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The Devil's Advocate - TMO Scoop: Mac OS 10.5 UI, Finally Resolution Independent?
by - January 25th, 2006

Looks like Apple may finally be catching up with Windows in the User Interface department in one sorely long overlooked area -- User Interface (UI) resolution independence.  On June 24, 2004, Apple filed patent application no. 20050285965 for a "User-Interface Design."

The patent application noted that "it would be beneficial to provide a means to specify the design of a graphical user interface object independent of its display resolution."

Indeed it would.  I wrote about this quite a while back. It would be very useful to change the size of UI widgets (e.g., menus, scroll bars, buttons, etc.) on displays with different resolutions for more accurate, more legible and clearer screen displays. Microsoft provided users with the ability to scale the UI to variable resolutions back with Windows 95. Although the Windows 95 UI scaler is a bit choppy in how it re-rasters UI widgets, it gets the job done. But it looks like Apple's take on this improves on the Windows version by interpolating between preferred resolutions instead of just up/down-scaling.

How Apple's Version Work

Apple's take on UI scaling seems to involve specifying some non-resolution specific attributes for each UI widget in "recipe" XML files, and then to provide the OS display engine with "hints" at various preferred resolutions.  The render engine, presumably Quartz, may then use these recipe files to render UI widgets at varying resolutions.  Here's an excerpt from the application:

[G]raphical objects are defined in terms of a collection of resolution independent attributes. [...] each attribute may be associated with a plurality of values, thereby permitting the designer to optimize the object's design for each of a specified number of resolutions. [...] [I]f the actual displayed resolution of the graphical object is between two of the resolutions specified by the designer, the rendering engine may interpolate between the two values -- a technique that generally provides a significantly improved display over prior art up-sampling or down-sampling techniques.

Apple has a GUI design application to facilitate generating the recipe files.  Here's a screen shot from the patent application:


GUI Attribute Recipe Application

As you select any UI widget, you get various attribute panels where you can select the parameters that specify how the widget is to behave and look at various resolutions, which in turn will create the UI resolution independent recipes. Here are a few screen shots of the parameter panels from the patent application:


Parameter Panel for Outside Shadow for GUI Attribute Recipe Application


Parameter Panel for Outlines for GUI Attribute Recipe Application


Parameter Panel for Figures for GUI Attribute Recipe Application

Apparently, these recipe files may then be used by the display engine to interpolate the screen UI to any number of resolutions. In addition, it seems that the recipe files can be used not only to create hints for various screen resolutions, but that they can also change the appearance of the UI widgets. It's not clear if Apple will release this tool to developers, but it would be a boon to UI tweakers.

A New Trend

If Apple does finally come out with a screen resolution independent UI, we might experience a renaissance in screen purchases. Why you ask? Two reasons: Laptops and love of typography. First, for quite sometime Apple laptops have trailed PCs in maximum offered resolutions.  Even with the introduction of the new HD displays on its laptops, Apple still trails Dell, which offers resolutions up to 1920x1200 on their laptops (while Apple's max out at 1680x1050). One reason why is that without a scalable UI, Apple simply cannot push resolutions any higher without making the screen type and elements too small.

The other, perhaps more significant, factor may be Steve Jobs' love of typography.  Other than having a scalable UI, there is nothing stopping us from having laser printer-like LCD resolutions. Knowing Mr. Jobs' love of typography, we might expect Apple to release ultra high resolution monitors along or soon after they release a resolution independent UI. And where Apple blazes a trail, the rest of the computer industry often follows. Now might be a good time to start speculating on the futures of the LCD manufacturing companies.

I expect that Mac OS X 10.5 will finally bring UI resolution independence, and usher in higher resolution displays, not only for laptops, but for the desktop as well.   Sadly, Apple is still catching up to Windows over 11 years later, at least in this area. It's strange to see that Apple is still struggling to get its solution in working order having the superior Quartz display technology; i.e., Mac OS X has always used screen resolution independent display PDF. Regardless, here's to better late than never.

[Author's Addendum: Thanks to the guest poster that pointed out that the latest development tools allow you to test some of these UI resolution independent controls. It seems rather buggy, and the interface needs some work. Providing a Windows like ruler so the user can match a real world ruler to the screen would make things easier.]

is an attorney. Please don't hold that against him. This work does not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of The Mac Observer, any third parties, or even John for that matter. No assertions of fact are being made, but rather the reader is simply asked to consider the possibilities.

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