Innovation pressure

While I’m on a roll with this writing thing, I’d like to address some thoughts bubbling from my head after reading drunkenbatman’s article on research in how we interact with computers, “Humans being”.

This guy, I must add, seems pretty insane in the amount of energy he seems to be able to expend on his passions. Anyway, once it gets started, the article is about how insanely difficult it is to actually come up with innovations in the software arena now that it’s 30 years old (or whatever) and that to build things from scratch requires an enormous amount of time and talent, which is equivalent to a great deal of money.

It really is true that we’re only seeing baby steps, but it’s not like things are literally stagnant. Both Apple and Microsoft aren’t moving forward in leaps and bounds, but the frameworks they are building make it increasingly easier for developers to create amazing things. At least, that’s the idea. And in general, although things always seem to take longer than you’d like, I think that the effort expended by Apple and Microsoft (the latter which will be yielding benefits after Windows Vista is released; WinXP has been dormant now long enough that innovative app development isn’t being driven by features of the OS itself) is well spent.

Maybe Apple can’t afford to spend the time to create a media-managing application that seems to push at the boundaries of what computers can do well for us, but if they put big pieces of the puzzle in place for someone like Wil Shipley to do so, then we are still seeing innovation.

But db is right when he says that if you want something like handwriting recognition, you can’t just sit down and write the app. You need development labs to build the tech, and from tech you build the app. This is exactly analogous with the OS framework providing the tech for the app for third-party developers, but in the case of Apple, there might be no-one just sitting in a lab playing with a Tablet PC and trying to get it to work as damn well as Microsoft has already got it.

These thoughts are occurring to me as I write, but oh dear, if Apple hasn’t invested the time and money for handwriting recognition since the Newton was cancelled (and there’s obviously no way that someone from outside the company can assess that statement), then of course they can’t develop a tablet form-factor Powerbook since they’ll be stuck with 1990s-era technology for input.

Something tells me that the work MS has been doing recently (and I’ve heard very good things, although never used one extensively) trumps what Apple did with the Newton back in the day. Let’s hope that Apple indeed do have cards up their sleeve, and their 6–8 billion US in the bank couldn’t be better spent hiring some more geniuses. I would love to see the next big thing come out of Apple’s labs rather than Microsoft’s, but their 5% market share may indeed by the problem that Steve Jobs says it is (“Look, with the iPod, we’re heaps good coz there’s no monopoly keepin’ us down!”).

But yikes, when you take a step back and realise we’re not talking about just one aspect of the computer, or one aspect of the programming language as in Avoid Copland 1010, by John Siracusa, there is so much to lose if the pressure or capability for innovation fails that I hope that Apple knows what they’re doing.

And you know what? They probably do. Sometimes we just gotta take a step back and say, ‘oh well, not having a consistent interface is annoying, but at least we’re seeing progress!’ Let’s hope that it’s the right progress.

Too much information

I read something the other day, but I can’t remember where it was. And it’s ringing true especially now. Talking about how multitasking really is less efficient when it has to switch processes very frequently, and this is the same as the brain; now compare to how Knuth imposes a batch mode into his life so that he excludes everything that isn’t important to his current work.

I read a bunch of people who write periodically on the web (I am fairly opposed to using both the noun and the verb ‘blog’, but at a pinch I’d prefer the former), and I’d often like to amalgamate my thoughts on the matter and put together something publicly. But two things get in the way: I get distracted and I don’t have enough time. Well, the latter complaint is unavoidable within the context of the problem. Either I’m organised enough to do something or I’m not. (All too frequently, I’m not.) But the former can be a big problem, and in the context (sorry to repeat this word) of getting real work done, it can be quite detrimental to my life if I let it continue.

While I’m sitting at my desk, I might switch between thinking/reading about magnets, TeX, Apple, ongoing projects for other people, random news, random email, tutoring students, and a fair number of smaller things as well. With so many context switches with varying degrees of priority, I can’t possibly hope to keep up with almost all of them unless the situation can be resolved before my brain switches tack again. More problems arise when less important but more enjoyable trains of thought occur, and what’s really important (i.e., my PhD) suffers.

The solution to this problem would be to get some self-disciple, damn it, and ignore all the other distractions, but I seem to not be able to even come close to doing this. I don’t know if it’s because without my distractions, I’m no longer the same person, as if the information I consume is what gives me my own personality. This is indeed a tempting proposition, but I’m sure ingesting less information and concentrating harder on a specific task won’t diminish my sense of self, although it might make me less interesting to talk to, since all I’d know about is a table that floats on magnets.

Days like today, when I have few emails and there’s little news, are supposedly the best, since I can concentrate less on them. Let’s hope that these days occur more often in the future.


Some words on Preview.app

What I have to say about Preview is quite good. In Mac OS X 10.3, Preview was re-written, perhaps by Dominic Giampaulo, and it was hot. It opened PDFs in no time flat, and its searching capabilities were just so nice. In addition, it handled hyperlinks and tables of contents and other regular “PDF-like” stuff that had made it quite inferior to Acrobat Reader in the past.

The only problem was, it wasn’t part of the public Cocoa framework for displaying PDF files—only Preview itself could handle them as nicely. Anyone else (TeXShop, say) had to rely on bare bones it-works-but-there’s-no-bells-OR-whistles functionality.

With Tiger, Apple released PDF-goodness on all in PDFKit. Now TeXShop handles PDFs as well as anyone, even if Spotlight (or something) seems to have slowed down Tiger’s Preview compared to Panther’s. Oh well, I’ve only a 867MHz Powerbook, so I can’t complain. And everyone was happy, especially since Preview was further updated to handle annotation and global bookmarks.

Except they did a shoddy job at adding new features. Annotations can only be circles or (exactly one font at exactly one size of) text, and after the document is saved they become baked in. That’s right: no editing or seeing what’s underneath after actually creating the annotation. So that feature is only really marginally useful.

And second, the global bookmarks menu is a really nice idea. What’s it for? I didn’t realise this for ages, but it’s to keep track of where you’re up to (or your favourite places in) in any number of PDF documents that you have been reading. So, that’s pretty cool once I started using it. Here’s the kicker, though. It only works with static file paths. Eh? If you move or rename the PDF, your bookmark dies. It greys out in the menu, but all you can do about it is go to the preferences and delete the bookmark.

WTF? I haven’t got around to programming in Cocoa yet, but I’m almost 100% sure that it’s not the hardest thing in the world to link a file such that its location in the file system is independent of whether or not you can access it. Case in point: aliases in the Finder. And if the Finder can do something, anyone can do better.

So that’s my much delayed Friday bug for Apple: bug #4273090

Summary: Preview can place global “bookmarks” in PDF files to make it easier to keep track of reading long documents. However, it links those bookmarks with static file paths; if the file moves then the bookmark is broken. A more robust method of linking to the PDF file should be used.

Steps to Reproduce:

  • Open a PDF, and add a bookmark to it from the Bookmarks menu.
  • Close the PDF, and notice that the Bookmarks menu allows you to open the file at the previous location.
  • Now move the original file.
  • The bookmark is greyed out, and the bookmark is broken. It can’t even be fixed: it can either remain there unusable, or it may be deleted.

Expected Results:
The file should be linked to its file system node, not its file path. The bookmark should not break when the PDF is moved.

Actual Results:
The file is linked via its path; renaming or moving the PDF breaks the bookmark.


Other people's Finder

Of course, I only write about the Finder because other people are. drunkenbatman probably sparked more interest than most — not uncharacteristically — in his complaint Spotlight on Spotlight, Part 01 of \infty.

Brett Simmons responded to some people’s comments that the Finder should be re-written in Cocoa: “Cocoa can't, on its own, fix problems with a flawed design” in Finder + Cocoa = Finder.

I would say that most people who say this implicitly assume that a re-implementation in Cocoa would involve a re-design by necessity, but it’s never good to presume on the intentions of relatively anonymous comments on the internet.

Finally, John Siracusa’s recent entrance with “FatBits” (I dig the name; man have I been nostalgic recently) allowed him to make a statement that corresponds very well with what I said last week in his article The state of Mac web browsing:

Thanks to a fundamentally broken state retention design, nesting is effectively dead in the Mac OS X Finder‚ and I mean in the avian sense, not the hierarchical one.

This echoes quite closely my sentiment that it used to be fun to hang out in the Finder (I’m being metaphorical), whereas now it’s not really something I even consider. At least with the advent of Exposé I’m back to using the Desktop. Pre-10.3, I literally kept an empty Desktop. I’m glad at least you’re back, old friend.

I can’t continue with writing any more today, and I’m way behind my work to continue this tomorrow (let’s just say that kernel panics aren’t particularly amusing when writing an article in an unsaved TextEdit document), so I’ll leave it at that for today.


The Finder makes me avoid it

Okay, so everyone knows that the Finder is one of Mac OS X’s biggest embarrassments. And the real reason that I started writing in this place was to participate in Apple Bug Friday and hopefully help to build up whatever momentum will actually help fix the problems.

Bear in mind that I do accept that the next version of Mac OS X isn’t due for eighteen months or thereabouts, so any improvements that we’re going to see won’t appear for quite some time. Also remember, though, that actually coming up with a Finder That Doesn’t Suck (and associative services such as Spotlight) will take quite a bit of time indeed so the window for actually getting such a project started might be very small indeed.

The problem with writing up bugs with the Finder is that usually the bug that occurs is rather transitory. Say that I’ve got a few icons on my Desktop and suddenly all new icons are placed on top of “Macintosh HD”, a ridiculous state of affairs. This is the Finder’s fall-back method when it thinks there are no spots left, but in my case there clearly was a lot of space that could have been used. After a bit of fiddling to get enough info to actually file the report, however, the problem seems to have disappeared. Well, that’s one less bug we need to deal with again, if it never happens again. But will it? Oh, I guess so.

So now I’m racking my brain trying to think of what else the Finder does that really gets under my skin, and wouldn’t you know it—I can’t think of anything. So I go looking around a bit, starting to think “hey, maybe the Finder isn’t so bad after all” (although not believing myself), when, browsing through the preferences, it hits me: that God-damned dialog that asks me if I’d like to really change the extension on the file I just changed the extension of.

Sure, I get why it’s there. But give me the damn option to turn it off. I’m sure many people have submitted this bug before. But I figure, the more submissions of the same bug, the more the one guy working in Finder QA (and (s)he must be part-time) will get irritated that people keep sending in the same bug, trivial though it is, and get someone to fix it.

On the other hand, this is the type of thing that will probably change in 10.5 whether people file the bug report or not, so the actual use of doing so asymptotes to zero. But here we go anyway with bug #4250447:

Summary: When the extension of a file is changed, the Finder confirms whether or not you wish to change the extension.

Steps to Reproduce: Change the extension of a file in the Finder.

Expected Results: The first time such a thing happens, a confirmation dialog should appear, with the option to turn it off. (A checkbox to not sure this dialog again.) The default button of the dialog should be to accept the change, since the text of the dialog should deter any user that doesn’t know what they’re doing to cancel the change.

Actual Results: Every single time I need to change a file’s extension, I have to confirm it. The default button in the dialog is the not make the change, so it needs to be clicked with the mouse. This gets very tedious very quickly.

But the whole state of affairs is quite depressing. It’s quite easy to see that there are certain pieces of software in Mac OS X that share a certain lack of polish. The Finder is the worst culprit, and suffers from two problems: bad design and poor implementation.

But Tiger’s Mail.app gives me the same vibe, and I’d bet that the two programs at least share the same manager. The UI to Spotlight is lumped in with the Finder in my eyes, but it’s obvious that it exists in the same family tree. In the case of each, when using them for extended periods of time I’ve just run into so many little problems that if there were really decent alternatives I’d like to live without them.

I do believe that the terrible state of the Finder has directly resulted in my avoiding of it as much as possible, because it’s simply unpleasant to hang out there (if you’ll pardon the expression). I remember traversing my folder structure in the classic Mac OS, giving things icons and tweaking their icon positions, but in Mac OS X it’s strictly “get in get out” and minimise the exposure. There’s no reason to linger, and lingering is one of the reasons that people enjoy using their computer. Or maybe it’s a side-effect. Whatever. I do not enjoy using the Finder. I want to, but it just won’t let me.

The tragedy of the whole thing is that I don’t think it would take that much to fix everything up. Refine the UI, and reduce the wasted space that it has everywhere. Fix the terrible UI elements, such as the bizarre way that labels work. Just get someone to sit down, and write a design spec for everything that’ll be in 10.5 (and it had better have damn fancy metadata like Windows Vista already has) and you’re set.

The Finder should be Mac OS X’s standout application, the way it used to be. But enough people have wished for it before now, and look where we’ve ended up.


I found a new bug that I hadn’t seen before that annoys me no end now that I know about it. Check out the most vexing bug #4250475:

Summary: Finder windows may exist in one of two states: with or without a toolbar. In these states they are themed with either brushed metal or aqua, respectively. After a smart folder is saved in brushed metal, closing and reopening it displays the smart folder with the search query hidden and a button “Edit” to reveal it (a “query-less” state). However, when changing the window to aqua, this query-less state reverts to displaying the entire search query again. Closing and reopening the folder (still in aqua state) STILL does not show the query-less state.

Steps to Reproduce:

  • Create a smart folder. The more search terms, the better. Notice how they use up a fair amount of space in the window.
  • Save it on the desktop, say.
  • Make sure the window is brushed metal.
  • Close the window.
  • Open the smart folder in its own window (double-click its icon).
  • Notice that the search query is suppressed and the window looks relatively elegant.
  • Now press the toolbar button to change the window into aqua.
  • Note that the search is now revealed, possibly taking up several lines of space.
  • Close and reopen the window.
  • Note that the search query is still shown. If the lag on opening the window is great enough (use a complex search that finds lots of items on a slow computer), the query-less state is displayed as the window opens, but is replaced when the window finishes loading with the search query instead.

Expected Results: The aqua view should display the query-less state in the same manner as the brushed metal windows.

Actual Results: The query-less view is never shown, except momentarily, in the aqua view.



This is just a quick 20 minute article regarding Apple’s recent developments in the music business. Specifically, that ROKR phone, iPod nano, and iTunes 5. It’s easy to write about that first one: “meh?”. It looks like a fat ugly phone, but bear in mind I haven’t seen it in real life. With 512MB storage max, it’s simply something that I wouldn’t really consider based on the iTunes-factor alone. It’s not a reason not to get it, of course, but an iPod shuffle that creates a bulge in my pocket isn’t something I find particularly compelling, especially compared with something like the Nokia N91, for instance.

Moving on, the iPod nano has really nice product pictures. It looks pretty fancy, and Michael Gartenberg likes it, so I guess there’s not more to say. I’m not sure I’m convinced of the storage capacities 0.5 & 1, 2 & 4, 20 & 60 product matrix, but I think at this stage it’s as important to keep the iPod line “fresh” and keep people talking about it rather than miss out on a nicely balanced set of numbers.

Finally, and this was my impetus for writing this article, iTunes 5 is ugly ugly ugly. Listen, iTunes 4.9 was ugly as well. And some of the changes in the new version are for the better. But the horribly square window and the even worse faux LCD display just do not sight at all comfortably with me.

The worst thing? They did nothing to reduce the clutter or improve the features (search, whoop-dee-doo – I keep my iTunes library organised, thank you very much), and the interface now contains so many gradients that I’m getting flashbacks of ClarisWorks circa 1990. (That is, going overboard with using them, not ClarisWork’s interface. Desktop DTP almost never recovered.)

If I had the time, I’d like to mess around with some mock-ups of an iTunes-like interface just to see how hard it actually is to create something attractive.

Oh, one last point. It’s kind of cool to have folders of playlists that displays in the top level the culmination of songs that are contained within it.


Not another distraction.

Thoughts kept coming into my head that I wished to express, but I had no medium through which to do so. I'd be better off keeping quiet, since that would take less time, but I'm sure my attentive readers will attest to the fact that when things are itching to come out, there's really nothing that can be done besides let them.

Actually, that's a bit of a lie. If I had more self-discipline, I wouldn't have any distractions at all besides eating, drinking and sleeping (and now, exercising), but I feel that my distractions help make me who I am; and in fact, can often be a help to others. So here we are.

I can try and convince myself that writing here is beneficial to me, since everyone knows (or should know) that good writing takes practise. Any task that requires good writing will be accomplished quicker if I'm practised at that task, so by writing here, I'm practising, and hence saving myself time in the future. And hopefully improving the quality of that task at the same time.

But really, do I believe it? I think I just like the idea of writing. So, I'll need to schedule it. I'm coming to believe more and more that my life without a schedule will eventually turn to a chaotic mess; I'm trying with some success to become more organised and to do things in their proper order at appropriate times, but there's still a lot to be done. Back to the point of this paragraph: let's say that Wednesday evening is a good time to do some writing, so I'll attempt to spend say half an hour at least every Wednesday after work putting something in here.

It's my goal to write these things out in one or two passes max, then proof-read a single time. The point is to try and write decently without having to explicitly think about writing properly. If I'm good, it should just happen and it won't be embarrassing reading what I write. If I'm bad, I'll make mistakes in my spelling, grammar, logic, and consistency. And you, my attentive reader, won't wish to return. Here's hoping that doesn't happen.

Time to eat. Thanks for coming.