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Ask Tog, June 22, 1998

Cross-Platform Realities


Java promises (and almost delivers) something that's been elusive for many years: single source products that span platforms. It's clear that this would be of great help in deploying software to a larger audience.

Assuming Java were mature and lived up to that promise, what are your thoughts on how a Java application should blend with the environment it's running in?

Suppose a product was primarily intended for users of Macintosh and Windows platforms. Then that product could be designed using one of the following approaches:

  1. Be like Windows,
  2. Be like the Mac,
  3. Try to look like the Mac when on Mac, and Windows when Windows, or
  4. Be it's own dog.

The first two approaches could be accused of sidestepping the issue, insulting users of the other platform, and perhaps missing an opportunity. The third approach is embodied in the early Java development tools, and suffers from being limited to those controls common to both environments. The fourth approach suffers because developers don't have a design foundation on which to build...a lot of effort will go into the design, and pity the user who must deal with 27 diverse applications with little in common.

C r a i g O s h i m a
Software Designer

The realistic answers here run to the odd primes. Unless you are designing for a predominently Macintosh audience, designing an interface to conform just to the Mac (option two, the even prime) could well be economic suicide.

Number four has not proven successful for many people, with Kai Krause of Kai's power tools the notable exception. People have enough to learn without having to learn your idiosyncratic interface. Even the most cursory user testing will usually bear this out.

That leaves, for most of us, numbers one and three, the odd primes. As Craig points out, number three isn't working too well.. The tools remain weak.

One continues to be the easy choice. I mean, how many of us are supporting a lot of Mac or UNIX users anyway? And isn't Bill there to support us in making it look just like Windows at every turn? Offering the latest tools for free or less, as long as we build it his way? I mean, why not just go along with the program?

Perhaps that can be the subject of another fourteen or fifteen columns. In the meantime, let's switch this discussion around just a bit. The fact is that we Macintosh users--and UNIX users--are going to be seeing a lot of Windows-like software floating around the web. What can be done by our OS suppliers to make our lives more manageable? A lot. And it isn't all that hard to do, either.

To my friends at Apple:

We've had many promises the past few years about the coming age of cross-platform applications, able to conform to the idiosycracies of each individual system. The promise of that happening on the Macintosh remains just that--a promise. The promise of it happening across the many flavors of Unix isn't even a distant dream. We live in a Windows world, whether we like it or not. Companies that want to coexist need to make it easy for their uses to live there in peace.

Apple needs to make the Macintosh more Windows-like. No, no they don't have to make it coarse and quirky. They only need to change the few things that are driving Mac people who must use Windows-like software--or must use a Windows machine at work--just plain nuts.

Consistency is a funny thing. The most important area of consistency is the area most people don't even think about; which is why it is the most important area. What am I talking about? Shortcut keys. Button ordering. And all those other little things users learned way-back-when, soon absorbed into habit, and never considered again. The way a lot of these work is backwards in Windows. No, let me correct that. It was backwards in Windows, until Windows hit a 90% market share. Now, it is backwards in Macintosh.

Keyboard shortcuts

Macintosh uses the Command key (the one with the Swedish road sign on it) as their primary modifier. Command-C for Cut, etc. Windows uses the Control key. Someone bouncing back and forth from Macintosh to Windows or Windows-like software is made crazy by this shifting around. Windows actually did get it right. The command key on the Macintosh is directly below the X and C keys; to do the shortcut, you have to curl your thumb around like a salted slug to hit it. Macintosh users should be allowed to set a preference for the Command key to be mapped to the Control key. (Users can do this today using QuicKeys, but it doesn't change the shortcut symbol on the menus; only Apple can do that.)

And while we're fixing keys, the 1984 Macintosh guidelines stated that Command-Click should be used for multiple selection. It would be nice if the Finder started using it one of these days soon. Nothing need be done to the way Shift-Click works. Just add Command-Click, too.

Button position

Macintosh put the default button on the right in those OK-Cancel and Yes-No-Cancel arrays. Windows chose to put it on the left. Windows got it dead wrong, since the mental model of web pages is that subsequent pages are on the right (for Western language readers), so Next buttons, and their stand-ins, must continue to appear on the right. This reduces the Windows rule to "put the default button on the left 'cept sometimes." Which is a stupid rule. But it just doesn't matter. Macintosh should bite the bullet and switch their buttons around. Again, it can be made a preference for those who would rather fight than switch.

Apple needs to buy a few Windows machines and carefully track the experience of a Macintosh user learning--and switching back and forth to--Windows. Then figure out what changes, like these suggested, could make it easier. Until I found QuicKeys, I was about ready to abandon Macintosh altogether just because of the Command/Control conflict. (I have one of each computer in my office.) Twenty-five or thirty times a day I was pressing the wrong key. That's a silly reason for a company to lose one of their most dedicated users. But it is just the sort of reason that companies disappear from the market, without ever knowing why.


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