inessential by Brent Simmons

WWDC UI wild guesses

Like thousands of Mac developers, I’m getting all excited for WWDC next week. Bring on the Leopardy goodness!

The main thing I pay attention to is the user interface changes. I have some wild guesses as to what we’ll see.

NeXT/iTunes screenshot

I think we’re going to see a continuation of a few trends in the look of OS X. It will get higher-contrast and less 3D. (It will resemble more and more an updated NeXT look.)

I was talking to John Gruber recently about this (one of the perks of vacationing in the Philly area)—he said that he thought Apple was setting out to make Vista look like a toy when compared to a more refined and professional OS X. Sounds right to me.

And that means more contrast, less transparency, a flatter look, subtler uses of 3D and shadows. Vista would end up looking like OS X 10.1 in comparison. (All this is speculation, of course, I have no inside knowledge and I’ve seen just a few screenshots of Vista.)

So what all will happen in UI-land?

Will brushed metal disappear?

You’ve noticed that brushed metal has just about disappeared from the iApps—it’s been replaced by a new window type that isn’t a standard part of the system.

I can imagine brushed metal disappearing entirely in Leopard—any app that would be brushed metal on OS X 10.4 would automatically get this new type of window on 10.5. In fact, that’s what I hope will happen—this new type is obviously the successor to brushed metal, and so it’s time to let go of brushed metal entirely.

This new type has some obvious advantages. Like brushed metal it contrasts better with white and light colors, and unlike brushed metal it’s nice to look at. More elegant, less let’s-make-the-12-year-olds happy. (If you like brushed metal—I apologize. But it’s still going away.)

Another possibility is that this window type will replace the old horizontal-striped look or will replace the unified title-and-toolbar look. I doubt either of those outcomes.

The worst outcomes would be that it’s a brand-new type or that it’s simply not available at all. I’m not sure which of these two I like least. My hope is that it replaces brushed metal.

Will the horizontal-striped window disappear?

Oh, everybody hates the horizontal stripes. Nobody wants those anymore.

And yet it would be hard for Apple to just straight up make it so that all stripy apps gets the unified title and toolbar look—since, well, some developers might complain that the look of their app has been interfered with.

(This same reason could prevent Apple from making the new iApp window look replace brushed metal, though I just feel like it’s less likely there would complaints about that.)

My hunch, though, is that folks at Apple are as tired of the stripes as we are—I mean, look at the apps Apple produces—and they’d love to get rid of it. (Again, I have no inside knowledge.) So it’s possible that it would be replaced by a light-grey non-textured window—which is pretty much what the unified title-and-toolbar look actually is, so... it’s kind of a pickle.

Here’s what I’d like to see:

1. The unified title-and-toolbar look gets updated to be a bit cooler (perhaps slightly darker), and the inactive look loses the stripes.

2. The old stripy window goes away entirely—stripy apps automatically get the new unified look.

If this happens, and the brushed metal replacement happens, we actually end up with fewer types of windows—which will help make OS X look less like a melange and more like something designed by those brilliant folks who brought us cool things like the iPod. (Yes, consistency is an aesthetic good, and not just something persnickety types like to persnick about.)

We’d end up with two standard types, the unified-ish type and the iApp-ish type. Lighter and darker. Works for me. (Though, of course, I’d love to have just one type, but we can save that for OS X Wildcat or whatever.)

Will the situation with NSToolbar start to make sense?

One of the coolest standard parts of OS X is customizable toolbars as in Mail, Safari, Finder, etc.

The amount of work a developer has to do is darn close to nothing—it’s this totally awesome standard control, a really great move on Apple’s part toward making things both easy and customizable for users.

The only thing is, the iApps pretty much don’t use it. They use a little-bit thickened top window border with no toolbar, or with a non-customizable toolbar (see iTunes).

Instead of a standard NSToolbar they use a barely customizable set of controls at the bottom of the window. Check out iPhoto’s View > Show in Toolbar menu—you can show and hide some of the items (but not all), and you can’t move them or change the icon size or do text-only or icon-only. No customization sheet—instead you just have that menu. (And when you’re looking at a single photo you can’t customize it at all.)

I wonder about this. NSToolbar is a gem in so many ways, and yet the iApps totally say: no, not for me, thanks.

It seems like an obvious area for an update: NSToolbar could be updated so that toolbars could live in arbitrary parts of the window instead of always at the top.

The second part of the issue with NSToolbar is contextuality. Again, check out how the toolbar changes in iPhoto when you zoom a photo. You get photo controls. The toolbar is contextual—it changes based on what you’re looking at.

The old-school Mac user in me doesn’t like that, actually—he prefers stuff not to jump around. (Seems Windows-y.) The new-school Mac user is cool with it, though, and it’s the new-school Mac user that (rightly) wins.

So—it’s possible that we’d see an NSToolbar upgrade that allowed for arbitrary placement and for contextual toolbars. (But I would’t bet on this. Seems like a natural and obvious thing to me, though, but then I don’t work at Apple and don’t know what the priorities actually are.)

If we don’t see an upgrade to NSToolbar, perhaps we’d see an upgrade to the Human Interface Guidelines that talks about when to use NSToolbar and when to use contextual, bottom-placed toolbars like in iPhoto. (A developer can dream, right? No harm in dreaming.)

Is it the end of the bubbly popup menus?

You’ve seen a bunch of these, I’m sure:

new popup screenshot

It’s not a standard popup menu control—but it’s done similarly in a bunch of different apps. Here’s iPhoto’s version, for example:

iPhoto version of the new popup

Less rounded, not exactly the same, but the same idea.

Now here’s the standard, non-customized popup menu control:

standard old popup

Obviously the trend is a flatter, more serious look—but will the standard bubbly-blue popup be replaced by the gray popup? Or will the gray popup be a standard alternate version? Or will it remain a custom control that each developer will do slightly differently?

I’d like to see the gray popup just straight-up replace the old bubble-blue version. But we’ll see.

Will this post ever end?

Yes, I think so, right now, actually. I could go on and on, you know... ;) (Maybe I’ll write some more later about tabs. Or about how Safari might get a source list. Just more speculation and dreaming.)