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The Many Faces of Mac OS X
by Jon on Wednesday, September 7, 2005 file under: Technology

Until today, there had been 4 different variations of the Aqua theme used by Apple for its OS X software: The standard Aqua theme, the new Platinum theme (I believe that's what its called), the much distained Brushed-Metal theme, and the funky Woody theme. Commentators have pointed out on more then one occasion that while Apple's Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) has guidelines for which theme to use where, even Apple disregards those rules and uses whatever theme some unknown source in the company chooses. (I'm not even going to mention the Apple Pro apps which use a completely different theme and widget set.)

SubEthaEdit in Standard Aqua Mail 2 in Platinum Safari 2 in Brushed Metal GarageBand in Woody

With today's release of iTunes 5, we get a fifth variation of the aqua theme, a darker variation of the Platinum theme, and once again a seemingly arbitrary choice that goes against Apple's own HIG. Certainly Apple can justify this tangential decision by toughting features that would necessitate a theme change, right? From what I can tell, there's not much substance behind the style.

iTunes 4 in Brushed Metal iTunes 5 in Dark Platinum

iTunes 5 has a pretty limitted new feature set, and many of the "new" features are simply tweaked old features. Is it really deserving of an entire major number release? A new search bar? What was wrong with the old one? Shuffle control? I usually put my music on random so I don't have to tweak the player, now I'm supposed to tweak shuffle? The only brand spankin' new features are folders and parental controls, the former possibly being useful to me now, and the latter won't be useful to me for a while (at which point who knows if iTunes will still be around?). Oh yeah, and don't forget the new look.

iTunes 4 Mini Player in Brushed Metal
iTunes 5 Mini Player in Dark Platinum

So was this additional theme needed? Personally, I like the new look, but that's not what this is about. This is about consistency and usability. While more can be said about the possibly terrible location of iTunes for Windows menu location, I can't really say that iTunes 5 is any less intuitive then any of the previous versions of iTunes, so the only card that really leaves me to play is the consistency card. Is it important that all apps are skinned the same way, or only that they follow the same general theme? Does it matter that my buttons in iTunes are round, in Safari their squared off and in Mail they're strange ovular entities? (For the record, I dislike Mail's toolbar buttons almost as much as Office 2003's blue theme, possibly the biggest eyesore in computing today). Or that the top border in pretty much every Apple app has rounded corners and now iTunes has nearly squared off corners?

I've raised lots of questions, and have come to one conclusion. Apple needs to pull their HIG and rewrite it. Perhaps slight variations along a common theme don't lose Joe Computer. Perhaps it even makes computing more fun. Apple has long been a proponent of usability, but the talk of their HIG doesn't match the walk of their development. As a fan of software usability and a developer, this practice clouds the issue for me and I'm sure many other developers out there. We look to companies like Apple who give us software that complies to Fitz's Law, with Mile-High menus, and just-where-you'd-think-they'd-be buttons. But when their theming behavior doesn't seem justified, it takes away some of the strength of their other usability arguments, and makes those decisions seem arbitrary as well.

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