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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger




Your Mac Looks Terrible, Admit It
November 16th, 1999

Oh yes, your Mac looks terrible. Why do I say that? Look at it! Hideous! How could you stand it? I am barely able to.

Before you panic at this statement, keep in mind that this is not about the exterior, meaning the case of your Mac. Yes, your iMac is amazing and your G4 makes me jealous when I look at my beige G3 All-in-one. But think about the inside. The Mac OS interface needs some major tuning.

The default Appearance (as it is called by Apple) that ships with the operating system is called the Platinum Appearance. While it can be conventional enough to please the ones who hate style, this "consistent interface" is not as consistent as it should be.

Let me take you back to 1998, when Mac OS 8.5 was still in beta and just about to ship. Since that time, the Appearance Manager has included an engine that renders Themes. Such technology allows any Mac running Mac OS 8.5 or later to draw its interface from a theme (which can be created by anyone, in theory) instead of just having the one default option. This was one of the ideas from the ill-fated Copland project that would have allowed your Mac to run different sets of colors, folder icons, etc. for each theme used. Three themes were originally supposed to ship with Mac OS 8.5. Themes were scrapped by Steve Jobs (I believe he is the culprit) in the name of consistency. Tools for creation of themes were not released by Apple, nor were the known Gizmo and Hi-Tech themes that everybody has seen from screen shots from pre-release versions of Mac OS 8.5.

Want examples of available Themes? Well, there is the Paper theme (and several others) available at the Allegro Themes Project. Then, there is the theme offered by the DS Group Inc.

Since Mac OS 8.5, any application - if programmed for it - can work with the Appearance Manager to display the colors of the default theme used on the computer. With the Paper theme, for example, you could see another interface than Apple Platinum.

Kaleidoscope, on the other hand does somewhat the same thing, but it uses a control panel. Kaleidoscope overrides the default appearance standards on your Mac allowing you to use one of the thousands of Kaleidoscope Schemes that have been developed by hundreds of users since the software's release back when Mac OS 7.5.5 was the latest version. Any app that relies on the Mac's appearance controls can be modified by Kaleidoscope. For those keeping score, Greg Landwebber, the author of Kaleidoscope, also helped develop the Appearance Manager in Mac OS 8.5 and up for Apple.


Click for larger view.

This screen shot is the Transmit FTP application, drawing the colors, icons and progress bars from my Nightlife Kaleidoscope scheme. No Platinum! Great, isn't it? This is the result of Appearance savviness in an application. Unfortunately, not all software solutions offer such compatibility.

Run Kaleidoscope and launch Netscape Communicator. Your windows will use your Kaleidoscope color scheme to draw the window borders, but the inside is. Platinum.


Click for larger view.

Internet Explorer 4.5, on the other hand will give you the same great results as the Transmit screen shot, which is great. Do you use Word 98? Despite IE being Appearance savvy, Word 98 is not. A disappointment.

Talk about consistency! Some developers care enough to ensure that their software looks great with Kaleidoscope and Appearance Themes. Others force the Platinum appearance down your throat. This could be a programming issue. I was told that Metrowerks PowerPlant is heavily used in the Macintosh programming circles, and that it is not Appearance savvy. On the other side, it is still possible to work around this and make sure that an application draws its elements properly. If developers refuse to do it, we have a problem.

A lot of users out there want their Macs to look great inside as much as outside. After all, did we choose the Macintosh because we wanted to be conventional like PC users? No. Apple made the effort to implement an Appearance Manager that renders themes while Kaleidoscope patches it well enough for this shareware's users to enjoy a great Mac OS interface. It is frustrating that Apple did not push its developers to adapt their software to this trend.

Back to consistency. After sticking the technology in the Mac OS and ditching the options that would have made it possible to customize your interface yourself, Apple made a "U turn." They like to call it the QuickTime Player that ships with QuickTime 4.

This is a laughable attempt at creating a new "realistic" handheld player look. You will notice that Sherlock II, part of Mac OS 9, offers a similar horrible look. This violates all the rules of behavior for a usable software interface. These have been created by Apple itself in the past to accommodate the end user's computer experience.

Now that Mac OS 8.5, 8.6 and 9 use an Appearance Manager as a part of the system - therefore taking RAM - software overrides it, taking even more RAM, to show a different metallic interface. What if Adobe decides to implement such a thing in Photoshop 6.0? Then Microsoft chips in with its own design for Office 2000? Is this ever going to end? This is about principles, folks. Where are the rules? Apple lays them out, then violates them. Why should anybody else follow the rules when the creator does not set the example?

The Mac OS and your applications will look very different, depending on what you use and what software developers decided. Viva consistency! Thanks Apple! Your Mac looks terrible, I tell ya.

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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