Scrollbars

Smartphones don’t have permanently visible scrollbars. Neither does OSX Lion (unless you’re using a mouse in which case they pop back in). On the phone, there’s a space issue, so the lack of scrollbars seems a good tradeoff. On the desktop, there’s no such space issue. So why the tradeoff?

If Microsoft’s vision for the future – Surface — is any kind of true (and that remains to be seen), soon there will be no desktop. Fine, but tablets do still have room for scrollbars, so why not enable them there?

Let’s look at the pros and cons. On the list of reasons why hiding the scrollbar is a good thing, I have this (and feel free to augment this in the comments):

  • It’s prettier. Less UI is often a good thing. If you don’t miss it, then you have a better experience for it.
  • It’s consistent with phones and tablets (from the same vendor) and gives a sense of coherence.
  • If the future is indeed touchbased (as in: your future desktop is a docked tablet or phone), developers should probably already now start to yank out hover-induced menus and make their scrollpanes indicate overflow when no scrollbar is visible. Having a desktop OS that mimics this, I suppose, is a helpful reminder of what may be coming.

Still, the scrollbar has been around for a while. In fact I would argue it’s a cornerstone in modern GUIs. Such a thing should not be buried willy-nilly. Here are reasons to keep the scrollbar visible at all times:

  • I can think of many ways to indicate that there’s more content to be seen, but none of them are as easy to understand as the scrollbar.
  • A scrollbar doesn’t have to be 18px wide, opaque, with a huge inset gutter, so long as it looks like a scrollbar. In fact, if only Lion scrollbars didn’t fade out completely, this post would probably not have been written.
  • A permanently visible scrollbar, by virtue of its relative height, will sit silently at the side of your view and cue you in how much content remains to be seen. No bottom shadow or clipped content will indicate that. It’s like a minimap of your document.

It’s not that I love scrollbars. Most of them are pretty ugly. Scrollbars, as we’ve grown to know them, can be especially hideous when shown on dark designs. Still, I’m not entirely convinced the solution to this challenge is to hide them. That sounds like mystery meat navigation to me.

Google Chrome, Metro-Style

Windows 8 is a pretty bold new move for Microsoft. It’s bright, vivid, touch friendly and puts apps and contents way up top. It appears to have ditched the traditional desktop metaphor and filesystem. Apps look very different. Here’s what Internet Explorer 10 looks like:

IE10

That new look and feel for apps is being referred to as “Metro-style”. Metro-style apps run fullscreen and navigation happens through edge-activated interfaces. While I’m concerned about discoverability for edge-activated interface controls (essentially this is classic mystery meat navigation), I do like that apps are full-screen and that Metro-style apps ditch all archaic notions of UI chrome.

Which brings me to Google Chrome, capital C. Really great browser, my such of choice. From a high-level perspective, Google built this browser to accelerate the pace of web technology development, so that Googles own web-apps — Gmail, Calendar, Docs — could adopt newer features sooner. To that end, Google has gone to great lengths to make sure Chrome is not only cross-platform (Windows, Mac, Linux, soon Android), but that Chrome looks native to each platform. This tenet has been taken to the extreme, actually, with Chrome on Windows XP featuring the horrible “Luna” skin, and Chrome on Linux more or less establishing GTK as the de-facto UI toolkit on the platform, just to be able to use said toolkit. It’s really quite impressive, the amount of work put into making Chrome not only look native, but be native.

Of course we’re only on the cusp of the future. The next round of operating systems are likely to be much more mobile inspired. Windows is blazing a trail with adopting the Windows Phone Metro UI, OSX is likely to become even more iOS-like, and Ubuntu is already exploring more touch-friendly UIs. If Google is going to keep following the path of full-on nativity, Chrome engineers are going to be having some nasty headaches in the not too distant future. Is it even technically possible to replace Internet Explorer 10 as your browser of choice? With Windows 8 treating HTML5 web-apps as first-class citizens among native apps, it’s likely that IE is baked in to the operating system more deeply than it ever was before.

It’s also an interesting mind-game, imagining what Google Chrome would look like, if it were to theoretically be re-written as a Metro-style Windows 8 app. The Metro-style UI is already so minimalist in layout, icon style and even interaction patterns that it’s difficult to think of Metro-style Chrome looking very much different from IE10. The racing-car diagonal tabs for instance, which are important to Chrome’s branding, are hard to translate to Metro-style. Though I suppose if Google were to go this way, they could make their tabs look similar to those of the Android Honeycomb browser (which is likely to spell the direction of how Chrome will look like on Android, once that happens).

Will it happen? I think so, but I think Google will want to play the wait-and-see game for a while. Just like Android Ice Cream Sandwich may be a make-or-break proposition for Google, so do I think that Windows 8 is for Microsoft. Could be that Windows 8 adoption is too slow to worry about. Could be Google’s already working on Metro-style Chrome.

The Weird Voodoo Necessary To Spawn Great Apps On Your Platform

versions

“Android users don’t buy apps”, people will tell you. I have no idea whether that’s true, but I do know I switched to The Mac in part due to the presence of great apps, apps not present on Windows. I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that a platform will gain in popularity by virtue of having great apps. Which makes launching new platforms difficult. Inherently, new platforms won’t have many apps at launch and unless some really good ones are written fast, your platform might never take off.

Let’s define a great app as being an app that’s simple, beautiful, solves a problem for you, and is fast and stable.

I like Windows. I’ve used it for a decade. There are window-management features I still miss, having switched. I hope Windows 8 will do great. But I can’t say Windows ever had great apps; Windows had good apps. I particularly miss Directory Opus, an over-the-top-powerful file management application with integrated FTP, regex file renamer and too many nice features to mention. This was a good app, and I would love a Mac version. But it’s not a beautiful app. It’s got an uninspiring icon, the UI is cluttered by default, the bundled icons don’t look good and the app itself is only as pretty as Windows native UI is. But does it matter that an app isnt’ beautiful?

My noodling on the matter says yes. During the formative months or years of a new operating system — case in point, OSX — the apps that come out will generally dicatate what follows for that platform. If a slew of functional, great-looking apps come out, these apps will define where the bar is set. Once the platform, for a variety of reasons including the presence of aforementioned apps becomes popular enough, it will obviously attract a slew of crappy apps as well, sure. But the higher the bar was set initially, the fewer crap apps will follow. There’s simply no need to look beyond that one app that filled a niche.

Back when I was still powerusing Windows, ALT-tabbing and generally working things to my liking, I was surprised at my Mac friends and their utter determination to make sure all their dock icons were pretty. Sure, I can appreciate a good icon design, but an app can be good without a great icon, can’t it? This mac-using-friend-determination went further and involved criticising the lack of native UI in the Firefox browser, an otherwise tech-hipster darling at the time. I couldn’t care less at the time. As Yogi Berra said: if the app is good the app is good. Right?

Right. And also sometimes wrong. Windows has good apps, but few of them are beautiful. That’s how it’s always been. As the PC has grown from its DOS infancy, apps have improved in both features and looks. But Windows itself, although functional, was never particularly beautiful to look at. Almost reflecting this, neither were Windows apps. Still, it was the platform with the most apps by far, probably still is. The downside is that most of them are crap. Google windows video converter and you’ll more results than is funny. How are you going to find the one good one among them?

The Mac, on the other hand, made a clean break with OSX. Apps had to be rewritten from scratch, and the operating system itself had received a “lickable” design — it was very pretty to look at by yesteryears standards. The Mac was in a bad place at the time, marketshare-wise, so the trickle of new OSX-ready apps wasn’t overwhelming. Still, because of the clean break and the presence of a userbase, apps did appear. For some reason, these apps were simple, beautiful and userfriendly. Like the OS. You could think the Mac developers at the time felt their apps should reflect the sense of taste the OS itself exuded. Whatever happened, a philosophy of building the one app to rule each niche seems to have been born at this time. Microsoft never made this clean break with Windows, so there was never an opportunity for developers to stop and rethink their apps, and the standard for “pretty” was never very high. The result is a billion apps that do the same thing, because no developer filled a niche in any significant fashion.

I sound like a long-time Apple lover, which I’m not. I switched to The Mac because of the UNIX commandline. Make no mistake about it, there are things about The Mac Way that I sincerely loathe. OSX Lion, for example, is the worst $29 I’ve spent in years. I’m also firmly entrenched with The Android, the Gmail app and seamless syncing is enough to ensure that.

But thinking about the weird voodoo necessary for a new platform to take off, it’s really hard to get around both the Mac and the iPhones portfolio of apps and the standard they’ve set. While it’s all a bunch of evening noodling and gut-feelings, this all tells me that if you want great apps on your platform, you need to combine a beautiful UI with a clean break. It appears Microsoft may be taking this route. Android take note.

FluffyApp, CloudApp for Windows users

It won’t be long until I switch to The Mac now, but appreciating many aspects of the Windows platform still, it’s nice to see one of the best Mac apps — CloudApp — get a Windows port, even if it is an unofficial port.

FluffyApp — like CloudApp — is a tiny icon sitting in your appplication tray. Drag a file onto the icon, and it’s immediately uploaded and the URL to the uploaded file magically appears in your clipboard. Want to share a screenshot? Drop it on the icon and paste the URL. Awesome.

The Windows iTunes Install Process, Archived For Posterity

This is a series of screenshots chronicling the install of iTunes on Windows. Behold:

iTunes_Setup_01 iTunes_Setup_02 iTunes_Setup_03 iTunes_Setup_04 iTunes_Setup_05 iTunes_Setup_06 iTunes_Setup_07

At this point, I’d like to remind viewers that in step 4, I unchecked the “Use iTunes as the default player for audio files” and “Automatically update iTunes and other Apple software” options, so you’d think you wouldn’t get all sorts of services and update apps installed. Not so:

iTunes_Apps iTunes_Services

A Look At Firefox 4 Beta 1

Here are a few screenshots of Firefox 4 on Windows.

Firefox_4_b1_addons Firefox_4_b1_maximized Firefox_4_b1_tabs_below Firefox_4_b1

Click to embiggen.

Some observations:

  • Firefox really feels faster than 3. It starts so much faster, and is generally more responsive. It’s not Chrome or Opera fast, but it’s way faster than Firefox old.
  • The new theme has the benefit that, when maximized on Windows, the Firefox button actually DOES grab the top left pixel of the screen. In Chrome, that pixel is still reserved for the oldschool Windows icon menu.
  • Alas, it seems the fullscreen “tab moves to the top” feature which we got a blurry look of a few weeks ago, hasn’t yet been implemented. I expect it to, though.
  • With the addition of the Firefox button, menus now feel even more obsolete.

Quick Thoughts On Windows Phone 7

Windows just announced Windows Phone 7 (previously known as Windows Mobile 7). Here’s a video, and after that, some thoughts on the offering.

[flash src="http://www.youtube.com/v/7IOTrqlz4jo&hl=en&fs=1" height="450" width="100%"]

Musings:

  • I like how the lock screen is not a slider, but a “cover” you slide upwards.
  • I’m noticing the Internet Explorer icon, and thinking to myself: Why not rebrand Internet Explorer Mobile as simply “Internet” and replace the icon with a globe? After strangle-holding the web for half a decade, IE must surely be a tainted brand. Then I remember that to most people, the E means internet. And then I’m sad.
  • I wonder which version of IE it’s running… 8? No rounded corners or drop shadows then.
  • The Xbox Live integration will appeal to a number of people. Not a bad move.
  • The interface looks kinda nice, and — dare I say it — clean and original compared to both iPhone OS and Android. I’m told this is the Zune look. Which is ironic, because Zune was originally advertised as bidding you “welcome to the social”. Which of course becomes somewhat easier when you can now finally call someone.
  • It looks like the phone hardware demonstrated has three capacitative buttons, which if you read my column on Androids buttons is two more than just right. Back, Windows logo (probably “home” or “start new app”), and long thing with a circle on the end (probably context menu) [Update]: It’s a Bing key. Incidentally, the more generic “Search” key on my Android phone is my least used button. I think I’ve used it twice in my lifetime ownership of the device.
  • The fact that there’s a smiley on the default SMS texting keyboard… I don’t know… should we read anything in to that? For one thing, I’ll bet you it means WinPhone7 doesn’t leverage the power of HTML5 forms.
  • I wonder if WinPhone7 will be Mac compatible. Catering to the 4% (arguably the important percent) is just not the Microsoft way. One decent alternative would be to not need a computer at all to sync… so that all you had to do to grab music, files, calendar notes, email and everything was to sync to the cloud, or your computer via bluetooth using standardized protocols. The video claims you can “skip the wires and sync over Wi-Fi”. Which, if it works on any computer with a shared network drive, gives this phone a fighting chance, demonstrating how iTunes as sync middle-ware is a last-gen concept.
  • One status update in the demo video from “Anne” reads “Having fun playing at the beach with the twins”. Which we’ll let hang there for a moment. European beach?
  • I’m told version 7 has been underway for quite a while, and has involved a complete rewrite of the code base as opposed to continuing work on WinMo 6.5. Starting from scratch is quite often a really good idea, even if risky.
  • It’s got Bing. Of course it does. Will it allow you to switch that search to Google? Or do they simply ask you go through the browser to do that?
  • The “people” section stresses me out. It’s like walking through the halls at iStockPhoto, constantly wincing to avoid the glare from just-bleached teeth.
  • Let me know if you spot a single instance of the WinMo font set in bold. I haven’t spotted it yet — stylish. The whole “looking through a cutout at a canvas” thing also looks really nice. Actually.
  • Why holiday 2010, why not three years ago?