Alastair’s Place

Software development, Cocoa, Objective-C, life. Stuff like that.

Myopic View?

John Gruber’s Mac OS X Tipping Point article remarks that

The myopic view of the classic Mac OS held by OS X era switchers, I suspect, stems from a thought process that runs like this: I wasn’t using a Mac in the late 90s, and I care about computers, and a bunch of my friends and colleagues feel the same way, so therefore no one who cares about computers was using a Mac in the late ’90s.

As a member of the group of “OS X era switchers”, I think this is manifestly unfair. It is a gross generalisation, and fails to take account of a number of factors affecting people like me. For instance, in the late ’90s, I would have loved to have been using a Mac. As someone who previously used Atari ST machines through the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Mac was a case of a familiar (but slightly better) user interface, familiar (but slightly better) hardware and generally better (but more expensive) software. There are, of course, exceptions—anyone familiar with the latter days of the Atari ST range will remember remarks in the press about the number of Calamus DTP users decrying the lack of functionality in Quark Xpress, and many of the high-end music packages that today are run on the Mac and PC platforms originated on the ST platform.

However, as a student without a proper income, I wasn’t able to afford the new PowerPC Macs, and didn’t see much of a future for the admittedly attractive 68040-based machines that were still on sale. Nor were the clone machines particularly competitively priced (indeed, had I bought one of those, I would probably have regretted it, since they had the price point of Apple’s hardware but without any of the finesse).

So I was forced into the world of the PC and thereby Windows. And let me tell you, it is pretty horrible having to switch from an operating system that has a Mac-like UI with a mix of UNX and DOS-like underpinnings (in the latter days drifting ever closer to being UNX-like) to the frankly ropey UI of Microsoft Windows. Not that the Mac UI was perfect, but it was a lot better than Windows. I actually think that the Mac UI has got a bit worse, rather than better, with the introduction of OS X, but I’m hoping that Leopard will go some way towards resolving that.

You may ask why didn’t I then buy a Mac for ages after that? Well, although my income had increased somewhat, I had an investment in PC software at that point. The thing that originally tempted me into the world of the Mac was the fact that the titanium PowerBook was the best UN*X-based portable available. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to shift completely to the Mac, but when I found it so much less annoying to use than my PC, that’s what happened. And now, my business is based around the Mac too.

Ironically, perhaps, given that the ST was moving towards a model with a UN*X-like base and a Mac-like UI, modern Mac OS X has done exactly that! Though there are still a few things, to my mind, that Apple could have usefully learned from buying an old ST and looking at the software on it. For instance, being able to use windows that are not on the top, or the way that dragging a file from one window to another has the same meaning wherever the file is coming from or going to (on the ST, this would always copy the file… to move it instead, you had to hold a key; the Mac, like Windows, uses a ridiculous heuristic based on whether the file is on the same disk, forcing you—unnecessarily—to watch for UI cues that tell you what you’re going to do and modify your behaviour accordingly). Tear-off menus are quite handy too, as is a send-to-back button on the windows and the ability to resize from any side or corner. (I am aware, before anyone points out, that the original GEM didn’t have many of these features… but later GEM replacements, including Geneva, MagiC, nAES et al., certainly did/do).