Welcome to the interview with John Gruber, author of
Daring Fireball and long-time critic
and observer of Mac OS X interface.
Do you still remember your reaction after Steve Jobs first demoed Aqua?
No, I don’t think so. Meaning I don’t remember seeing Jobs do the
demo. But I do remember my initial impressions of Aqua.
I thought it looked childish, garish, and trendy. I thought the
overall look – the bright green/yellow/red primary colors, the
prominent horizontal striping, the gratuitous transparency – was
all tied way too closely with the look of Apple’s then-current
hardware. The UI looked like it was designed to match the look of
the G3 iMacs, iBooks, and PowerMacs.
I think my impressions have been proved right, too – the use of
bright, primary colors is still there, but the striping has gotten
subtler with each major Mac OS X revision, and most pixel-pushers
now consider the original Aqua UI to be out of fashion. I’m guessing
brushed metal will fall out of fashion next. I think it’s ridiculous
that the UI look-and-feel from just four years ago is now considered
|Steve Jobs presenting Aqua during his July 2000 keynote|
My complaints were not, however, based on the idea that Apple
should have considered using the Platinum theme from Mac OS 9. I
never really cared for that look, either, and the switch to Mac OS X
was, obviously, a natural opportunity to update the entire look and
feel of the Mac OS.
The other thing I remember from the initial Aqua demo was the crazy
purple button in the top-right corner of each window. Clicking it
would put you in a new “single-window mode,” where you could only
see one window at a time. The fact that that feature never saw the
light of day is proof that it’s possible to talk Steve Jobs out of a
bad idea – that purple button had “Jobs” written all over it.
Was single-window mode such a bad idea? Moved from the purple button to the confines
of System Preferences, wouldn’t it be useful for beginners or refugees from the
It might be a good idea for some entirely new system, but I think it
was incompatible with the existing Mac UI paradigm. The Mac UI was,
and is, meant to revolve around multiple windows. If you’re only
going to show one window at a time, what’s the use of even calling
it a “window”? Just take up the whole screen.
TiVo, for example, effectively is a computer with a single-window UI
paradigm. But it’s screen-based, not window-based. In the same way
that it didn’t make sense for Apple to add a single-window mode to
Mac OS X, it wouldn’t make sense for TiVo to add a new
As for beginners and Windows refugees, I don’t think they need
protection or shielding from the true Mac UI. What would – and does
– help them is when the regular UI is consistent, obvious, and
What in your opinion are other (good or bad) examples of Jobsian UI
elements? Do you think he supervises every single user interface decision?
No, I certainly don’t think he supervises every decision. Even if he
wanted to, there’s just too much software coming out of Apple for
that to be possible. But I do think he takes an active role in the
decisions affecting the software he deems most important.
|Shots from welcome movies of Mac OS X Panther (left) and Tiger (right)|
I believe Jobs is mostly responsible for Apple’s
almost-entirely-arbitrary use of brushed metal windows. E.g. the
decision to use brushed metal in Safari. I could be wrong – I have
no sources or evidence to back that up. But my thinking is that Jobs
sees the “consistency,” so to say, as stemming from his own
aesthetic judgement. That’s Jobs’s gift: his taste, and his ability
to motivate teams to meet his standards. So if he feels in his gut
that, for example, Safari looks better with brushed metal windows,
then he knows he’s right, and that’s the end of the debate. It
doesn’t matter if the answer contradicts the Mac OS X Human
The problem with this is that it can’t be codified in the HIG –
the HIG can’t tell you to ask Steve Jobs whether your app should use
Another aspect of the Mac OS X UI that I think has been tremendously
influenced by Jobs is the setup and first-run experience. I think
Jobs is keenly aware of the importance of first impressions. Let’s
say you buy a new computer and use it for three years. That’s about
1,000 days. Your first-run experience – the experience you
encounter the first time you boot the machine after taking it out of
the box – therefore constitutes about one-thousandth of your entire
experience with the machine. I think that’s the sort of logic that
has driven most companies not to put that much effort into designing
the first-run UI – it’s only going to happen once, and if it isn’t
smooth, so what?
Whereas I think Jobs looks at the first-run experience and thinks,
it may only be one-thousandth of a user’s overall experience with
the machine, but it’s the most important one-thousandth, because
it’s the first one-thousandth, and it sets their expectations and
The first-run experience with a new Mac – or a new installation of
Mac OS X – is much better now than it ever was before. The music is
nice, the animation looks cool, and the new Migration Assistant
makes it easy for anyone to move their important files from an old
machine to a new one. I think this is the Jobs touch at its best. He
didn’t write the music, he didn’t do the animation, he didn’t write
the dialog boxes you go through to configure your system. But what
he did is demand that all these things be great.
Another example: I’ve heard from two difference sources at Apple
that Jobs personally picks which apps appear by default in the Dock,
and in which order. I don’t think this is micro-management –
someone has to make this decision. What I think is interesting is
that Jobs considers this a decision worth his attention. (And for
what it’s worth, I think his choices are pretty good.)
|Default Dock applications in subsequent editions of Mac OS X|
Did Mac OS X UI get better since 2000?
Sure. It looks better, for one thing. The stripes are much more
subdued, and the anti-aliasing is smoother. It also performs better
– the UI has gotten more responsive in each subsequent major
release, which is the opposite of how things were in the old Mac OS.
My single biggest gripe about Mac OS X 10.0 and 10.1 is that it just
felt so slow.
Still, that’s just part of the picture. Finder seems to be in just as
sorry a state as it was in 10.0...
That’s not a question. (I’d type a smiley here, if I were the sort
of person who likes using smileys.)
In terms of UI, I’d have to say the Finder is worse than in 10.0,
not “just as bad.” (Although in terms of performance, it is better.)
For one thing, the “click the Tic-Tac button to switch the window
from metal to Aqua” behavior (introduced in Mac OS X 10.3) is just
I don’t write about the Finder much anymore because I feel like I’m
wasting my breath. Most of my complaints – and the complaints of
other critics, such as John Siracusa – have never been addressed,
and I don’t think it’s worthwhile or interesting to repeat them
every few months.
To boil it down, the fundamental problem with the OS X Finder is
that it’s trying to support two opposing paradigms at once – the
browser metaphor (metal windows and column view) and the spatial
metaphor from the original Mac Finder (Aqua windows in list and icon
view), and it ends up doing neither one very well.
But the list is longer. Even a casual stroll through Mac OS X uncovers
many interface quirks. You yourself mentioned click-through and
poof inconsistencies , as well as many other usability “paper cuts.” Why
do you think Apple doesn’t spend more time perfecting them?
On the one hand you could argue that in many other instances Apple has
achieved consistency across the UI. It’s just that click-through and
poofing are exceptions to the norm.
My guess is that poofing is inconsistent simply because no one
bothered to really document it with a standard set of guidelines.
As for click-through, I think the problem is that people come down
strongly on both sides of the issue, and developers end up
implementing click-through the way they feel it ought to work.
On the old Mac OS, there was a very strong culture of only
supporting click-through as an exception; on the old NeXT, there was
a strong culture of supporting click-through by default, and only
disabling it as an exception.
I don’t think either group of developers has changed their minds,
even within Apple itself. The reason the use of click-through in Mac
software is growing – even in software written by long-time Mac
programmers – is that Cocoa does it the NeXT way, with
click-through on by default for most UI elements and controls.
So what’s needed is for Apple to stand up and lay down the law, or,
rather, lay down the guidelines. At this writing, the HIG states:
Carbon: Click-through is off by default. You must explicitly enable
click-through for specific controls. Do not assume that the default
behavior is the correct behavior. Make sure to apply the above
Cocoa: Click-through is on by default. You must explicitly disable
click-through for specific controls. Do not assume that the default
behavior is the correct behavior. Make sure to apply the above
And the only really firm guidelines they offer are that you
shouldn’t use click-through for anything dangerous. That’s not
guidance, that’s a cop-out.
I’m also curious of your opinion on Dashboard. Its level of gratuitous eye candy
seems to surpass even that of original Aqua.
To me, the controversial aspects of Dashboard are:
- The fact that widgets are solely relegated to their own
special Dashboard-layer in the UI. Konfabulator, on the other
hand, allows you to do things with its widgets such as
interperse them with other windows in the regular UI layer, or
attached widgets to the desktop. I’m not so sure Apple has this
- The fact that widgets need to be created with the help of a
graphic designer or Photoshop artist. An utterly unartistic
programmer can design beautiful regular Mac software using the
standard OS controls; a Dashboard widget that isn’t
custom-designed by a good artist is going to stick out like a
What aspects do you think are gratuitous?
The ripple effect when launching a new widget, widgets being sucked into
their × buttons when closed, the widget icons sliding from the
left when the widget bar is activated... Contrary to animations in Exposé and
Fast User Switching, for example, most of Dashboard effects seem to fall in
the “because we can” category – and indeed, similar functionality
in other parts of Mac OS X does well without them.
I suppose those effects are gratuitous, but I don’t mind them at
all. They don’t come at the expense of performance. (On my iBook G3,
for example, I don’t see the ripple effect, because the video card
doesn’t support it.) My taste in UI design is decidedly practical,
but I think these types of effects, when used with restraint, really
do help make the Mac OS X experience more pleasant.
Talking about pleasant... Do you recall any delightful recent Mac OS X surprises?
What kind of surprises?
For example, I recently discovered that if there are two or more files sharing
the same name in the Open Recent menu, Mac OS X also shows where do they come
from – a very nice touch.
|Open Recent menu in Text Edit in Mac OS X 10.4|
It’s not recent, but the most delightful surprise I can remember
from the last few years is when I discovered that you can use
Command-Tab switching when you’re in the middle of a drag. So you
can start dragging something in one app, then use Command-Tab to
switch to another app, and then complete the drop in the new app. I
don’t even know when this happened – it might have been like this
on Mac OS X all along, but I don’t think I noticed until sometime
during the 10.2 era. This also works with things like Exposé and
It sounds obvious, but doing something like that was completely
unheard of on the old Mac OS.
A lot of the stuff I wrote about in my Tiger details report delighted me to
some degree. For example, I love that you can now
click in the very top-left pixel of the main display to trigger the
Apple menu (and likewise for the top-right pixel for the Spotlight
pseudo-menu thing). I think the Apple menu should have worked like
this all along.
Let’s peek into the future now. Dare to predict the interface changes in
Leopard, and how will it stack against Longhorn?
I wouldn’t be surprised if the horizontal stripes in Aqua are gone for good. (But
that might just be wishful thinking on my part.) In
fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole translucent red/green/yellow thing goes
away. As I stated earlier, that look to me seems tied to the old candy-colored iMac
hardware. Apple has long since abandoned that gestalt with their hardware, and
I think they’ll eventually do it with their software too.
You can see that the designers at Apple are getting tired of the candy-colored look
and feel. A lot of their new stuff, the custom controls, doesn’t look like that
at all. They’re using much flatter (in the 3D sense) controls, with gradients.
E.g. the buttons at the bottom of the Podcasting section in iTunes 4.9.
|Podcasting section in iTunes 4.9|
I can’t say I’m following Longhorn (or “Vista” as its marketing name seems
to be) all that closely. I look at screenshots when new betas are released or leaked.
The Windows user interface as a whole has always struck me as being not very Mac-like at
all. I never bought into the theory that Windows was a Mac rip-off. The only way
you could believe that would be to argue that the Mac should have been the one and
only GUI – that because Apple popularized the GUI, everyone else should have
stuck with text-based UIs. That’s just silly (although I do think that’s
exactly what certain executives at Apple believed during the ill-fated look-and-feel lawsuit
era in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s).
Even just the “themes” in Windows have never struck me as being very
similar to the Mac. Window 3.x was just so damn ugly, for example. Windows 95 looked pretty
good, and didn’t look like the Mac OS at all. In fact, I think one could
argue that the “platinum” Mac OS theme introduced in Mac OS 8 was
more influenced by Windows than any Windows theme ever was by the Mac. The
gray window backgrounds, the 3D bezel effects on the buttons and text fields – it always
struck me as sadly derivative of the Windows 95 theme.
But it does seem, however, like Microsoft is now aping quite a bit of the
Aqua look-and-feel. Just in terms of what the windows and buttons look like.
So I think it’d be interesting to see Apple zig away from this look
just when Microsoft starts to zag toward it. The idea being that Apple might
introduce an updated look that makes Vista look dated by the time it ships.
But can Apple truly update the look? After a reckless pace of moving
from “candy colors” through graphite to the current snow white/brushed
metal duo, it seems that this theme is here to stay (cf. Mac OS X,
all the hardware, and even the interiors of the retail stores).
I think the Aqua look in 10.4 is still decidedly candy-colored –
the window title bar controls, the scroll bars, the capsule-shaped
push buttons. And I think the brushed metal theme, or at least the
brushed metal theme as we know it, is getting really old, really
quick. Of course, I’m biased, because I never liked it in the first
I don’t think they’ll revamp the UI in the complete way that they
did when going from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X 10.0, but I think 10.5 or
10.6 will bear very little resemblance in any of its details to what
10.0 looked like.
Let’s say you’re appointed as a Chief UI Designer at Apple. What
would be your first five orders?
I’d rather be chief UI critic than chief UI designer, but, here
goes. These are off the top of my head, because if I tried to answer
this seriously, it’d take me a day and a couple of thousand words.
- I’d hire John Siracusa to work with me.
- I’d scrap the entire current Finder UI and start over. (See #1.)
- I’d compile a list of all the areas where default Cocoa
behavior and appearance differs from the HIG, and in each case,
change either the implementation in Cocoa or the guideline in
the HIG. This includes things like click-through behavior and
drag-and-drop behavior in text views.
- I’d encourage much more platform-wide consistency. When new
behavior and controls are created, they should be codified in
the HIG. We shouldn’t act like Apple’s own apps get to do things
that third-party apps shouldn’t.
- I’d commission an italic version of Lucida Grande, and start
using it in certain spots in the UI. For example, one good spot
for this would be those text-field labels that go inside the
text field itself, e.g. the “Google” search field in Safari. My
gripe about these fields is that the labels aren’t easy enough
to distinguish from actual text inside the field itself. Right
now, Apple’s design is to use color, gray instead of black, to
convey this. The problem with using color for this is that the
only way to make it more distinguishable is to make it lighter,
which in turn makes it harder to read. Whereas if they used
italics, it’d be distinguishable instantly. I also still miss
having alias names italicized.
(A nice side-effect of this would be that all the web sites that
use Lucida Grande could get real italics, instead of having Web
Kit fake it by using Helvetica Italic in place of the
non-existent Lucida Grande Italic. Every time I see italics
on a web page set in Lucida Grande, it’s like sand in my eyes. Uh, no
offense to GUIdebook.)
And hot on the heels of the announcement of the Mighty Mouse, what’s
your opinion about it – Apple catching up or leading the pack?
|Mighty Mouse – hell freezing over for the third time in two years|
The scroll ball is terrific – better than any scroll wheel I’ve
ever used. If you just think of it as a single-button mouse with a
scroll ball, it’s a nice improvement over the Apple Pro Mouse. But
the fact that you have to lift your fingers off the left side of the
mouse to register a right-click (or vice-versa) is a serious design
flaw, in my opinion.
I plan to write a full review of the Mighty Mouse in the next couple
Looking forward to it. Thanks!
The interview has been conducted over email in July and August 2005.
John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog is available at
sure to check the archives for many
Mac OS GUI-related posts (for example That
Finder thing or Brushed metal
and the HIG ).