Apple Needs A GUI Czar (Again!) -- As Well As Some Good Ol' R & D

Style is

Prince, "Style", from the 1999 album "Emancipation"

It is not just Microsoftis fault. Apple has decided to stop innovating. Fundamentally they decided to get back to the safe little area around the fireplace, and theyire just making little tweaks to what they did 17 years ago, putting new colour on the machine. Which is a shame, because they had great projects ten years ago… they stopped and fired their research department and instead take Jobsi old system and port it.

One time-proven truism of the business world is that no company can think of everything, meaning that no company can address the needs of every customer with any product that it sales. This includes Microsoft.

I use Microsoft as an example, because it is the quintessential company -- who am I kidding? Microsoft is the only company -- that has the money, the arrogance, the wherewithal and the ubiquity to attempt to become "all things to all men." What started off as merely a small software company has morphed into a beast possessing an amalgamation called a product portfolio that comprises software, hardware, and technology services. And those three categories donit do justice describing the extent of Microsoftis octopus-like grip on the computing industry. Only Intel, in my opinion, could give the Redmond behemoth a run for its money.

One thing that Iive always pondered about Microsoft and other 800-lb gorillas: is it possible for a company of that size to remain focused on products that are truly innovative and human-centered? Is it possible to even remain human-centered?

I think along these lines because I know firsthand the flaws common to any large corporation. I also see and know that the only organization bearing any resemblance to Microsoft – the US government, heaven forbid -- stands as prima facie evidence that ostensibly the last thing on the collective mind of organizations claiming to serve the public is the needs of the public.

Iim sure I can get an amen.

About this time, I feel as if I need to make a point. So, I will attempt to make one, starting with Jakob Nielsen. It involves Apple Computer, the future of the computing market, true innovation being in jeopardy and the concern that we should all exhibit.

I first "met" Mr. Nielsen at the request of a friend far wiser than I am concerning things relating to web design. Nielsenis book Designing Web Usability is a notable if not seminal work on the simplicity approach to web creation. I respect the man for having the ability to point the way towards layout-and-design order amid chaos. Many others think so, too, since he is a well-known authority on Internet and computing trends.

Nielsen touched a topic dear to us when in a recent interview he critiqued Apple Computer, accusing the box maker of having thrown in the towel on bona fide innovation, accusing the company of playing it safe compared to its past greatness as purveyor of standard-bearing UI practices and cutting-edge technology.

Itis easy to brush aside his comments when viewed through our Aqua-colored glasses. After all, I type this column on a Power Mac G4 Cube with the accompanying flat-panel display, which just happens to be running Mac OS X.

But when I ponder Nielsenis comments, I find that his argument does have justification.

Look at what Appleis creative output has been in times past, compared to todayis product line. As I write, I have in front of me Paul Kunkelis 1997 coffee-table book AppleDesign: The Work of the Apple Industrial Design Group. Therein I see computers, monitors, speakers -- heck, even barberis combs, fountain pens and other "design investigations" -- that make me wish even more that Apple hadnit killed the bulk of its Research & Development group.

In light of the above, I donit necessarily agree with Nielsenis comments, but I tend to rethink my defense of Appleis design greatness; while that I canit say that Apple no longer innovates, I do believe that the company "plays it safe" a whole lot more than it ever did.

To be fair, Apple shouldnit have to spend money on designing wristband computers nor laser printers, but I do wish that the company would earmark more money for its designs to follow their imaginations on to prototypical fruition.

Whois to say that this doesnit still happen? You will agree, however, that certain things have suffered in the wake of killing the Research & Design arm that comprised the heyday of frogdesignis work for the company and Appleis in-house design troupe.

For example, I point you no further than OS X.

It doesnit take a design guru to see that there are many intuitive shortcomings in the Aqua interface. I may be accused of being an arm-chair quarterback, but I canit resist leaning back in my Lazy-Boy and throwing a Hail Mary comment at the things I see missing from the current iteration of the venerable Mac OS. Itis been criticized over and over before.

What many of us donit realize is that what Apple needs more than R & D is some sort of UI czar, someone who lives and breathes User Interface and preaches good design with the fervency that would inspire him to follow the Blues Brothersi lead and declare every UI pronouncement as the result from being "on a mission… from God."

I believe that a UI Czar is needed, but reality dictates the reason this will not happen anytime soon: Apple is driven by Steve Jobsi vision of what the computer world should be.

Iim sure that at least once or twice that good UI guidelines bumped heads with the Jobsian worldview and the latter won out. Maybe R & D was killed because Jobs, in all his glory, felt that there was no need for a "committee" to fathom what His Steveness already knew.

I still say that Apple needs to invest in defining and following good design principles. I also believe that Apple needs to expand beyond its four-quadrant approach to product creation. I point to Newton and the eMate as prime examples that Apple is squandering talent, even if the companyis produce since 1998 have been sights to behold.

Appleis claim to fame is innovation, and by comparison to its past glory, the company barely remembers the meaning of the word.

Hereis hoping that the next five to 10 years of Apple history will prove that Iim venting much ado about nothing.

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Rodney O. Lain has as great idea for a computer. It has a cubic shape, it networks wirelessly, and… whatis that? Oh, never mind. He is a regular contributor to The Mac Observer with his "iBrotha" column, as well as the occasional editorial. He lives in Minnesota.