Daring Fireball has posted an excellent analysis of the OS X Finder. However, there are a few parts I have quibbles with.
Once the NeXT regime stepped in and assumed top positions in Apple’s software division, they started putting their stamp on Apple’s UI design, despite the fact their input on such matters was neither wanted nor needed. The hallmarks of NeXT’s UI design are extravagant attention to cosmetic appeal, and nearly no attention whatsoever to actual usability. This is enough to fool many people, especially converts switching from other platforms, where the interfaces are both ugly and disfunctional. If it looks better, it must be better, right? With that metric in mind, you can start to understand why the NeXTies think so highly of their own UI design skills.
As a description of OS X, this is correct. It also explains why opinions on the OS X interface are so divided. However, I think it’s a mistake to blame every OS X interface disaster on “the NeXTies” and their design skills. Certainly, some aspects of OS X, like Columns view, came straight from NeXT; but attributing other elements, like the Dock, is not so easy. Further, many of the problems with OS X have to do with poor implementations rather than poor design. Columns view, taken by itself, is fine. That the Open/Save dialog implementation of it is so horribly broken is a separate issue, as are the facts that the spatial Finder views are slow and not spatial enough. The “blame it on NeXT” theory also cannot account for how bad the initial OS X rewrite of Project Builder was compared to NeXT’s own ProjectBuilder.
I maintain that the real cause of OS X’s interface problems is not poor design but (for lack of a better word) poor supervision—the result of Steve Jobs’s dissolving of the human interface group. With no one enforcing consistent interface principles and a woefully incomplete set of guidelines, it’s really no surprise that we are where we are. Apple has lots of programmers, and this is what happens when you let them loose (however smart they may be). I don’t think it’s so much a matter of their platform heritage. There are obviously a lot of Mac-type people working on OS X. Joel Spolsky loved that Microsoft gave him a lot of freedom when he was low on their totem pole. I think that this element of corporate culture, while it may be a great way of keeping programmers happy, is a lousy way to ensure quality and consistency. Yet rejecting this idea need not lead to Joel’s Juno scenario; programmers respect HI experts when they are good. Programmers need HI experts in the same way that writers need editors.
Apple’s iApps provide a broader example. iTunes and iMovie were designed and implemented by Macintosh developers; both are runaway smash hits. iPhoto and iCal, however, were developed only for Mac OS X, and are not nearly as polished. iCal in particular is pretty much a stinkbomb, and bears all the hallmarks of NeXT UI design: looks good, feels clumsy.
As I recall, iMovie and iPhoto were written by the same team. iCal is a disaster, for sure, but I can’t say that I detect a strong NeXT influence in it. (Most of the third-party applications from NeXT developers are obviously of NeXT heritage; I don’t see that with iCal.) I think it was simply released too early. Polish takes time, and today’s Apple is in a rush. (Alas, and why shouldn’t it be when so many hold iPhoto and friends as examples of great software?)
The bottom line is that Apple’s current corporate culture doesn’t value usability as much as it should. All is not lost, but unless something is done this will merely be the beginning of a long decline. Without strong, thoughtful guidelines (and example-setting) from Apple, the quality and consistency of third-party Mac software will deteriorate as the pool of Mac-clueful developers is diluted. Unix users will write Mac software that doesn’t feel right, and we’ll have Apple to blame for it. Old-school Mac developers will try to make sense of Apple’s actions, searching for the method that’s absent from the madness. It remains to be seen whether their efforts will be appreciated.