed (or sometimes just ran) last is what you get to work on a program. The others are available, but each new program tends to lay claim to its own particular document types for launching from a file window. Windows 95 doesn't seem to be changing this.
Great Minds Travel In The Same RutNot to be left out of a innovative trend, Microsoft joined a tradition of borrowing, by lifting key design motifs from the Apple OS for its Windows operating environment for Intel-based machines. Though Apple had also lifted concepts from previous systems, notably (if I recall correctly) VisiOn and the Xerox Star, Microsoft was slapped with a vehement lawsuit for copying an allegedly copyrighted "look and feel" from the Macintosh. This squabble made it all the way to the US Supreme Court before being blasted into legal obscurity.
But more important than Print Managers and Control Panels, hourglasses and wristwatches, Cut/Copy/Paste actions ... is the underlying notion. The Mac OS, Windows and all the other GUIs (graphical user interfaces) effect a marvelously obvious idea: let the operating system handle the details of the machine and peripherals, and programs (essentially, the documents you work on) simply feed their input/output to the OS. The machine then becomes transparent to your task. What a concept, eh? MS-DOS and many other OS' required that each program (word processors, technical designers, spreadsheets) provide drivers for the monitor and the printer. Windows was the watershed event of Intel-based computers getting a clue. Windows 95 takes it further by closely matching System 7's close symbiosis to the hardware platform, and a more serious attempt to make the operating system a bystander, rather than a ringmaster.
With that nasty, ol' lawsuit out of the way, Microsoft has no problem with copying much more of the Mac's conventions, and Windows 95 does just that. The handwriting has been on the wall. Microsoft has, for years, foreshadowed the future of Windows with its premier applications. As I've eval'ed Word for Windows 6.0 (Spring '94), Bookshelf '94 (Fall '94), Encarta '95 (Winter '94) and Word 6.0 (Spring '95), it became clear that Windows 95 was going to behave consistently with System 7 and other graphical user interfaces. Here are some examples:
- Word introduced nifty ToolTips, so your buttons can identify themselves to you, and tabbed dialogs, so you could assimilate dozens of possible choices into easily digested groups. "Wizards" simplified complicated processes into a "question and answer" dialog box that takes you from a "start" to an automated "finish."
- Bookshelf featured an interface that was based on the tabbed, or paned, conception. What you looked at, or searched for, was based on an icon bar, and the action you performed was offered by one of four vertically-aligned tabs. Kind of like a book. (!) Right-clicking yielded pop-up menus, and cute little sounds accompanied most actions.
- Encarta '95 scared the bejeezus out of me. Tabbed dialogs, cute sounds (no longer blurps and bloops, but swishes and wooshes, as if it had sprung a leak), and a really unusual color scheme caught me off guard. Running in Windows 3.11, it was like a Masai warrior walking into Brooks Bros. Menus (actually little ribbons) swushed down when my pointer hovered over them. The window control buttons, normally flat images, suddenly popped up when the cursor passed over them. Graphically, the whole thing was revolutionary ... playing with it and making notes, I thought, "First shot fired -- this is what Windows 95 will like. Damn, it's annoying." In addition ... it was dark. Really dark, lots of black space on the screen. Kind of scary, that.
- Word 7.0 (for Windows 95) shows the clearest indication of Windows 95's heart. It's a fully object oriented word processor, where each document can become a part of a master document. Document templates, now in categorical folders, become launch pads for creating new documents. Each command in the program is an object that can be inserted in a menu (perhaps one of your own, if you like), a toolbar (again, perhaps one of your own) or attached to a keystroke. Any command could be incorporated into your own, easily written macro -- a supra-command. Toolbars could be stuck anywhere on the screen, or float above the text. Functions from one program appear in another when you're working with that type of object (it's part of what's called OLE 2.0). No more double-clicking -- you either hover your cursor, or use combinations of the buttons, to get more things done. And most importantly ... almost anything can be reconfigured to taste. Anything.
In Windows 95, probably far more consequential than the new features you've heard about (whether you wanted to or not), are the subtle changes. The details that mark how you use ... the new features.
- ToolTips abound ... hovering your pointer will usually yield some information about it. Taskbar icons don't even have to clicked ... they just provide their cogent information when you point at the little indicator.
- Menus and other objects continue to open up after you click once. This can be traumatizing if you're clumsy with your pointing device ... but also means that device will last longer, since you only click once. As you hover your mouse pointer over cascading menus, they, well, start cascading on their own. If you're not sure what you want, you can right- click icons and objects to choose from a half dozen or more commands. This is light years ahead of the Mac convention of holding that mouse button down until you've found the right menu item. Often you can enable a "Help tool" cursor that will allow an item to explain what it is. (This is way cool.)
- Documents come first, but the Start Menu still offers programs by default. Granted you have a "recently-used documents" menu, but you can do better. The whole Start Menu is a subfolder of C:\WINDOWS, so you can insert shortcuts (like Mac "aliases") for documents in folders of your own design. You can also insert shortcuts for folders -- picking the menu item will now open up the folder you want. (Example: a shortcut off of Start Menu ... My Files ... that opens up C:\MYFILES. If you copy the shortcut to the desktop, you can also drag files from a floppy disk to the shortcut ... and the files will be copied to C:\MYFILES.)
- Your right button isn't limited to clicking. Dragging with it yields a pop-up menu as well.
- Minimizing and maximizing windows, moving files, emptying the Recycle Bin ... many things are represented by animated status windows. It takes your mind off the fact that you're waiting. It's also cute.
- The Taskbar (upon which the Start Button resides, as well as program icons and status indicators) can be moved to any side of the screen, can be sized to taste, and even forced to "auto hide" when not in use.
- File Open and File Save dialogs present a window wherein, through right-clicking, you can manage most common file management functions. You can rename, copy, delete, move files ... and THEN save your WordPad masterpiece. It comes in handy. Since file management now happens in the Explorer/My Computer windows, and there's no more File Manager (well, it's there, but you don't want to use it), you begin to get used to coping with files wherever you happen to be working.
- With OLE 2.0, your imbedded Excel chart is editable from within Word. Double-click it, and the Excel toolbars and menus appear within the word processor. More document- centricity.
- The ability to add keyboard shortcuts to each Start Menu item means you can launch quickly a program, or a shortcut for a folder, or a shortcut for a system function (like the Control Panel Date/Time dialog, which shows a monthly calendar and nifty, analog clock,... or the Notebook Power status control). The more you think about shortcuts (on the desktop, and in the Start Menu), the more time you'll save. (Here's another tip: create a shortcut for one folder in another that's related. When you're searching for a file in one from some program's File Open dialog, you can jump to the other. In this way, when I'm looking for a WAV file in C:\WINDOWS\MEDIA, I click a shortcut that takes me to D:\SOUND\SNDBITES.)
The Obscure Object Of Desire
The common element here is that Windows 95 is a remarkably object-based system. Most of the user interface is made up of bits and pieces that you can move and reassemble to your own liking. This can be a curse to novice users, who now have an unprecedented opportunity to completely screw up their configuration.
The bottom line is that Windows lifts the best from all the GUIs: tabbed dialogs from OS/2, an "Apple Menu" from the Mac and right-clicking from, I believe, X-Windows (a UNIX environment). Just as MS-DOS was descended from CP/M and UNIX. There are many more examples, but you get the idea. It's natural selection at work. The user interface mutates to try to satisfy what users (consumers) want.
Many reviews of Windows 95 are in the habit of having a Mac "expert" compare the two. Unfortunately, I've seen more than a few of these "water cooler consultants" compare the strong points of System 7 with the shortfalls of Windows. Bad logic, there. Further, I've seen writers identify the new features of Windows, and link them to their counterparts on the Mac ... without acknowledging WHY they're migrating to this next generation interface. While users all over are frothing over this feature or that feature, you'll do well to take a look at the personality of the new operating system as a whole.
Good ideas can't be copyrighted ... only the particular execution of the idea. In this sense, the "look and feel" of a computer operating system can be no more "owned" than ... a warm, fuzzy feeling.
From THE JARGON FILE Version 2.9.12
If you've made it this far, a little recreational reading is in order. From here on, I'll pick a random term (well, sort of random) from the legendary hacker document, THE JARGON FILE, for your amusement and linguistic enrichment. All computer related, all guaranteed to give you respectability among the Clan of the Cave Byte.
"POINT-AND-DROOL INTERFACE n. Parody of the techspeak term 'point-and-shoot interface', describing a windows, icons, menu and pointing-device interface such as is found on the Macintosh. The implication, of course, is that such an interface is only suitable for idiots. See "For The Rest Of Us," "WIMP [windows, icons, menus and pointing devices] Environment," "Macintrash," "Drool-Proof Paper." Also 'point-and-grunt interface'."
-- D.B. Spalding
A self-described multicareerist, D.B. Spalding is a writer, musician, independent radio producer, computer consultant and online sysop; he writes frequently about music, film, computing and the mass- and multimedia.
(C) Copyright 1995 D.B. Spalding. All rights reserved.