Inconsistent Whimsy

Image source: Serious Eats (2011)
Image source: Serious Eats (2011)

After quite a bumpy beta period, macOS Catalina was finally released on 7 October. There are welcome improvements, such as the addition of Sidecar, the split-up of iTunes into different apps, a better Reminders app and the all-new Voice Control, which is a fantastic accessibility feature that enables you to control your Mac entirely with your voice. There are also some more controversial changes, including tightened security and permissions (leading to more dialogue boxes), the slow start to iPad apps on the Mac with Mac Catalyst and the final, complete removal of support for 32-bit apps. If you want a full review, make sure to check out Jason Snell’s on Six Colors.

Whilst Catalina has received quite a mixed reaction, personally I’ve been happy with the software upgrade and can see how Apple clearly is continuing to push the Mac forwards, leaving legacy cruft behind in order to facilitate a more cohesive, integrated ecosystem of devices. Apple is clearly showing that it still believes in the Mac, contrary to the shrieking and carrying on by many tech analysts. Rather than being the centre of our lives as it once was, it is now just one of many devices.

Despite these visible improvements, there’s a little something that has been sticking in the back of my mind in for the last few years: inconsistency. More on this in a moment…

For some time, Mac fans have complained that Apple has been stripping the whimsy out of macOS, saying that it lacks much of the personality that it once had. Examples range from the removal of Clarus the Dogcow all the way through to the more contemporary ‘grayscaling’ of buttons and other UI elements throughout the system, where flickering, aqua-themed progress bars, quirky ‘About’ boxes and reflective, glass-like finishes once reigned supreme. To be clear, Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘whimsy’ as ‘Playfully quaint or fanciful behaviour or humour’.

I don’t really buy this argument. To claim that Apple has steadily been making macOS (and even iOS) more boring isn’t quite right, as the company’s design pendulum has swung between skeuomorphic and flat, opaque and transparent, ‘lickable’ and grey and so on for years. The company is naturally going to respond to consumer taste and also attempt to match its current hardware.

The true issue doesn’t lie in the supposed removal of whimsy; it’s in its inconsistent implementation and presentation. Let me give you a super-specific example.

For many years in Mac OS X (now macOS), removing an application icon from the Dock resulted in a whimsical little puff of smoke. Now, as you can see below, it does not.

Aha! Didn’t you say that it wasn’t all about the removal of whimsy, Martin? Where’s the inconsistency here? It’s becoming boring like everything else in the system!

Not so fast… look what happens when you go to customise the toolbar in Safari…

Not only does the removed toolbar icon disappear in a puff of smoke, all icons shimmy side-to-side whilst in the editing mode, like on the Home screen in iOS.

This may seem like pretty pedantic example but it’s very significant. Apple’s entire philosophy for design, be it in software or hardware, is to sweat the details—to pay attention to the little things that no one else cares about. Why is this animation present in one application and not the other? This seems like an oversight.

Moreover, the puff of smoke is only a simple animation but it makes you smile and enjoy a system that you’re probably using mainly for work. These days, that is almost always the context for the desktop computer.

When people discuss the UIDatePicker that has been brought from iOS to macOS (in Mac Catalyst apps like Home), they explain their dissatisfaction as being rooted in the fact that this ‘does not work on the Mac’ at all. ‘Not working’ really means that this whimsical, skeuomorphic element doesn’t belong or match the elements that are around it—it’s out of place.

I understand that Apple is in a period of significant transition, particularly as it has developed more integrated platforms and as it comes to terms with becoming more of a services and media company. Things are also moving much more quickly in tech these days, with greater pressure to innovate, add new features and churn out new and amazing products. Slowing things down a bit is a double-edged sword: taking the time to refine software can ensure stability and consistency but you risk being seen as lacking drive and innovation.

I don’t believe in the claim ‘Steve wouldn’t have allowed that if he were still here’, however I do believe that Apple is now lacking an equivalent tastemaker—one person (or very exclusive group of people) to look across the entire company and say ‘yes’ and (more often) ‘no’ to things. Whimsy is only a small part of this but like any kind of feature or design decision, it needs to be consistent. Such decisions shouldn’t have to be guided by only one person, however it’s also true that the best things in life are never designed by a committee.

Consistency may not sound like the most exciting product feature, however like fun and whimsy, it’s one of the main things that attracted us all to the Mac in the first place.

PhD Study Journal: Entry 4

Yesterday I had my first joint meeting with both of my supervisors, Dr. Kate Bowles and Dr. Chris Moore. I’ve worked with Kate before (during my Honours) but this is my first time working with Chris. I can already tell that this will be a great experience, as they’re both on the same general wavelength but offer different views and research interests, which will keep me thinking and questioning my preconceptions about media and the specific area of podcasting. I need to be even more fundamental: what makes a podcast a podcast? It’s a question of both style and the specific technical implementation.

Even at this early stage, I’ve been my typical self and worried too much about my reading progress, however they were both quick to say that there’s no template for success or how to embark on such a project. It’s amazing what work deadlines and expectations can do to you; I just need to loosen up a bit and enjoy the process of learning again, which was the whole reason that I decided to do this.

Rumination 56: Holy Synergy!

On the weekend, I attended a first communion at a Catholic church in Wollongong. To be upfront about my views, I am an atheist but attended out of respect for others’ beliefs in my extended family.

I noticed two things whilst at the church that showed that for all of its supposed emphasis on humanity and relationships, religion is still, at its core, a business.

The first thing that I observed was this sign at the entrance of the church.

Yes, that’s right, you’re looking at a tap-payment facility in a church. In case it is hard to see, the text on the sign reads as follows:

‘Help support St Francis Xavier Cathedral. ‘Tap and Go’ is an easy and safe way to donate. Each tap of your credit card will deposit $10 straight into the St Francis Xavier Cathedral account. Your donation will help us continue our work. Thank you for your support.’

If you ever needed evidence of the massive success of tap payments in Australia, then here it is. Whilst the United States struggles to achieve widespread adoption of things like Apple Pay with retailers, banks and so on, Australian Catholics are tapping their cards happily as they dip their fingers into holy water. (I’m not being facetious here… the holy water really was adjacent to it at the entrance.)

Now I accept that churches require money to operate. What frustrated me about this was that it also stood next to a donation slot for church restoration and a slot for the church’s regular newsletter plus during the service I witnessed an additional two rounds of of the collection plate. Add all of this together to the fact that any voluntary contribution through this payment machine must be $10 and it all seems like a bit much. The icing on the cake was the point during the service in which the priest declared that we should look beyond money in our lives and find meaning in relationships and God. Somewhat mixed messaging, if you ask me…

This brings me to the second thing, which was a sign that stood in the aisle between the pews.

Here I was thinking that LinkedIn was the most effective way to build your professional network in the 21st century… I was wrong! By joining Catholic Business Connections, business and spirituality combined conveniently: ‘Are you looking for an opportunity to enhance your faith life and build your professional network?’. I would never have thought to put all of those words together to form that sentence.

Beyond the evident focus on business, work and money, this sign also presented a bit of an issue with representation of the local Catholic community. The priest and all of his assistants and altar boys during the service clearly had Asian backgrounds. The attending parishioners were also very diverse in cultural background and dress. Every single person in this advertisement above for Catholic Business Connections appears to be a white Australian with presumably Celtic (or perhaps Anglo-Saxon) heritage. Clearly, the Catholic Diocese in Wollongong, which runs these business events, not only has an issue with the representation of diversity but also in understanding the very make-up of its own clergy and community. (Don’t even get me started on the thing that looks like a mullet coming out of the guy in the bottom-right image.)

In a time when people around the world are becoming ever more aware and critical of business practice, the representation of minorities and the conduct of major religions, what I saw at this church seems to be a bizarre anachronism.