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Andy IhnatkoIhnatko's Tiger Report: Dashboard

by - April 29th, 2005

 

 

I want to like Dashboard. Actually, I do like Dashboard. What I should probably say is that I wanted to love it instead.

Instead...well...

Let's start with the positive comments. I think Dashboard spackles a gap in Mac software that's been pretty damned prominent for years: the need both for little apps that can't possibly exist on their own, and for simpler articulations of bigger apps. If Sherlock is a failure -- and yes...yes, it is a failure -- it's because it can't possibly be more than 30% useful for more than 30% of its users.

Yes, fine: I've got a dozen doo-dads for individualized Internet searches. But even way back when Sherlock was relevant, I only used two regularly...and half of them, I probably never used at all. And yet, there those buttons sit, big and bold, and maintaining its dumb faith that there will come a day when I'll use Sherlock to search the Web instead of Google, or rely on its online stock tracker instead of a webpage that provides me with a clearer and simpler picture, or its Image search button instead of a feature that actually works. It's a colossal waste and it's caused my usage of Sherlock to atrophy to such a point that even back when I wrote my Panther book, I had to be persuaded to even talk about it at all. What's the point? It's a waste of time for users, readers, and writers.

Dashboard is a better idea. If I want a little widget that just tracks eBay auctions, then I've got a widget that does only that. Ditto for flights. Ditto for looking up dictionary definitions.

And then there's the subject of putting simpler faces on larger apps. When I'm not in Mail, I still want to keep an eye on Mail. New mail arrives every five minutes but the only stuff that pulls me from my labors are messages from editors and friends. Money and something to do on Friday night: these are both important things.

But why should I have to Apple-Tab over into Mail to see what's going on? No, no, no. I want a slim little window that just shows me the senders and subjects of the most recent five or ten messages. There's never really been a mechanism for this before Dashboard.

Plus, it brings lots of new developers into the flock. Widgets are built out of Web technologies...style sheets, JavaScript, XML. Dashboard means that any reasonably-hip web developer (or hell...even a very-hip webpage designer) can now write useful Mac software, with very limited training.

More than that, it means that your bank, your favorite online stores, and your favorite online resources will feel encouraged to support the Mac in a far more direct and profound way than they ever did before. When creating a Dashboard widget is only a little more complicated than cutting-and-pasting code that already exists on the company website...well, why not? There's no shortage of Mac-heads in the web development community. These folks will want to build these widgets for their own use. What happens when they show off their homemade widgets to their bosses? Well, management understands how simple it is to support Macs. Win-win.

So noted be. But it'll take a while before Dashboard really proves itself. First, people have to start releasing third-party widgets. And even then, they simply have to figure out what, precisely, a widget is supposed to be.

I've visited the Mac OS X downloads page, which has already been updated with new Tiger releases. The makers of Transmit, probably the coolest FTP client for the Mac, have released a Transmit widget that delivers most of the app's main features.

But is it an appropriate Widget?

I'm reminded of the days when Desk Accessories started to get out of hand. Even after the Mac was capable of running more than one app at the same time, developers would still bizarrely release major apps as desk accessories. They just plain made no sense. If I want to launch an outline processor, why wouldn't I launch it like a regular app? Why do I have to go to the Apple menu for that?

It wasn't a fatal problem. It's just that one nail that's sticking out a little bit from the wood. It was an Imperfection, and the Mac is all about getting things right.

You activate Dashboard by hitting a function key, and then this whole layer of Widgets floats down into view. I think this sort of busts the whole metaphor of the Mac. Essentially, I have to be transported to a whole different place in order to look up that dictionary word. If the Transmit widget wasn't open already, I have to launch it manually, from a whole new Dock dedicated just to Widgets.

It's great to have a slick, colorful iTunes controller...but wouldn't I want to be able to see it alongside all of my other apps and windows? How often will I use it, if I have to click my heels together three times and moan "There's no place like home" every time?

But I'm not giving Dashboard a failing grade. I'm just noting that Dashboard is Tiger's one area in which I'm still unclear on the concept. And I've been using it for months and months. Once we see how developers and users exploit Dashboard, I'm sure the Magic 8-Ball will shift off of its "Situation Unclear...Ask Again Later" readout.

Or possibly, Dashboard will turn out to be like Sherlock...that thing that I never use, and have to be talked into writing about when it comes time to write the second edition of my Tiger book.

Ihnatko's Tiger Report

digs the Mac, and has been writing about the Mac for longer than most of us could tell the difference between a bite of Apple Sauce from a byte of Apple code. You can read his monthly column at Macworld magazine, and his blog at the Colossal Waste of Bandwidth.

Andy's latest book is The Mac OS X Tiger Book (US$16.49 - Amazon).

You can send your comments directly to Andy, or you can also post your comments below.

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