The Personal Computing Paradigm
What I Really Think
It’s now April 2000. ATPM has entered its sixth year of publication, and I’ve entered my fifth year of writing for this e-zine. I’ve written about the IIGS, the Newton, and plenty of Macs in between. I’ve weighed in on what Spindler, Amelio and Jobs should do, and criticized Microsoft more than a few times. But mostly I’ve talked about software products: what they do, how they work, and how we interact with them. Software is at the heart of Macintosh life, for why bother with these non-standard machines if they are not more pleasant to own and use? As I was preparing to write this column, though, I realized that I’ve been too reserved in my criticisms and suggestions as far as software is concerned. It’s time I let loose and told you what I really think—writing at the speed of thought if you will. What follows are some thoughts on products that I use often.
From a user’s perspective, at least, not much has been happening on the Nisus Writer front. People have requested a bevy of features, from integrated table and outline editors to zooming and sections. Surely if Nisus added a few features that users of competing word processors take for granted, they would take the consumer and business markets by storm; on the other hand, looking at the entrenchments of Microsoft Word and AppleWorks, maybe not.
So how did these two competitors sew up their respective markets? Both AppleWorks and Word have their own languages. You can control Word with Visual Basic, and AppleWorks 6 is apparently more AppleScriptable than previous versions. Visual Basic can also control the rest of the Office suite, and AppleScript can control just about everything on your Mac, especially when combined with Player. As for Nisus Writer, it has a macro language of its own (check), but few people use it (no check).
I can see two alternative paths to market domination.
- Nisus could re-channel its resources into developing Nisus Office (the powerful office suite). The company would then have its own community of applications sharing a common, proprietary language. Users would flock to it.
- Nisus could threaten Apple to knife the baby, i.e. AppleScript, and replace it with the Nisus macro language. If Apple refused to comply, Nisus would cancel development of its QUED/M text editor and double the frequency of its company newsletter. Without text file compatibility, the Macintosh would become useless in Apple’s core markets. Apple would have to give in.
No matter what, Nisus should not make its word processor fully AppleScriptable. That would be seen as a sign of weakness and would escalate its decline into irrelevancy.
Microsoft Office 98 is a fantastic achievement in software engineering. Among Macintosh office suites with animated help assistants, it has by far the lowest number of bugs. Office is so easy to use that its users have no need for a manual. It’s even easier to use on the Mac than on the PC. Although this is mostly attributable to Microsoft’s strong adoption of the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines, there is something else to consider.
Unlike Office for Windows, Microsoft Office Macintosh Edition does not include the database application, Access; the multimedia encyclopædia, Encarta; or the Web development tool, FrontPage. Such features would only confuse Mac users, who care little for relational databases, multimedia, and the World Wide Web. Kudos to Microsoft for providing this “Simple Office” safety feature. Even the most knowledgeable Mac users are unable to locate the hidden Access, Encarta, and FrontPage components on the Office 98 CD—just as adults often have trouble unscrewing child-proof caps.
All that’s needed now is for Microsoft to provide a “Use MDI” check box in the Office Preferences, which are located in the Tools menu just where you expect to find them. With this checked, Mac Office would take over the desktop and provide a “Multiple Document Interface.” Since no other Mac applications allow multiple windows to be open at the same time, this would be a big hit.
This text editor is powerful and versatile, and I probably use it more than any other piece of software, except maybe Mailsmith. Therein lies the problem: I’ve just become sick of BBEdit. See, I understand that part of its philosophy is getting the job done without a lot of flash or bloat, but if I’ll be using this piece of software day and night, I want it to be entertaining!
As the number of functions in a program grows, so should its on-screen appearance. BBEdit has a huge set of menus, but it hides cool features, like shifting by spaces and reverse searching, behind the standard menu items until you hold down modifier keys. How drab.
Bare Bones could start by adding icons for each menu item. Pulling down the Markup menu could be like a trip to Le Louvre. Hover over the “Inline Elements” submenu if you like impressionists. Hold down the Option or Shift keys to reveal hidden commands and their icons. Commands you seldom use would gradually move towards the bottoms of menus, eventually disappearing into the store rooms of the museum. Each month the featured commands at the tops of the menus would change, rather like a rotating gallery. Individual menu items could play unique sounds when selected; write an AppleScript to automate a task and hear the notes for each command come alive as music.
BBEdit should have customizable toolbars just like Word’s. It might be difficult to design icons for commands like “Enter Replace String” and “Find Again (Reverse),” and I’d probably have trouble remembering them, but that’s not the point. When I’m working in a text editor, I don’t care much about getting work done. (I have Office for that.) I want to look at pretty icons, miniature works of art. Think about the joy of creating sets of toolbars with related buttons. They’d have to be flat, not look like buttons, to avoid becoming eyesores, of course. Then there could be a “concentration” mode where the icons disappear, leaving empty grey rectangles; click around to reveal and match pairs of icons.
I’ve been putting up with BBEdit since version 4.0, but at last Bare Bones seems to be getting with the program. When I ran into the president of Bare Bones Software in the Apple booth at Seybold Boston, he confided that big changes were underway. “It’s time we gave customers the eye candy they’ve been clamoring for,” said Siegel. “BBEdit 2000 features fully customizable toolbars with five fruity ‘themes.’ The status bar will be ribbed like the iMac’s case.” Also, the product will finally play well with the Windows and Unix worlds. According to Siegel, users will “no longer be burdened with control over DOS, Unix, and Macintosh line breaks.” Instead, a wizard will guide the user through seven easy steps to perfect cross-platform breaking. (Stereo speakers are recommended.)
This is good news for a company that’s never been known for listening to its customers. Perhaps the hiring of technical support guru Robeson Kitchin, who brings extensive experience from the customer service departments of Quark and Symantec, can be credited with the change of heart. In any case, Macintosh users can be assured that BBEdit 2000 will continue to suck less than competing text editors with five-letter names.
As you can see, even some of the most popular Mac programs can benefit from a thorough rethinking. I applaud Apple for encouraging us all to Think Different, because although “different” is not necessarily “better,” at least it’s different. If you can’t beat ’em, at least don’t copy ’em.
Also in This Series
- How Cool Is Your Mac? · May 2012
- Mac OS X’s Increasing Stability · August 2006
- Coping With Mac OS X’s Font Rendering · January 2006
- E-Mail Archiving with Eudora and Mail.app · January 2003
- Grab Bag · October 2002
- Mac OS X 10.2—First Impressions · September 2002
- Mac OS X 10.1—First Impressions · October 2001
- Mac OS X Tips · June 2001
- Mac OS X—Finally · May 2001
- Complete Archive