Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Unified Office App for iPad

Nick Heer:

I am finding it difficult to adapt to increasingly unified applications on my Mac and iPad. I am not sure if this is an age and experience thing — I am used to switching between apps with multiple documents or windows open. Aside from web browsers and development environments, I use tabs infrequently within any apps because I am often juggling between many files. The advantages of thinking in an application-based model are outweighed, for me, by a document-based model.

This unified Office app has many of the same problems as, for example, Electron apps and web apps generally. Each document consumes the entire app. You can use the app in split screen, as Apple now requires, but it does not fully support multitasking within the app. So it is not possible to, for example, build a PowerPoint presentation based on a Word document outline, or reference one Excel spreadsheet while working in another.

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Microsoft’s goal in creating these lightweight, combined Office apps was to address the needs of users for whom full versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on their mobile devices was overkill in terms of features and download size.

So the separate versions will stick around perpetually?

I read somewhere that one of the motivators was MDM limitations in copy & paste. (Specifically, something like “you can only copy up to x characters of text between apps”. Which sounds very on-brand and plausible for IT departments.)

But the above quote suggests that this isn’t the future of Office on iOS, but rather a new variant. If so, I think that’s kind of confusing, and so far Microsoft doesn’t seem to have done a good job of communicating which app is intended for whom (not to mention: these apps are in addition to the web apps, which have a different subset of the features), but at least I don’t have to worry about my preferred apps going away, I guess.

Teams, for example, is almost entirely a single-window Electron app on MacOS. The current meeting will open in a new window but, otherwise, it is an entirely single-window app.

They’ve been improving this; for example, you can pop out a chat with a person into its own window. Unfortunately, there are tons and tons of issues with state management. (For example, you might think that you can scroll such a window up, chat with someone else, and have state be consistent. You’d be wrong; the app will intermittently scroll every single chat window back to the bottom. Good luck browsing your history.)

It’s kind of forgivable because some other aspects of Teams are great. But, what used to be considered table stakes in window management and state management, it’s fairly bad at. Or, put more directly: Adium never quite figured out things like file transfer, audio/video, and screen sharing, and Teams does those fine. OTOH, Adium was great at window management, message history, etc., and Teams is not.

Nor is it possible to see a chat window and a calendar at the same time.

Again, not true any more (since about a year or so?); just pop out the chat.

But many of these restrictions seem designed mostly to help companies churn out updates across different operating systems at breakneck pace, without requiring as much platform-specific development.

Yup. It’s just more of the same 1990s’ cross-platform lowest-common-denominator sauce that gave us Word 6 for Mac and, perhaps on the other side of the spectrum, iTunes for Windows.

But I think the window management aspect is something that started independently of web apps, and Apple is one of the drivers here (yes, I realize they’re pointing to this further down their post). For example, when Safari’s beta came out, it annoyed me that Bookmarks was a browser-based window, rather than something separate with its own special toolbar. Modern Xcode, compared to the old separate Project Builder and Interface Builder apps, puts virtually everything in one window.

I think part of it is that the palette lifestyle (see Adobe products ca. 1995) of having big main windows and small satellite windows, while flexible, also imposed additional cognitive and manual work on the user: it’s not just that you can arrange those palettes the way you like; it’s that you have to, and no matter how you arrange them, it’s never quite right.

Some may think of it as “hey, I love that! It’s just like I arrange my home”. And others, perhaps the majority, think of it as “so now the way I have to constantly unclutter my home is something that happens on the computer as well? Why can’t the machine figure it out?”

Operating systems have outsourced proper window management to apps ever since browsers introduced tabs (or perhaps ever since Adobe (or was it Aldus, or Deneba?) introduced these wonky little floating palette windows, like Sören says). iOS has only accellerated this issue, and it's probably the single biggest failure in operating system UX design (maybe apart from the file system).

If the OS doesn't do window management properly, then this mess is the inevitable outcome.

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