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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger




Apple, Aqua And Interface Freedom
October 31st, 2001

If you look it up in a dictionary, you can find several definitions for freedom. I did, and I grabbed this one: "the state of being unaffected by, or not subject to, something unpleasant or unwanted." Sounds very good, right?

Apple has been known for acknowledging the Mac user's freedom, and adapting its products to that freedom. An unspoken convention in the Mac world is that you can do whatever you want with a Mac, as long as you use one. Apple does not need to tell you what is right for you. This has always been a difference between the Macintosh computer and the Windows-powered personal computer. At times, the differences were subtle, but nevertheless, they were present. Especially in terms of user interface.

For instance, it is so much easier to customize the Apple menu than Windows' Start menu. Ditto for changing an icon and other subtleties that make a Mac what it is. Those are tiny examples.

The main point of customizing your computer's user interface is to give it whatever appearance you want it to have. By changing interface themes via Kaleidoscope or Appearance Manager themes, you can make your menus, windows, buttons and everything else look the way you want. That is in addition to the standard, cross-platform possibility of putting whatever picture you want in the background.

Appearance themes? One has to remember that alpha and beta versions of Mac OS 8.5 previewed something that Apple had promised for Copland: Appearance themes that worked with the Appearance Manager and Appearance control panel. Such toys, named Gizmo and Hi-Tech, promised to change all the interface elements of your Mac to your liking. Gizmo was a kind of "kiddy theme" with colorful and oddly shaped menus and windows, while Hi-Tech sported a futurist, metallic look. And boy, can you imagine the potential that themes would have had, had Apple released a tool to build your own themes? Apple ditched the themes shortly before the release of Mac OS 8.5, although leaving them unsupported for adventurers who later exploited them, with the justification that they make things too "confusing". We will expand on this word later.

In any case, what is the result of the available options? Desktops are different around the world, and you cannot predict how they will look on individual Macs. The desktop can be whatever you want it to be, which allows you to have your very own unique environment. It is your Mac, and it reflects you as a user. It is neither Microsoft's sketch, nor Apple's sketch, but your very own.

We aren't even getting into the fact that you can dive into your System Folder to add and remove extensions at will, something that is simply a nightmare for the typical Windows user. I remember asking a Windows geek how I could remove Windows components to optimize the performance of my Windows PC (at work) and she told me not to ever try this. Hmmm...

So, using a Mac allows individuals to do whatever they want with the computer, right? Right... until they get Mac OS X!

Can you customize Aqua? If customization limits itself to little things such as taking away the accent colors in favor or Graphite and having to hack your system through the UNIX terminal to make changes, perhaps. There are things you can do, but on the other hand, Apple makes changing things around more difficult than before.

When Greg Landweber started distributing Aaron, an extension that that allowed Mac users to have the Platinum look when it was not yet available, Cupertino, by way of his future Kaleidoscope business partner Arlo Rose, helped Landweber to learn more about the system and how to work with it to improve Aaron.

Things have changed. Apple not only ditched the Appearance themes, it allegedly tried to force Landweber to not release the upcoming Kaleidoscope 2 - Arlo Rose was on board by that time - a much advanced version of his software. Kaleidoscope 2 survived, but not without a scare. Lately, Apple has also cracked down on any attempt to obliterate Aqua for an interface overhaul, à la Kaleidoscope or with Appearance themes.

Now, were Greg Landweber is trying to find a way to port Kaleidoscope to Mac OS X - the new system does not allow patching, a method that Mr. Landweber used to overtake the user interface - would he have to deal with a Apple Legal Department teamster, or a nicely dressed lawyer ? Says Mr. Landweber, "Probably. We would need to do some careful planning and consult a lawyer first to make sure that everything is kosher. Even if we did that, I wouldn't be surprised if Apple's lawyers would still try to shut us down."

This control-freak attitude now "featured" in Mac OS X and Aqua is rather disappointing. In fact, I find it to be quite a paradox for a company that launched its very first Macintosh with the 1984 spirit. Remember the 1984 commercial? Masses of people are being inducted with thought control with lines such as "we are one people, one resolve" and, speaking of an enemy, "we will bury them with their own confusion." Do you remember that woman who comes in, throwing a sledgehammer at the speaker's screen to end the speech? The commercial ended with "you'll see why [with the Macintosh] 1984 won't be like 1984". At the time, Apple was the black sheep who said that you could use a different computer, in a different way. You could be different.

Do you remember the Think Different campaign and slogan launched at the end of September 1997? Here is what it still says on www.apple.com/thinkdifferent:

Here's to the crazy ones.
The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently.
They're not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.

You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can't do is ignore them.
Because they change things.

They invent. They imagine. They heal.
They explore. They create. They inspire.
They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?
Or sit in silence and hear a song that's never been written?
Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

We make tools for these kinds of people.
While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Now, Apple complains about confusion for things such as interface themes. Isn't it ironic when they use a word that they have first used in their inaugural Macintosh commercial? Hey Steve Jobs, you should have looked back before blurting that line out. We all make the mistake of contradicting ourselves in conflicting situations, but this case is different. Apple has laid existential principles out when using that 1984 commercial where confusion and control of the masses are being used against the PC industry. Apple invaded the computer world with a different attitude and a new motto. To ironically go against some of these principles later makes one wonder if Apple is cynical with what it tells us.

By not allowing users to modify Aqua, or at least the possibility of replacing it with by something else, Apple is a world of contradiction away from its earlier positions about user freedom. From now on, Apple wants to decide what your desktop will look like, leaving very few customization options outside such things as desktop pictures and dock size...

I would have expected that out of Microsoft, but not Apple. Thanks, Mr. Jobs, for telling me what my computer should look like!

Hey Apple, I am the different one you were talking about. I do not use a Windows PC; I do not listen to pop music; I do not read best-selling books; the generic top-seller product never satisfies me; I do not behave like the masses and I certainly think differently! I have not changed and I am not the only one who did not. Why are you suddenly the one to impose rules on the rebels and misfits you appealed to?

Is Apple now adhering to the Microsoftian idea that the company knows what the user needs? This question deserves an answer, and I would be curious to know what Apple folks would have to say about it. On the other hand, I am not expecting an answer...

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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