Are Aqua-Skeptics Luddites?

2000: In Bryan Chaffin’s latest The Back Page column on The Mac Observer, he argues that Apple was brilliant for showing Mac OS X’s new “lickable” Aqua user interface now, and he sharply chides the foot-draggers (your humble servant included) who have expressed misgivings about the GUI course that Apple has chosen to follow in the evolution to Mac OS X, dismissing us as “Mac-ignorant” and “fearful of change.”

Aqua Finder window

Bryan is solidly in the camp of Mac-users eager to embrace Aqua, and he stakes out his philosophical ground clearly with the statement: “I hate the fear of change.” Mr. Chaffin goes on at considerable length to explain why, in his opinion, the Aqua-skeptics are a bunch of “pathetic” knuckle-dragging Luddites railing against inevitable progress.

This is pretty strong stuff, and I have to say that I was taken aback by the vehemence of Mr. Chaffin’s broadside. Does he really believe that all change should be blindly embraced regardless of its substance, as if change was innately virtuous in and of itself? I suggest that characterizing resistance and opposition to change as “fear” – without qualification – smacks more of innuendo than thoughtful critique.

Aside from somewhat backhanded acknowledgment that many longtime Mac users have an “emotional investment” in the Classic Mac OS (presumably calculated to bolster his assertion that resistance to Aqua is irrational), Mr. Chaffin has concentrated on denigrating the intelligence of those who disagree with his take on Aqua while congratulating Apple for its brilliance for leaking the Aqua interface long before OS X ships, in order to soften up opposition from change-phobic flat-earthers, who, he superciliously predicts, will eventually overcome their reflexive and irrational fear of anything new and learn to love Aqua.

I wonder if Bryan has ever read 1984?

Nowhere in his column does Mr. Chaffin address any of the specific criticisms that have been cited by various Aqua critics, based on Steve Jobs’ demo of Aqua at Macworld Expo, and exposure to the DP 3 alpha release. These include:

  • No Apple Menu
  • Dopey “Fisher-Price” style icon bars (a la Sherlock 2)
  • The Dock, with its oversized graphics (yes, I know they can be resized, but reportedly they only look decent at their default setting)
    Aqua Dock
  • No popup folders
  • No Application menu
  • No Control Strip
  • No Trash on the desktop
  • No constantly-visible text labels on icons
  • No “Hide Others” command
  • No normal desktop that you can dump stuff on by default
  • No drives displayed on the desktop
  • Headache-inducing pulsating graphics
  • Nonfunctional Apple logo in smack-dab in the center of the Menu bar
    Aqua menu bar
  • Bright, gaudy, color scheme is distracting

Now, I have not used or even seen Aqua, aside from screenshots posted on websites, and I am fully cognizant of the fact that DP 3 is an alpha release. However, I have spoken to and read many reports by people who have used DP 3. For instance, my son, Tristan, who is usually a consummate fan of change and enthusiastic early-adopter of new stuff, and who moreover likes the aesthetics of Aqua, was turned-off by many of the issues listed above when he tried out DP 3.

If Mr. Chaffin’s thesis about Apple deliberately leaking Aqua details to soften up the troops holds any water at all, then the frequently-heard counter-argument that the essential feature set of Aqua hasn’t been finalized makes no sense. At this stage of the game, one would have to surmise that the basic architecture of Aqua has been set, although one hopes that changes still can be made to address some of the objections cited above.

I don’t “fear” change, so long as change brings substantive improvement. I think OS 9 is better than OS 8 is better than System 7. I usually try to run the latest versions of my most-used software applications, and I think my PowerBook G3 is a lot better computer than my old Mac Plus and LC 520. However, I have no interest in change for the sake of change, or in putting form before function, and I really have no time for any change that makes things worse.

The most salutary example of this is certainly the saga of Microsoft Word. The first version that I used was Word 4, and I purchased the upgrade to Word 5.1 in early 1993. Word 5.1 remained my principal word-crunching application, augmented by Tex-Edit, for the next five years. I still have it on my hard drive, although I usually only start it up these days to open one of the hundreds of Word 5.1 files I have archived with formatting intact (Tex-Edit opens them nicely if all I want is plain text). I find it more than a little remarkable that an application that I first used on a Mac Plus with 2.5 MB of memory running System 6.0.3 still works happily on my PowerBook G3 running Mac OS 9.

Word 5.1 was a superb application – relatively small, fast, stable, and powerful. I was able to run a minimal installation on a RAM disk in my PowerBook 5300 with 24 MB of RAM with plenty of room left over for a pared-down System Folder and a few other small applications. It had a pleasant, functional, and customizable interface that mostly observed Mac OS conventions (dialog boxes were an exception).

In 1994 Microsoft “upgraded” Word to version 6, a.k.a. “Word for Windows for the Mac”. Word 6 was PowerPC native (but slower than Word 5.1) and offered the advantage of transparent file compatibility between the Mac and Windows versions. Beyond that, it was a downgrade from its predecessor. Gone was the Mac-like interface, replaced with an ugly, Windows-style look. Gone were familiar and useful features like Word 4/5.x’s Work Menu, which was one of my favorite productivity features.

Word 6 toolbar parody

Microsoft Word 6 toolbar parody – or is it?

Many users who had “upgraded” reverted to Word 5.1 in disgust over Word 6’s sluggishness and ugliness, only to discover that they couldn’t open files that they’d created in Word 6. Microsoft hurriedly issued a converter patch. Like many others, I continued to use Word 5.1, even after I upgraded my hardware to PPC, but I eventually switched mainly to Nisus Writer for tasks where I need full-featured word-processing horsepower. These days I mostly use Tex-Edit Plus, which has been sensibly and gracefully upgraded and improved over the years, for the bulk of my word processing.

What Microsoft should have done is made Word 5.1 PPC native with a cross-platform compatible file format, and otherwise left well enough alone. The fact that they did not means that they lost me as a customer. Instead, we now have Word 98 – a quantum improvement on Word 6 in some aspects, but even more bloated. The installation eats up vast tracts hard drive real estate and dumps a load of shared library junk in your System Folder. Double-click it and the behemoth lumbers to life, slurping up gobs of RAM, and then proceeds to annoy you with runaway featuritis and interface clutter.

Is Aqua an analog of the Microsoft Word experience? I hope not, but there are uncomfortable similarities. I don’t object to this because Aqua is new. I look forward to the good stuff in Mac OS X like protected memory and preemptive multitasking, and I acknowledge that some interface compromises had to be made in order to accommodate OS X’s Unix-based architecture. However, I’m not convinced at all that the OS X interface couldn’t have been written to retain the great aspects of the classic Mac OS interface, which seems to have been gratuitously and unnecessarily jettisoned.

…I find Aqua’s several slouches toward Windows
interface conventions distinctly unsettling.

Ergo, I am not disposed to jumping on the Aqua bandwagon just because Aqua is new and different from what I think is the best computer user interface yet developed, and that assessment is not just based on familiarity. The main reason I choose to use a Mac is the Mac OS interface, and I find Aqua’s several slouches toward Windows interface conventions distinctly unsettling. Some have suggested that Apple wants to make the Mac OS more like Windows in order to ease the transition for Windows users migrating to the Mac. Well, with respect, I think that strategy is asinine. Remember “Think Different?” It is those Mac differences that make the Mac OS better than Windows.

I respect Bryan Chaffin, and more often than not I agree with the views he expresses in his columns, but IMHO he’s strayed way off-base on this issue. He is entitled to his glowing opinion of Aqua, and if he is not bothered by the perceived interface shortcomings I’ve cited above, that’s jolly for him.

However, not everyone thinks the same, and just because some people have looked at Aqua (first- or secondhand), listened to the hype, and been unenchanted by what is being presented, does not mean that they are stupid, “fearful”, or “pathetic”.

Even people who resist change reflexively are not necessarily wrong. They just think different(ly) than Bryan Chaffin does. He might consider giving some thought to cultivating tolerance of opinions he disagrees with, without resorting to name-calling and sarcastic disparagement.

keywords: #macosx #aqua