Archive

Archive for the ‘User interfaces’ Category

Everything is broken and no one cares

February 10, 2013 1 comment

Everything is broken and no one cares

This post from Dear Apple is just so true, and so clearly on topic for Grenouille Bouillie!

Have we reached the point in complexity where we can’t make good quality products anymore? Or is that some kind of strategic choice?

The original post is mostly about Apple products, but the same is true with Linux, with Android, with Windows.

Here is my own list of additional bugs, focusing on those that can easily be reproduced:

  1. Open a file named X in any of the new Apple applications, those without Save As. Open another file named Y. Save Y as X. Beachball. For every application. Worse yet, since applications often remember which windows were open, you get the beachball again when you reopen the application. It takes another force quit for the application to (fortunately) offer to not reopen the windows.
  2. A relatively well known one now: Type F i l e : / / / in practically any OSX application. Without the spaces. Hang or assert depending on your luck.
  3. Use a stereoscopic application like Tao Presentations (http://www.taodyne.com). Activate stereoscopy. Switch spaces or unplug an external monitor. Kernel panic or hang to be expected. Go tell to your customers that the kernel panic is Apple’s fault, not ours…
  4. If you backup over the network, set your computer to sleep after say 1 hour while on power. Change your disk enough that the backup takes more than one hour. Backup disk will come up as corrupt after a couple of days, and OSX will suggest you start a new one (and the cycle will repeat).
  5. Use the “Share” button. It takes forever to show up the window (like 2-3 seconds in general on my 2.6GHz quad-core i7 with 8GB of RAM). Since what I type generally begins with an uppercase letter, I usually prepare myself by having the finger on the shift key. But to that stupid animation framework, “shift” means “slow animation down so that Steve can demo it”. Steve is dead, but the “shift” behavior is still there.

I’ll keep updating this list as more come to mind. Add your own favorite bugs in the comments.

First update (Feb 13, 2013):

  1. Safari often fails to refresh various portions of the screen. Visible in particular when used in combination with Redmine. This used to be very annoying, but it has gotten much better in more recent updates of Safari.
  2. iTunes 11 no longer has Coverflow. It was a neat way to navigate in your music, which wasn’t even the default, why remove it?
  3. Valgrind on OSX 10.8 is completely broken. I have no idea what’s wrong, but it’s a pretty useful tool for developers, and Apple has nothing in its own development tools that is even remotely close.
  4. “Detect displays” is gone, both from the Monitors control panel and from the Monitors menu icon. Combine that with the fact that OSX 10.8, unlike its predecessors, sometimes totally fails to detect that you unplug a monitor. And you find yourself with windows stuck on a screen that is no longer there…
  5. That little Monitor menu icon used to be quite handy, e.g. to select the right resolution when connecting to an external projector for the first time. Now, it’s entirely useless. It only offers mirroring, fails to show up 90% of the time when there is a possibility to do mirroring, shows up when mirroring is impossible (e.g. after you disconnected the projector). It used to be working and useful, it’s now broken and useless. What’s not to love?
  6. Contacts used to have a way for me to format phone numbers the way I like. That’s gone. Now I have to accept the (broken) way it formats all phone numbers for me.
  7. I used to be able to sync between iPhone and Contacts relatively reliably. Now, if there’s a way to remove a phone number, I’ve not found it. Old numbers I removed keep reappearing at the next sync, ensuring that I never know which of the 2, 3 or 4 phone numbers I have is the not dead one.
  8. Still in Contacts, putting Facebook e-mail addresses as the first choice for my contacts? No thanks, it was heinous enough that Facebook replaced all genuine email addresses with @facebook.com aliases. But having that as the first one that pops up is really annoying.
  9. Now fixed, but in the early 10.8, connecting a wired network when I also had Wifi on the same network would not give me higher speed. It would just drop all network connectivity.

Updated February 28th after restoring a machine following a serious problem:

  1. Time machine restores are only good if your target disk is at least as big. But with Apple’s recent move to SSD, this may no longer be affordable to you. In my case, I’d like to squeeze 1TB of data into 512G. Time machine does not give me the level of fine-grained control I’d need to restore what I really need. So I need to try and do it manually, which is a real pain.
  2. Calendar sync is a real mess. Restoring calendars from a backup is worse.
  3. Spaces? Where are my good old spaces? Why is it I had spaces on the original machine, no longer have them, and find myself unable to say “I want 6 spaces” or to setup keyboard shortcuts for them as they used to be.

Adding chapter numbering in Apple Pages

At Taodyne, we mostly use Apple Pages to create our documents. For large documents, I’d like to be able to create numbered chapters, something like “Chapter 1″, “Chapter 2″, and so on. Apple Pages does not seem to have that feature. Let’s not get used to it,  and let’s fix it.

Apple Pages can read numbered chapters from Word

One thing that I observed is that when you read a Microsoft Word document that contains numbered chapters, Apple Pages preserves that formatting. In other words, if the user interface may not know how to edit numbered lists with text in them, the rendering engine knows how to render them, and the regular editing within Pages will correctly renumber these documents.

To verify that my recollection of this capability of Pages was correct, I first created a document in Microsoft Word that looks like this:

Section 1 – Hello

Chapter 1 – This is a chapter

I. This is a numbered section

1. This is a numbered sub-section

It doesn’t just “look like” this. The Section and Chapter text were edited in the Numbering section of Microsoft Word, so this is auto-numbering.

Then I saved this document to disk, and imported it into Pages. And indeed, when I edit it in Pages, numbering works just like in Microsoft Word.

The Pages XML format

Let’s look inside the document to see what’s there. A quick tour through the command line shows that Apple Pages documents are really zipped collections of files, including XML files representing the document itself:

% unzip Hello.pages 
Archive:  Hello.pages
 extracting: thumbs/PageCapThumbV2-1.tiff  
 extracting: QuickLook/Thumbnail.jpg  
 extracting: QuickLook/Preview.pdf   
 extracting: buildVersionHistory.plist  
  inflating: index.xml

The most interesting of these documents is the index.xml file. It contains the actual description of the document in XML format. And if I look inside, I see something interesting:

<sf:list-label-typeinfo sf:type="text"><sf:text-label sf:type="decimal" sf:format="Section %L -" sf:first="1"/>

So this sf:format= accepts a rather general format, with %L serving as the marker for where the number should go.

The solution for adding chapter numbers

So the solution for adding chapter numbers is simple:

  1. Once, you will need Microsoft Word to create a document that has the kind of chapter numbering that you need. You may have multiple levels of numbering (e.g. chapter, section, etc).
  2. Import this document in Pages. This will give you a new list style.
  3. When you want to number chapters, select the given list style.
  4. To edit the formatting of the numbering text, select the whole line, change colors or fonts, and in the list style, select “Redefine style for selection”. In other words, the list style defines the font and color for the numbering independently from the paragraph style, and can do that for multiple levels.

Now, you have proper chapter numbering in Apple Pages.

Optimize!

Is it normal to wait for your computer? Why should I wait 5 seconds when I click on a menu? Why does it sometimes take half a minute to open a new document? Developers, optimize your code, if only as a matter of public service! What about making it a New Year resolution?

Why is my Mac laptop slower than my iPad?

Apple cares about iPad performance

Apple cares about iPad performance

I have a serious issue with the fact that on a laptop with 8G of RAM, 1TB of hard disk, a quad-core 2GHz i7, I spend my time waiting. All the time. For long, horribly annoying pauses.

Just typing these few paragraphs had Safari go into “pause” twice. I type something and it takes ten seconds or so with nothing showing up on screen, and then it catches up. Whaaaaat? How did programmers manage to write code so horribly that a computer with a quad-core 2.6GHz i7 can’t even keep up with my typing? Seriously? The Apple II, with its glorious 1MHz 8-bit 6502 never had trouble keeping up, no matter how fast I typed. Nor did Snow Leopard, for that matter…

Even today, why is it that I always find myself waiting for my Mac as soon as I have 5 to 10 applications open, when a poor iPad always feel responsive even with 20 or 30 applications open at the same time? Aren’t we talking about the same company (Apple)? About the same core operating system (Darwin being the core of both iOS and OSX)? So what’s the difference?

The difference, folks, is optimizations. Code for iOS is tuned, tight, fit. Applications are programmed with severe hardware limitations in mind. The iPad, for instance, is very good at “pausing” applications that you are not using and recalling them quickly when you switch to them. Also, most applications are very careful in their use of resources, in particular memory and storage. Apple definitely cares about the performance of the iPad. There was a time the performance of the Mac mattered as well, but that was a long time ago.

Boiled frog syndrome : we slowly got used to desktops or laptops being slower than tablets, but it’s just plain stupid.

Lion and Mountain Lion are Dog Slow

It's obvious why they called it Lion...

It’s obvious why they called it Lion…

I’ve been running every single version of MacOSX since the Rhapsody days. Up until Snow Leopard, each release was a definite improvement over the previous version. Lion and Mountain Lion, on the other hand, were a severe step backwards…

Lion and Mountain Lion were not just loaded with features I didn’t care about (like crippling my address book with Facebook email addresses), they didn’t just break features I relied on on a daily basis (like full screen applications that works with multiple monitors, or RSS feeds). They were slow.

We are not talking about small-scale slowness here. We are talking about molasses-fed slugs caught in a tar pit, of lag raised to an art form, of junk code piling up at an industrial scale, of inefficiency that makes soviet car design look good in comparison.

And it’s not just me. My wife and my kids keep complaining that “the machine lags”. And it’s been the case with every single machine I “upgraded” to Lion or Mountain Lion. To the point where I’m not upgrading my other machines anymore.

In my experience, the core issue is memory management. OSX Lion and Mountain Lion are much worse than their predecessors at handling multiple programs. On OSX, the primary rule of optimization seems to be “grab 1GB of memory first, ask questions later.” That makes sense if you are alone: RAM is faster than disk, by orders of magnitude, so copying stuff there is a good idea if you use it frequently.

But if you share the RAM with other apps, you may push those other apps away from memory, a process called “paging“. Paging depends very largely on heuristics, and has major impact on performance. Because, you see, RAM is faster than disk, by orders of magnitude. And now, this plays against you.

Here is an example of a heuristic that I believe was introduced in Lion: the OS apparently puts aside programs that you have not been using for a long while. A bit like an iPad, I guess. On the surface, this seems like a good idea. If you are not using them, free some memory for other programs. But this means that if I go away from my laptop and the screen saver kicks in, it will eat all available RAM and push other programs out. When I log back in… I have 3GB of free RAM and a spinning beach ball. Every time. And even if the screensaver does not run, other things like backupd (the backup daemon) or Spotlight surely will use a few gigabytes for, you know, copying files, indexing them, stuff.

Boiled frog syndrome : we slowly got used to programs using thousands of Mac128K worth of memory to do simple things like running a screensaver. It’s preposterous.

Tuning memory management is very hard

Virtual Memory is complicated

Virtual Memory is complicated

The VM subsystem, responsible for memory management, was never particularly good in OSX. I remember a meeting with an Apple executive back in the times OSX was called Rhapsody. Apple engineers were all excited about the new memory management, which was admittedly an improvement over MacOS9.

I told the Apple person I met that I could crash his Mac with 2 minutes at the keyboard, doing only things a normal user could do (i.e. no Terminal…) He laughed at me, gave me his keyboard and refused to even save documents. Foolish, that.

I went to the ancestor of Preview.app, opened a document, clicked on “Zoom” repeatedly until the zoom factor was about 6400% or so. See, in these times, the application was apparently allocating a buffer for rendering that was growing as you zoomed. The machine crawled to a halt, as it started paging these gigabytes in and out just to draw the preview on the screen. “It’s dead, Jim“, time to reboot with a long, hard and somewhat angry press on the Power button.

That particular problem was fixed, but not the underlying issue, which is a philosophical decision to take control away from users in the name of “simplicity“. OS9 allowed me to say that an App was supposed to use 8M of RAM. OSX does not. I wish I could say: “Screen Saver can use 256M of RAM. If it wants more, have it page to disk, not the other apps.” If there is a way to do that, I have not found it.

Boiled frog syndrome : we have slowly been accustomed by software vendors to give away control. But lack of control is not a feature.

Faster machines are not faster

A 1986 Mac beats a 2007 PC

A 1986 Mac beats a 2007 PC

One issue with poor optimizations is that faster machines, with much faster CPUs, GPUs and hard disks, are not actually faster to perform the tasks the user expects from them, because they are burdened with much higher loads. It’s as if developers always stopped at the limit of what the machine can do.

It actually makes business sense, because you get the most of your machine. But it also means its easy to push the machine right over the edge. And more to the point, an original 1986 Mac Plus will execute programs designed for it faster than a 2007 machine. I bet this would still hold in 2013.

So if you have been brainwashed by “Premature optimization is the root of all evil“, you should forget that. Optimizing is good. Optimize where it matters. Always. Or, as a colleague of mine once put it, “belated pessimization is the leaf of no good.”

Boiled frog syndrome : we have slowly been accustomed to our machines running inefficient code. But inefficiency is not law of nature. Actually, in the natural world, inefficiency gets you killed. So…

Optimize!

Apple started decaying before Steve Jobs’ death

Sad MacMany have wondered what would happen to Apple after Steve Job’s death. I’m afraid things started to go south at Infinite Loop long before Steve passed away. Case in point: Mac OSX Lion, which I think is the worst version of MacOSX ever (and I’ve used all of them since Rhapsody).

What’s wrong with MacOSX Lion?

While there are a number of relatively useful features in OSX Lion, like being able to resize a window from all sides (granted, not exactly a new feature in the computer world), the general philosophy of that OS seems to be “We know better“. A computer company that thinks it knows better than me how I should use my own computer? Let’s not get used to it.

I will illustrate this with three real-life cases:

  • Ten minutes to reboot on a Core i7 laptop is not cool.
  • How I came to positively hate the mandatory auto-save feature.
  • The sad story of Quit, Select All, Undo and Close Window.

There are a few other smaller cases that I will brush on quickly at the end. Like the broken replacement for good ol’ Save-As, the stereoscopy crashes, the mysterious unimprovements to Spaces, the Screen Saver of Doom…

Ten minutes to reboot is not cool

Many know the great story of Steve Jobs telling an early Mac engineer that making Macs boot faster would save lives. This lesson seems to have been forgotten these days.

This morning, I had a kernel panic in Lion (a not so uncommon occurrence, sadly). So I was forced to reboot. And what happened next prompted me to write this blog entry. Crashing is enough of a waste of time. But then, MacOS X Lion aggravated that by reloading every single tiny window I happened to have open at the time of the crash. And not letting me do anything in the meantime, because you see, it was busy, it had better things to do than even letting me quit an application.

Being able to quit an application is what I took as an indication that the system was done booting. It’s as good a measure as any, since if you can’t quit an application, you can’t do much else. And it took more than 10 minutes for me to be able to quit Firefox: I booted the machine at 7:02 (according to uptime), Firefox accepted to quit at 7:14.

In the meantime, OSX Lion had reloaded, for my own good:

  1. Mail, with 7 windows
  2. Pages, with 4 documents
  3. Numbers, with 6 documents
  4. Keynote, without any document open, but hey, what’s wrong with launching it anyway?
  5. Terminal, with 2 windows, one of them was running a build. There’s a severe bug in OSX Lion restore-everything-at-reboot-time functionality: it didn’t restart my build!
  6. Safari, with 8 web sites, including two with videos I had already seen.
  7. Firefox, with 2 web sites, which I certainly didn’t wan tot re-open since they were payments.
  8. iTunes (which helpfully started downloading new contents)

While the system attempts to “please” you in some demented sense of “pleasing”, there’s very little you can do but wait. Actually, you need to do a little more than that, because the machine will occasionally ask for passwords or pop up some dialog box. And it does so in such a random fashion that even reading mail is difficult. All the more so because the machine is so busy re-indexing its Spotlight database and downloading iTunes contents you really don’t care about right now that everything crawls.

Even switching windows is difficult, even borderline hazardous. You think you brought up one window, but then the system shows another one right at the moment you click or close something or do something dangerous, and bam, the one and only window you didn’t want to close vanishes from the screen!

What is so infuriating about this incredibly stupid behavior of OSX Lion is that practically every single time I rebooted my machine, I unchecked that little box asking if I want to re-open my windows when I log back in. Can’t OSX Lion get the hint? If it’s smart enough to save my windows at the time of a kernel panic (of all times), can’t it save a little preference like “I don’t want you to re-open windows at boot time, ever”, without forcing me to resort to command line hacks.

Yes, I know how to fix it. It’s a script like this one:

#!/bin/bash
echo "#!/bin/bash" > /tmp/loginfix.sh
echo "rm /Users/*/Library/Preferences/ByHost/com.apple.loginwindow.*" >> /tmp/loginfix.sh
mv /tmp/loginfix.sh /usr/bin/loginfix.sh
chmod +x /usr/bin/loginfix.sh
defaults write com.apple.loginwindow LoginHook /usr/bin/loginfix.sh

Having to resort to something like is really annoying. And if Apple really didn’t want to store the “reopen windows” user choice in preferences, then it shouldn’t be a check-box. It should have been a separate action button, just like “Shutdown” and “Restart”.

I’m clearly not the only one who dislikes that features. If you look up on the web, you’d be hard pressed to find any site that explains how great that feature is. Instead, you’ll find dozen of places telling you how to disable it. So it’s a useless feature compounded with a bad UI made more annoying by a blatant disrespect for user preferences. That seems to be the general theme for changes in OSX Lion. Let’s not get used to it.

How I came to hate the mandatory auto-save feature

Another feature that follows the exact same pattern is the mandatory auto-save feature in applications like Pages, Numbers, Keynote, etc. What this feature does looks good on paper. It helpfully saves things for you at regular interval. Since Apple implemented for Time Machine a relatively nice way to version files, Apple used that to offer a kind of per-document Time Machine. Isn’t that a great idea?

The problem with that auto-save is that it doesn’t scale, and that there is no way to turn it off, even temporarily. So here is what happened to me once. I was animating an event, and for some reason, they decided to use my laptop as the main machine connected to the projector. So they gave me this 150 pages Keynote made by copy-pasting together a dozen or so slide decks. So far, so good.

Then, various people started coming to me asking if they could change a word here, copy a new slide there, etc. Guess what: it took over one minute to save the 150 pages document. My guess is that Keynote uses a brain-dead algorithm to decide when to auto-save, something like “if something changed and if the last auto-stave started more than 30 seconds ago”. Just a wild guess. What I observed, though, is that it doesn’t check that after you do an operation, but before executing the next operation you request.

All these harebrained design decisions blend together in a perfectly distasteful mix. You hit a key. Keynote shows your keypress. You hit another key. Keynote detects it should auto-save. The save takes more than one minute. The “saving takes a long time” progress dialog shows up and eats the key you typed! So you need to type again, very fast. But usually you don’t succeed. Same with mouse clicks. You send mouse clicks that get eaten by the stupid “Please wait while I’m saving” progress dialog. Who decided to call this a “progress” dialog? It’s not progress!

Anyway, after a very painful 15 minutes trying to make this work, here is how I ended up doing things: I started another Keynote instance, edited slides one at a time there, and once it was done, I would copy things back in the original Keynote document. But talk about a counter-productive exercise fighting a badly designed UI that won’t accept my preferences (namely: I don’t want to auto-save. Period. I hit Command-S when I’m happy. I know what I’m doing.)

Quit, Select All, Close and Undo

The third scenario I came to hate in OSX Lion is much more specific. See, I’m French, so I often have to type French text. And I’m a coder, so I often have to write English text or computer code. At some point in my past, I started taking the habit of typing French text in the native French keyboard, which is AZERTY, and English text in QWERTY

I don’t think many other people do this, but to me, that means faster typing in both cases. In English, I can type all the wonderful special characters used in code, like [ and ]. In French, I have easy access to all the wonderful àccénts that pepper our language (and, by the way, in defense of Jean Dujardin, “Putain” is more like an accent than a swear word in French; it doesn’t really mean “Whore” anymore than, say, “OK” means “all correct” or “gay” means “in a good mood”). A and Qs flip automatically when I’m typing French. If anything, that shows how flexible the human brain is.

There’s just one little problem with that clever scheme: keyboard shortcuts. It so happens that Command-Q (Quit), Command-A (Select All), Command-Z (Undo) and Command-W (Close window) are some of the most frequently used shortcuts of all. And unfortunately, they flip places when I switch languages. And unlike complete words, which my brain has “short-circuited” to the correct keyboard layout depending on language, they have no context, no language associated with them. So often, I want to Undo, and instead I Close the Window.

So what does this have to do with OSX Lion, you may ask? Well, the auto-save feature has, for me, a very nasty side effect. If a document has been modified, OSX Lion no longer asks if you want to close it or save it. That dialog box that used to pop was my saving grace in the old days. If I hit Command-W instead of Command-Z, then the dialog box would pop up, I’d hit ESC and hit Command-Z. No harm done. Nowadays, my window vanishes, and with it, all my undo history. In other words, at the exact time I want to undo something, MacOSX Lion finds a way to erase the entire undo history!

Of course, Apple engineers know better. Their reasoning must have been that the auto-save feature is like a kind of persistent undo to disk. Unfortunately, auto-save and Time Machine are nothing like undo. Undo remembers the actions. Auto-save remembers the result. So Time Machine is way way slower to activate, and it makes it harder to find where a document actually changed.

So a couple of times a day, I close a document by mistake, and I swear. Nothing has been closer to turining my Macbook into some unidentified flying object than this feature. At some point, I’ll find the time to disable that auto-save feature as well, in a way that doesn’t break other things.

Then, there’s the small stuff

OSX Lion’s disregard for users’ taste and preferences permeates throughout. It looks more like a design philosophy than an accident.

There’s the odd reversal of the trackpad scrolling behavior. This one at least can be configured. But either you stick with the default, and you are backwards each time you return to a Windows, Linux, older MacOSX machine. Or you change it, and you are backwards each time you return to a Lion box that is configured with the default.

There’s the new technique for “Save As”. It used to be “Save As”, Command-Shift-S, select the new file name (defaults to the document’s directory). Basically, one keystroke. Now, it is “Duplicate” (no keyboard shortcut), close the old window, Save (which now defaults to the Desktop rather than where the original document was), find the original location, save. So you have replaced one keyboards shortcut with 4 to a good dozen clicks depending on where your original document was. And “Duplicate” seems to use more memory and take more time than Save As (maybe it saves the document somewhere?) The benefits? Hmmm. I don’t see any, it seems like a less intelligent way to do the same thing as before.

Stereoscopy is a minor nuisance to the majority of people. But it turns out Taodyne, my company, produces a 3D presentation software. Something like Flash blending with Avatar. One of the ways we generate stereoscopic images is with the OpenGL Quad buffer support. It was broken in 10.6.1: when our application ran, switching spaces would kill the window server. I reported it to Apple, it was fixed in 10.6.2. It was broken again in Lion (10.7.0). Only this time the crash is a random kernel panic or system freeze, a bit more serious. I reported it three times to Apple. It’s still there.

Overall, Spaces and the Window server are nowhere as good as they used to be. When you switch spaces, it used to be smooth. You used to have a single desktop background. Now, it’s not smooth. Sometimes, windows won’t drag from one space to another. Spaces can be “out of order” (i.e. the number keyboard shortcuts no longer correspond to the logical layout of the spaces). The windows that MacOSX Lion insists on reopening at startup don’t reopen in their original space. And so on.

It’s more than just spaces. For example, using full screen app mode on dual-screen setups makes one of the monitors become unusable (covered with a oh-so-nice Lionesque background). Try watching a DVD full screen on one monitor while you do something on the other. Worked like a charm in Snow Leopard, impossible to do in Lion. Try putting the DVD player full screen on your TV while the menu is on the main screen of your laptop (just because most HD TVs overscan, so putting the menu there means you don’t see it). Nope, Lion knows better, it will bring the full screen picture where the menu is, not when the window is. That also worked in Snow Leopard.

And there’s another one of my favorites, the Screen Saver of Doom. Some screen savers in OSX Lion consume all the memory they can. They evict all the useful stuff away. So when it’s time to log back in, you see your keystrokes show up. one. at. a. time. And by the time you logged back in, you see that 5G of your 8G of RAM are now free. For the next few minutes, every single application you will try to use will page stuff back in and be extremely unresponsive. That too is a nuisance. Let’s not get used to it.

Conclusion

OSX Snow Leopard was a lean and mean operating system, just like its feline counterpart. OSX Lion takes on its role model as well: it’s big, heavy, slow, lazy, and it doesn’t care about you a tiny bit.

Let’s just hope that Apple’s next OSX version, Mountain Lion, will not be smaller, less powerful but more dangerous than its predecessor… Unfortunately, I won’t hold my breath based on what we can gather from Apple’s sneak peek Making it more difficult to download third-party applications in the name of security? A chat application? Twitter support? A features page that has so little to show that it needs to boast on the US web site about stuff designed specifically for China? Seriously?

I still want to believe that Apple will soon focus again on making their OS lean, mean and efficient like it used to be.

From language to platform…

September 19, 2010 10 comments

Reading this article comparing applications platform, I couldn’t help but think: “nothing new under the sun”.

History is repeating itself

In the 1980′s, a war raged between programmers. The reason for the war? Which programming language to use for applications. There were many candidates, compiled languages such as C or Pascal, interpreted languages such as BASIC, and “bizarre” languages such as Lisp, Prolog or Smalltalk. For all the uncertainty, things were not really open for discussion: each side knew they were absolutely right. Total war! Example: Turbo Pascal vs. QuickC.

In the 1990′s, a war raged between programmers. The reason for the war? Which operating system to use for applications. There were many candidates, text-based DOS, elegant or copycat graphical user interfaces such as Macintosh or Windows, as well as “bizarre” server operating systems such as Unix, Novell Netware or Linux. For all the uncertainty, things were not really open for discussion: each side knew they were right, and they knew their side had to win for them to make money. Total war! Example: Apple suing Microsoft over the Graphical User Interface.

In the 2000′s, a war raged between programmers. The reason for the war? Which execution environment to use for application? There were many candidates: client side native environments such as Windows or MacOS, browser-based virtual machines such as Java, as well as bizarre models such as VMware-style virtual machines, massively distributed systems (aka “the cloud”) or web services. For all the uncertainty, things were not really open for discussion. Each side preferred their model, and they knew that the financial stakes were high. Total war! Example: Sun suing Microsoft repeatedly over Java.

In the 2010, a war rages between programmers. The reason for the war? Which platform to use for applications. There are many candidates: desktop clients that won’t die, the iOS and Android mobile platforms, as well as “bizarre” platforms such as Facebook, Google Wave, Twitter, even good old TVs. For all the uncertainty, things were not really open for discussion. Each side has to be compatible and integrate with everybody else, but the financial stakes are mind-boggling. Total war! Example: the iTunes Ping – Facebook integration debacle.

The open platform wins

Of course, one can draw many conclusions from this parallel. For example, that programmers didn’t really take to heart the Make Love, Not War slogan, and instead would rather rally to “make war, not love” cries. Cheap shot! Cheap shot!

More seriously, I find it more interesting to observe who won over time. And in each case, it looks to me like the “more open” side won:

  • Pascal was criticized as being too closed compared to C. Ultimately, C won over Pascal. As an aside, the article “Why Pascal is not my favourite programming language” seems hard to find on Google these days. I hope it’s not slowly disappearing from the Internet…
  • The Macintosh was perceived as less open than Windows. Ultimately, Windows won over the Macintosh.
  • Sun positioned Java as “write once, run anywhere”, making it the open alternative to closed systems such as Windows or Macintosh. Customers came to associate distributed systems with freedom. Perception matters here, because if you think about it, you own Google Docs contents much less than documents on your hard disk. Still, the cloud and distributed system came out as the winners.
  • Finally, there is a strong perception that the iPhone is closed and Android is open. There are enough privacy concerns about how the “closed” Facebook to spur an open-source alternative, Diaspora.

Features are less important

The result that the more open approach wins in the long run is not entirely intuitive. Naively, one is tempted to believe that platform control is important, that features and quality will help secure a position in the long run. And often, these things do wonders at the beginning.

But look who had the head start and the better features:

  • Pascal was published slightly before C (1970 vs. 1972), and most people at the time found it cleaner.
  • The Macintosh operating system appeared before Windows, and at least until Windows 95, was significantly more polished, on the user experience front as well as on the features it offered programmers.
  • Native operating systems had more features and higher performance than Java-style or VMware-style virtual machines.

The same holds true for the internal architecture, for the overall design, for the ease of integration, even for the pace at which things changed. Arguably, for example, Pascal changed more rapidly than C, Turbo Pascal introducing for example instant compilation, modules, graphics and what we would call an IDE today.

Keep it open!

If you build a system for developers today, you can make short term wins if you design it well, make it easy to extend, and secure a few control points. In the long run, however, what matters is whether your system will be perceived as “open”.

The woes of the "One laptop per child" project

Ivan Krstić writes in Sic Transit Gloria Laptopi about the woes of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project.

The whole essay is a bit long, but definitely worth reading. It goes through the history of the OLPC project (including its roots in early experiments), through musings about the best choice of operating system, to suggestions on how to move the project forward successfully, after what appears to have been a severe crisis.

No matter what, Krstić is right that the whole experience will not have been in vain. But it’s too bad that a project like this can die for purely political reasons. On one hand, OLPC could not have seen the light of day without the efficient support of someone like Nicholas Negroponte. On the other hand, if we are to trust Krstić earlier essay, Things to remember when reading news about OLPC, he’s now almost a liability to the project:

To those on the outside and looking in: remember that, though he takes the liberty of speaking in its name, Nicholas is not OLPC. OLPC is Walter Bender, Scott Ananian, Chris Ball, Mitch Bradley, Mark Foster, Marco Pesenti Gritti, Mary Lou Jepsen, Andres Salomon, Richard Smith, Michael Stone, Tomeu Vizoso, John Watlington, Dan Williams, Dave Woodhouse, and the community, and the rest of the people who worked days, nights, and weekends without end, fighting like warrior poets to make this project work. Nicholas wasn’t the one who built the hardware, or wrote the software, or deployed the machines. Nicholas talks, but these people’s work walks.

Makes you wonder who really “invented” the OLPC… Two earlier posts may be relevant to this topic:

Microsoft Surface

A friend pointed me to Microsoft Surface. Apart from the annoying fact that the site does not work with Apple’s Safari (but it does with Firefox), I find it pretty interesting. Surface is, to put it shortly, a new breed of user interface using the same kind of multitouch screen you find on the Apple iPhone. (Update: It turns out this is not a touchscreen).

This is not the first time I actually see something like that: HP also had something similar in the works. There is even a blog dedicated to these topics. But Microsoft Surface is interesting for two reasons. The first one is that it’s the first time I see something that might actually be a real user-interface and not a mock up or an impressive hardware test. The second one is… secret.

Anyway, if we one day get to the point where we have multitouch capabilities in foldable screens

Categories: Microsoft, User interfaces

Thought recognition: what user interface?

Thought recognition is coming. New articles on this topic pop up regularly. But what would a thought-driven user interface look like?

The inception of the XL programming language began with questions like this. I was thinking more of speech recognition at the time. I was trying to figure out how it would be possible to use object-oriented programming (which I had just discovered back then) to program a speech-centric user interface. It turns out that it’s probably quite difficult.

The reason is relatively easy to explain. In a graphical user interface (GUI), you have a finite (and relatively small) number of objects on screen. You pick up one object, for example a menu, and then another, and so on. One of the key design features of the GUI is that it should be non-modal, i.e. at any given point in time, you should be able to pick this or that menu freely. This is very different from old text-based programs, where you would typically switch, for instance, between text editing mode, text formatting mode, page layout mode, printer selection mode, and so on. This basic tenet was a mindset revolution for programmers at the beginnings of GUIs. The original Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines insists on that point as early as page 12. Today, it’s much harder to find web pages explaining that fundamental aspect, because programmers only know about modeless programming.

But a speech-based user interface, on the contrary, is extremely modal. Everything depends on what was said before. For example, the word it in Find the Smith file and print it. I will often use the more general term vocabulary-based user interface (VUI), which covers all kinds of user interface where you “talk” to a machine. For example, with a voice mail system, the vocabulary can be digits you type on a keypad, like 1221 to get voice mail. The problem is that the vocabulary for speech can be thousands of words. So at any given point in time, you have thousands of possible modes.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 365 other followers

%d bloggers like this: