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Choices VS. Standards: What Do We Want?
November 14th, 2000

On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger




If there is a meaningful issue in computing, it is the concept of standards. Many people consider them sacred, many do not care about their implementation. For new users, it is probably better to learn how to do things uniformly in all areas of the operating system and software. For power users, it is not much of a hassle to learn how to handle the same thing in more than one way.

Who is right? What is right? Should we always let standards guide us, or should we let programmers and manufacturers decide what is correct for their own products?

As Mac users, we should be aware of the potential danger of standards. We opted for Macs instead of the more mainstream and standard Windows PCs. Maybe we should we claim that choice is the very best for everybody. After all, if standards were to apply religiously everywhere, the Macintosh might be dead by now.

Wait a second.

When thinking about it, you should start wondering if promoting standards is not somewhat two-faced since you refuse to adhere to one simply by adopting the Macintosh. One can argue that promoting standards within a platform is different, but the question is present.

I have the impression that trying to enforce standards is very difficult, because there are all kinds of obstacles. Here are questions that, in my opinion, seem important.

Once longtime users have learned the tricks of the trade for a while, how can you tell them that they have to change their behavior for the sake of standards? Will companies ever help to establish standards? What about Apple being a bit guilty of violating its own standards after pushing for them?

To question number one, I would answer that it is very tricky. Many Mac users are power users who do Web publishing, desktop publishing, and graphical design and use their Macs for high-end purposes. These people are clever without a doubt. They can deal with all kinds of keyboard shortcuts, for example. They can distinguish different behaviors and operations in all applications without a problem. They do not feel the confusion that a novice user would sense when learning to use a Mac. However, the Mac is more consumer-driven than ever before since the advent of the iMac...

On to number two. Can we get companies to collaborate in the establishment of standards? Look at Microsoft. It keeps alternating between two attitudes. The first is a strict respect of Internet standards and the prime example of this is Internet Explorer 5 for Mac. It respects Web standards better than previous IE versions.

On the other hand, MS has a knack for messing things up. It refused to fully collaborate in the building of standards in Java (until integrating the Apple Java) and JavaScript. In 1995, when I was still new to the Internet, I kept reading how Java would be a cross-platform programming language. Its applications would run on any box. It would become a standard to make everybody's life easier. Tell me... why didn't it happen yet in reality, for people like me to actually have a Java application for, say, e-mail? Microsoft had something to do with it, though I would not lay 100% of the blame on Redmond. MS polluted the Java standard with special Windows-only features in an attempt to get developers to develop Windows-only Java apps. This is a known strategy that we have seen often in the past, and was subject of court challenges brought by Sun.

As for the third question, what about Apple? I remember discussing an issue about standards in a mailing list, a conversation that just brought this old note about a standards column to the top of my To Do list.

Someone told me that 5 years ago, Command-D was the programming circles' preferred shortcut for deletion. Command-D meant Command-Delete. Now, Command-D would mean Duplicate, a recommendation coming from Apple. As it also prevails in the Finder, the guy said, it should prevail everywhere to prevent confusion for new Mac users.

I replied that I used that shortcut to delete e-mail messages for ages and that anything new would be annoying. The fact that Entourage introduced Command-Backspace for deletion, less convenient than Command-D because of the distance between the keys, had started the discussion. I eventually hacked Entourage with ResEdit to make it work MY way.

As you can see, a change can annoy veteran users who have habits. The other side of the coin is that a standard prevents confusion for newcomers and those who do not have computer expertise.

If Apple changes things around every once in a while, it can get confusing for all kinds of people. Not that I want to paint Apple as the sole responsible party for a lack of standards, but some of its decisions can lead to uncertainty.

Then, what about situations that involve all kinds of factors at the same time? Let me illustrate.

There are so many ways to change an application's preferences. In the Finder, Outlook Express, Netscape Communicator, Internet Explorer, Adobe GoLive, many other applications, and recently Word 2001, a Preferences item is under the Edit menu. The Edit menu seems to be a de facto standard.

However, it is not that simple. I just mentioned that Microsoft Word recently moved the prefs to the Edit menu, because they used to be in the Tools menu. Look at Eudora with its "Settings" under the Special menu. The Settings menu item probably outlives my years of Mac experience, but now breaks a de facto standard. Should it change?

Some applications impose radically different methods. Look at Adobe Photoshop that sports the Preferences menu item in the File menu! I have used it since version 4.0 and it is the way I always had to access the preferences. The least you can say is that this goes against the flow, even if other apps have put it there before...

As if this was not enough, Mac OS X migrates the preferences standard from under the Edit menu to the new application menu. The new applications shipping directly with the beta embrace this enthusiastically, but... the bundled Internet Explorer does not. MS kept it under the Edit menu!

It is easy to ask yourself whether we need standards, ever-changing standards, or no standards at all. That concerns a mundane menu item. Extend the inquiry to important matters and you have a difficult subject to examine.

What about Internet standards? Should HTML, JavaScript, DHTML, XML, Java and other such languages be uniform? Definitely. All of them should be homogeneous for all browsers and platforms to use without a hitch. It is not tolerable to see different browsers displaying the same HTML page differently. The same statement applies for other languages, and even protocol handling.

In the end, I think that the Mac and the whole computer industry should take the issue seriously. We should understand that choice is nice, but to a certain extent. It is nice to choose your favorite application, your favorite machine or your favorite operating system. Once you get past that, everything should harmonize for users to exchange text and data as well as utilize that freakin' technology in efficient simplicity.

I believe in formal establishment of logical standards and strong enforcement of them. You cannot use a Command-' shortcut on all non-US keyboards and it makes no sense to have so many problems when exchanging files with other platforms, in example.

It is probably too much to ask and there are probably too many financial interests at stake when sales get in the middle of it, but I consider that it is right to raise the question.

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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