Tim Bray pointed out Apple’s weak support for keyboards in his blog today. Having just got my first Mac, I must agree. I thought maybe it was just me: maybe there was some trick in the system for getting to those menus, something I would figure out over time. But no, apparently some menu items and buttons really aren’t accessible via the keyboard. My biggest beefs are intermittent support for keyboard editing commands (home, end, word-select, etc.), the lack of separate Delete and Backspace keys on many keyboards, and the silly insistence on one-button mice and trackpads (when 97% of the computing world uses two-button mice, it’s safe to say they’re not too complex for ordinary people).
Apple has consistently valued aesthetics over function. The Mac aesthetic is simplicity and purity – of appearance, not necessarily of function. Hence a spare user interface, traditionally in gray so as not to distract from content. But like the one-button mouse, which simulates a second button by holding down the command key, this often leads to incredible complexity of behavior. Mac OS X has more weird key combinations than most text-mode UNIX applications.
With OS X, some of that purity was discarded in favor of flash: the gumdrop close-minimize-maximize buttons, for example. They are neither easy to grasp, nor do they fade into the background like the old grayscale controls. Similarly, brushed metal applications add nothing but distracting design which will look dated before the original black-and-white of 1984 will.
Yet here’s the paradox: it seems as if only Apple is capable of producing innovative design. That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. When the first “lickable” iMacs (which I detested) came out, they influenced everything from Ikea furniture to toothbrush designs. The iPod interface is a work of art. But it’s not hard to be different when everyone else is the same. How come other companies just don’t get it? Their attempts at design innovation seldom go beyond a choice of black or beige or a rip-off of Apple. Their imitations fall so far short you would think they would send them back to the drawing board rather than subject them to ridicule.
Meanwhile, Apple is just as blind to the innovations of others. Maybe its not-invented-here syndrome and the tendency to reach for the lawyers (patenting the trash bin!?) are symptoms of insecurity. The company with the sense to copy Xerox Parc seems to have forgotten the other secret of its success.