Vista Naming Conventions

One of the first things Windows veterans notice upon switching to Vista is that “My Computer” has gone. It’s been replaced, of course, with “Computer”.

Obviously, Microsoft originally chose to name the icon “My Computer” in the interests of usability. They wanted the user to realize that the icon referred to the computer they were using and not some random computer, or the concept of a “computer” in general, and didn’t want to give the icon a stupidly long name such as “the computer you’re currently using, yes, this one” which, obviously, would be more precise (since most Windows computers are in fact “The Man’s Computer” or “Dad’s Computer” or “The incredibly crappy computer the school bought five years ago and never upgraded”. Of course in the interest of usability, Microsoft wanted to be precise, but not waste too much menu space.

But it seems that Apple’s infatuation with “usability” has begun to infect Microsoft to the point where they’re willing to drop the highly informative “My” from in front of all kinds of things, allowing veteran users to become horribly confused.

The “usability” fascists have been hard at work elsewhere, e.g. renaming certain standard applications such as “Outlook Express” to “Windows Mail”. Here, Microsoft is not only looking to Apple’s approach to “usability” (Apple’s Mail application is helpfully called “Mail”) but also to Open Source’s desire to keep branding clear (e.g. carefully referring to Firefox as “Mozilla Firefox” so you’ll find it under “M” instead of “F” and won’t confuse it with all those other Firefox programs, or helpfully putting a “K” in front of anything associated with KDE so that people will know it’s KDE Mail and not, say, GNU Mail; living in Alabama I can think of another organization that would heartily approve). So instead of “Outlook Express” (which might be confused with a “faster” version of Outlook) we have “Windows Mail”. It’s also good to know that you’ll be able to find “Windows Mail” under “W” along with all your other frequently used applications (such as “Windows Mobility Center” and “Windows Live Messenger Download”) in long alpha-sorted menus.

Might it be too radical to suggest that with Windows 7 Microsoft might consider dropping spurious branding from things like “Mail” and sort applications by their name or function instead of vendor?

It’s Usable, or it’s Free

I just got a coupon code emailed to me for a product called Pixels 3D. Pixels 3D is a spectacularly capable 3D package for the Mac that’s been around for ages. Its feature list is competitive with almost anything I’ve seen (e.g. dynamic NURBS, caustics, volumetrics, particles, automatic rigging). And it sells for $49. My coupon offers a $20 discount.

So, I went to the website, downloaded a free demo, and reacquainted myself with the program. Let me put it this way, Blender has a more approachable and attractive user interface.

Based on the documentation, Pixels has features Blender can’t match, but I’ll be damned if I could figure out how to use any of them. It’s a very bad sign when Undo doesn’t appear to work. (I assume Undo does work in certain situations; I imagine users would be screaming blue murder if it didn’t.)

Anyway, Blender is free, on balance more capable than Pixels, and easier to use. Cheetah 3D is considerably more expensive ($149), has far fewer features, but is a joy to use. Almost any piece of software these days will have a free and/or open source competitor on one hand, and a fairly inexpensive and usable competitor on the other. The only way to stand out is to offer truly deep functionality (e.g. Photoshop) or outstanding usability relative to depth (e.g. Cheetah 3D). Merely having a lot of features is no longer compelling. (E.g. I wouldn’t pay for a GraphicConverter license today, a program I once considered indispensable but which is ugly and has always had an awful user interface.)

Inconvenience without Security

Apparently there’s news of an exploit that completely hoses Vista’s security and which probably can’t be fixed. Before the Microsoft-haters all start celebrating, let me make a couple of observations.

  • It’s not clear whether the general approach taken might not be equally effective against other operating systems.
  • The people discussing this exploit seem entirely too gleeful. Remember, you’re supposed to be good guys looking for security holes so we can fix them before bad guys take advantage of them.

“… the genius of this is that it’s completely reusable. They have attacks that let them load chosen content to a chosen location with chosen permissions. That’s completely game over.”

That just doesn’t sound like a dispassionate researcher reporting significant findings that may be of concern to us all. It sounds more like someone relishing Microsoft’s discomfort, or maybe Hudson — that guy in Aliens who totally loses it.

Here’s a link to the actual paper.

Game over man.

Note: the actual researchers are quite reasonable and their paper is entirely aimed at helping Microsoft and other vendors improve their platforms’ security. The guy I was quoting was “popular security researcher” Dino Dai Zovi. I think he’s popular because he says insane crap like that.

Why I Hate Microsoft

I couldn’t put it better than Pierre Igot has. Microsoft’s lack of attention to detail with user interface design is so thorough it’s quite mind-boggling. (I remember methodically going through Word for Windows 2.0’s menus and finding that the commands in each menu adhered to different interface conventions. Marvellous.)

There was a great article in the New Yorker a few years back (by Louis Menand, their chief pedant) about how Microsoft Word seems to be designed to prevent anyone from adhering to any respectable style guide. (Actually it was a diatribe against Word masquerading as a review of the latest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.)

The first thing I do with a new installation of Word is fix the incredibly stupid autocorrect settings which prevent, for example, users from typing (c) (which is replaced by ©). I’ve never even tried to fix its idiotic, non-standard keyboard shortcuts, but command-G would definitely be top of my list.

Thanks to John Gruber at Daring Fireball for the first link.

Photoline: The Usability Tipping Point

My proposed Photoline icon

There’s some point at which a program becomes sufficiently functional and usable that it becomes a “go to” application. You can have all the functionality in the world but a crummy user interface (e.g. The GIMP) and no-one will use you if they have access to anything decent. Similarly, you can have an absolutely fabulous interface, but if you don’t have some key, specific feature(s) then, again, no-one will use you (e.g. iMovie ’08).

Of course, needs and tastes vary. I’m sure some people are very happy with The GIMP (I can only assume because they are hardened open source zealots with no taste) or iMovie ’08, but I think that most people will tend to reach a frustration point with a piece of software, and then give up. I’m not sure whether being more experienced or familiar with other software has much effect beyond a certain point, either. While I may know how to use dozens of word-processors, and my demands of word-processors may be greater, I’m also likely to be able to figure out stranger user interfaces and be better at finding work-arounds.

Today on a whim I decided to redesign Photoline’s abominable icon.

Photoline's abominable icon

Photoline’s current icon. Judge for yourself.

I’ve had very nice things to say about Photoline in the past. Of the potential low-priced Photoshop replacements out there it is by far the most functional and stable. Unfortunately, compared to Photoshop CS3 it’s still a sad joke, as we shall see.

I was determined to use Photoline for all the 2d bitmap editing in creating the new icon (and I did) but I encountered enormous frustration along the way. Indeed, the 3d modeling took perhaps half an hour, while messing around trying to produce the screen image was an exercise in frustration.

First, I found an image of a Nikon D3 to use for the computer display. The idea was simply to pull the camera out of the background, stylize it a bit (exaggerate the contrast), remove branding information, rotate it, and then put it against a Mac desktop picture. Simple.

Deep etching (knocking out the background of an image) is one of those things graphic designers do constantly, and Photoline’s magic wand worked reasonably well. If I were doing this seriously (e.g. for someone paying me) I would have used a bezier path to perform the selection (I haven’t tried this in Photoline yet) but I wasn’t, so I didn’t. Photoline did OK selecting the white background, although there was an unsightly fringe, and Photoline doesn’t have Photoshop’s tools for cleaning up the edges of images (e.g. Remove White Matte), but I’m getting ahead of myself…

Note: I went back and verified that Photoline fully supports bezier selections.

Having selected what I didn’t want, I would just invert the selection in Photoshop (command-I, a command etched into any serious Photoshop user’s brain). But not only is this not command-I in Photoline, it turns out to be buried under Tool > Mask > Invert Mask. There’s no Selection menu. Oh, and a Mask and a Selection are very different things. This is just terrible, but easily fixed. There’s no question that Photoline’s menus could use some better naming and organization.

Importing the backdrop was nasty. I couldn’t just drag the document into the window I was working in or drag the layer from one document window to another (or layer palette to window) as I would in Photoshop. (Oddly enough, despite not being very Mac-like, Photoline actually looks much more polished on the Mac than on Windows.) So having opened the file and copy-and-pasted the image into my working document, I overwrote the camera layer. What? After a lot of random fiddling I got it to work, but was never sure how. Whenever you paste something into Photoshop (except for vector objects copied from elsewhere in Photoshop) you get a new layer — a wise decision, I think.

This is the halftone effect I was going for.

This is the halftone effect I had intended to go for, but sadly Photoline doesn’t have that filter.

Stylizing the image turned out to be a royal pain. First, I wanted to use a non-destructive Levels or Curves filter on the camera but I couldn’t figure out how to restrict it to just the Camera layer (and not the background). So I ended up having to use a destructive filter. Oh, how very Photoshop 6. The next thing I had planned to do was turn the camera into a halftone image with gigantic dots, but Photoline doesn’t have that filter. Indeed, Photolines filters are bizarrely organized into two menus and eight submenus. The term “Filter” and “Effect” are used interchangeably despite the fact that Effects are quite clearly intended to refer specifically to what Photoshop calls Layer Styles. Some of Photoline’s “Effects” are just filters, others aren’t. Ugh.

I eventually concluded that there was nothing stylish I could do to the D3 image that didn’t make me puke, and that the D3 is kind of butt ugly anyway, and that DSLRs, being black, don’t make for very interesting photographs.

So I decided to knock together a stylized camera manually, and to use the (to my eye) more attractive D80 as my basis. So I googled a suitable photo, imported it into Illustrator, and quickly produced the graphic image I wanted. I then saved the vector artwork as SVG and tried to import it into Photoline.

Important Note: at this point I do Photoline a grave disservice. Had I not been frustrated at this point I might have tried using Photoline’s vector tools to do what I ended up doing in Illustrator. I went back and tried to do this and found the tools pretty decent (indeed, in some ways superior to Photoshop’s vector tools, although — of course — no match for Illustrator’s).

No dice.

Photoline, which rivals GraphicConverter in terms of supported graphic file formats, and has fairly strong vector tools, apparently can’t load or save SVGs. So back to Illustrator and I saved as PDF (Acrobat 4.x). Photoline opened this, and I could see the image, but I couldn’t select it properly, or scale it (it was tiny), or rotate it. So back to Illustrator again, and I save as PNG at a suitable resolution. Now, I know Photoline can import PNGs, but when I rotate the PNG the quality of the rotated image terrible. I guess I’ve just gotten to taking Photoshop’s incredibly well-implemented bitmap rotation for granted. (And on the Mac you also get Core Image which is equally excellent, but Photoline is cross-platform and doesn’t use Core Image, I guess.)

Important Note: I went back and checked this, and it turns out that Photoline by default rotates a layer as an object (so the pixels aren’t changed, the entire layer is rotated) and uses quick and dirty rendering to show the results. You can right-click on a layer and click “Fix Layer” to burn the results into the bitmap, which produces results equal in quality to Photoshop. So Photoline’s equivalent of Photoshop’s layer transform tool is non-modal and non-destructive. So this is actually a case where Photoline exceeds Photoshop in functionality, and while it may not be obvious to a Photoshop user what’s going on, it’s not like the Photoline’s UI — in this case — is any worse than Photoshop’s, just different.

So, back once more to Illustrator where I pre-rotate the image and export as PNG. And I’m done.

Photoshop CS4? If Photoline were Photoshop, my icon would have turned out this way.

Photoshop CS4? If Photoline were Photoshop, my icon would have looked like this.

Except that all I’d managed to achieve in Photoline is to stick one alpha-channeled image in front of another. This isn’t Rocket Science. Heck, I could have done either in Pixelmator or Acorn (or heck, possibly even the Iris beta). I could probably do it in QuickTime Pro (QuickTime Player is a pretty darn good compositing tool). Still, having gone back over some of my greatest problems with Photoline in this little project, I find that two major issues turn out to Photoline’s advantage. While it may not be able to import SVG, it has excellent internal vector tools, and its apparently poor layer transform tool turns out to be better (modeless and non-destructive until you’re ready) than Photoshop’s.

Lessons Learned

Some of my problems definitely resulted from Photoline’s poorly organized (and named) menus, and some other UI nastiness (e.g. the PDF import is a disaster). Most of the problems either stemmed from unfamiliarity with Photoline’s slightly different (and sometimes better) ways of doing things, and my wanting Photoline to be Photoshop, which it’s not and it’s unfair to expect it to have, for example, a specific cool filter from Photoshop (although, darn it, Core Image provides it too). I think it’s safe to say that if I were as familiar with Photoline as I am with Photoshop I’d probably be very nearly as capable and productive as I am with Photoshop. That said, Photoshop is part of a highly integrated ecosystem and in the end it’s simply a superior tool. But Photoline’s near-instantaneous launches are pretty damn easy to like.