Tabbed Titlebars

Technically speaking, Safari 4 is probably the best browser you can get. No big surprise, of course, since in my opinion Safari 3.x (especially if you use Webkit Nightly Builds) was already the best browser I could find. But Safari 4 has an interesting UI decision in it: tabbed window titlebars.

Safari’s implementation is conceptually very similar to Google’s Chrome browser, but Apple being Apple it’s far more polished, although not perfect.

Logically speaking, tabbed browsers make no sense, and of the different approaches taken, Safari 3.x’s made the least sense (the tabs appeared to be selecting the area above the tab panel, not below).

The fundamental problem is simple: the tab metaphor is supposed to represent selecting from among sections of a set of files or pages using the tabs as reference points. Selecting a tab brings that section to the front and puts the others behind (which isn’t how the real world works, but more convenient). Based on the metaphor, anything not “contained” in the tab is “global” while anything not “contained” in the tab is part of the set of stuff contained “in that tab”.

This basic rule is often violated, but usually its in the forgivable direction of including global stuff in the tab area — this usually simplifies layouts. In browsers, however, the rules are hopelessly bizarre. E.g. the address bar in Firefox is above (outside) the tab selector, but changes when you change tabs.

As I said, Safari 3.x has the silliest tab interface. The tabs are above the web page you’re looking at but visually appear to contain the stuff above the tabs (i.e. bookmarks and the address and search fields), so when you click a tab to select the page it’s related to, it appears that you’re selecting a different set of bookmarks, not a different web page.

Safari 4 has made the window titlebar into a tab selector. One obvious reason not to do this is exemplified by Google’s Chrome — it could look really ugly. But aesthetically Apple has pulled off this design about as well as you could possibly hope. Because the title bar is ordinarily used to move windows around, this is now the default behavior of tabs when clicked and dragged. To move a tab around you use the resize affordance in its top-right — this is a horrible kludge, violating the “if it looks the same it should work the same; it it works different it should look different”. In my opinion Apple needs a new affordance to serve this row, perhaps a two-way or four-way arrow. The tabs now correctly sit above the address field and web page content, but also above the search field and bookmarks.

The new design has some obvious wins: a Safari window now wastes less vertical real estate, and the containment hierarchy is logical.

I believe I’ve said this before, but in my opinion the way tabs work in Google’s Chrome (and now in Safari 4) — modulo fixing the affordance for moving tabs — should be implemented at OS level as a way of handling multiple, docked windows gracefully. Ideally, I could link a Pages document together with Photoshop, say, and tab between them when I needed to find a photo to drag into my document.

Three New Things, And One More (Of Course)

Just some quick reactions to the Macworld Expo announcements.

iTunes. Well, Apple didn’t announce a new Mac Mini with a 9400M GPU, and it didn’t announce a new bigger or cheaper or somehow more compelling AppleTV. And it didn’t announce any new iPods or iPhones. But the iTunes announcement is probably going to turn out to be more significant than anything else — see the second item:

  • New pricing model. $0.69, $0.99, or $1.29 per song. This is not “pay more for 256 kbps”, but allowing Music labels to charge more for new shiny stuff and less for back catalogue.
  • Everything is going to be DRM free. (8M songs now; 10M soon.) In other words, the recording industry idiots have finally gotten a clue.
  • iPhone can now download music over cellular networks (not just Wi-Fi).

It doesn’t say whether our existing purchases will be stripped of their DRM though. I hope that devil is in the details.

The 17″ Macbook Pro looks great. I won’t buy one. When I get a notebook I’ve learned that its single most compelling feature is being small. (As small as possible without becoming dysfunctional.) There’s a perfect MacBook for me already, and it’s the new MacBook Air (which Apple quietly upgraded to the nVidia 9400M sometime in the last couple of months). Oh, and the new 17″ MacBook Pro has a non-removable battery which, apparently, gives you 8h (if you don’t use the faster GPU), and has a 5y lifespan — 1000 charge cycles — but, as already mentioned, isn’t removable.

iWork ’09 looks very compelling. The key missing features appear to have all been added (except for automatic indexing in Pages and perhaps pivot options in Numbers). It would be nice if Apple released a Tables database component but I guess that would make Filemaker’s Bento look silly. Wait, it already looks silly.

I wonder why Apple didn’t try to integrate Google documents into iWork rather than or instead of doing Do they really expect to become a major profit center? If not, why not simply leverage something very good that does much the same thing that happens to be something Google is doing as a loss leader. could be great, but how much better than Google docs will it have to be to make up for not being free?

iLife ’09 looks equally compelling. I’m one of the people who happens to like iMovie ’08 (I think we’re the silent majority). If you want to create an actual movie, iMovie ’08 is hopeless (mainly owing to poor audio functionality), but then so is iMovie ’06 (for much the same reasons). For cutting together a bunch of footage into something halfway decent in nothing flat, iMovie ’09 looks like it will let us have our cake and eat it. If the face recognition stuff in iPhoto ’09 is halfway decent it will be a huge, huge feature. Music lessons in GarageBand seem like a killer feature, but it really depends on how well it’s done.

Pixelmator Revisited


Pixelmator's text tool is now fairly useful
Pixelmator's text tool is now fairly useful

I’ve just played around with the latest version (1.3.2) of Pixelmator, a $59 Photoshop-for-the-rest-of-us-wannabe that I’ve greatly maligned in the past. I’m very happy to say that it has reached the tipping point and is now a seriously useful application.

First of all, the text tool is now actually useful. It supports a rectangular region, drop shadows, and you don’t need to use the system Font floater for the most common operations. A huge improvement which doesn’t come close to Photoshop’s or Photolines styling capabilities, but is plenty useful for adding captions to images or simple user interface elements.

Next, the annoying selection issues appear to be addressed. Rectangular (“marquee”) selections work as you’d expect if you’re a MacPaint veteran, and simple things (like command-J converting a selection into a new layer, as in Photoshop) now work.

Simple usability issues, such as not easily being able to tell what the currently selected tool is have been fixed.

With these improvements, Pixelmator is leaving the previously superior Acorn in the dust (thanks in large part to Acorn receiving little love from its developer) and is now the cream of the crop of Photoshop-for-the-rest-of-us-wannabes, if you ignore Photoline for being too ugly and not Mac only. It’s certainly the nicest half-assed-Photoshop-clone-with-core-image-filters. I’m happy with Photoline as my Photoshop backup, but Pixelmator is at least a credible option now.

New MacBooks, Old Prices

Apple’s “failure” to deliver the rumored $899 MacBook (turns out the new $899 part was a new 24″ display) is the latest meme. I guess will soon (if it doesn’t already) have an enormously long-winded “explanation” of why this is genius. I don’t think it’s genius or stupidity. It’s Apple.

Chances are that supplies of the new MacBooks will be a little slow to ramp up, so why not make some money off early adopters while getting the kinks out of the supply chain (and probably out of the product itself). Once everything is good to go, Apple drops the plastic MacBook altogether, speed-bumps the line, drops prices by $100, and releases a new low-end MacBook for $899 with crappy onboard graphics, and a new high-end 17″ MacBook Pro with the new chassis.

I just hope that at some point soon we see Nvidia chipsets in the Mac Mini.

OS X Patches, Secunia Stats

Yesterday, Apple patched the DNS bug everyone was so worried about a few days ago (because some security researcher got ticked off that his name hadn’t been mentioned in dispatches). Time to revisit the whole “Mac OS X is less secure than we think” meme.

Remember, this is all versions of OS X since January 2003 vs. Windows Vista. (If I wanted to be nasty, I’d show the graphs for Windows XP Professional, various versions of Office, etc.. (At least Secunia has stopped treating each Microsoft SKU as a different platform.)

According to Secunia*, the most severe flaw in OS X in the last couple of years is this. If you’d like to skip reading it, the basic idea is this — there was a bug in Apple’s zip utility that would execute a specially tailored payload in a zip archive. So if you were using Safari with default preference settings and you clicked a link, the zip archive would download to your hard disk, get decompressed, and — potentially — arbitrary code could execute. Note that this is not a “Trojan Horse” in the sense that you don’t need to type in a password or deliberately do anything except click a link in a web page, so this is pretty severe.

This is rated by Secunia as extremely critical — do you ever get the feeling that security researchers should be given a free thesaurus? — (“5” on their 5 point scale), even though (1) it requires some user action (it’s not like port vulnerabilities in Windows which allowed worms like BLASTER to simply take over a PC as soon as it was hooked up to the internet) and (2) there are no known instances in the wild.

Windows XP and Vista have a bunch of vulnerabilities rated highly critical (4/5) which are equally nasty. E.g. buffer overflows in the way Windows handled images in web pages that could cause arbitrary code execution. Casual user activity (browsing pages) could, theoretically, result in arbitrary code execution in user space. Apparently, for a problem of this severity to be rated extremely critical for Windows there need to be known examples in the wild.

Presumably, a vulnerability on the Mac requiring zero user action which obtained root access and had instances in the wild would rate mindbogglingly critical (8/5) on Secunia’s scale for consistency. I guess when there’s finally a worm out there that can compromise Macs, heads will explode.

* Why do I keep using Secunia? Because as security research firms go, they’re not quite as grotesquely anti-Mac as typical, and they offer links to embed live versions of their graphs.

Post Script

Apple’s patch doesn’t fix the DNS bug properly. It’s worth noting that this is only going to hurt servers (since most people don’t use OS X desktops as DNS servers, and indeed it’s not switched on by default) so technically this is a server bug. Still, it needs fixing and it’s another misstep by Apple (along with the whole MobileMe fiasco) in a short period.

Post Post Script

Also note that Apple’s initial patch did fix the vulnerability in OS X server (and, apparently, in server-like devices such as Airport Extreme), so basically all the whining was about nothing. It’s one thing to conflate OS X (desktop) with OS X (server) in counting bugs, and another to complain about OS X having an unpatched defect in a service that’s turned off by default and very few people would have switched on.