Real Estate Breakers

SAN FRANCISCO (05/30/2000) - The first Mac, as those of you older than 21 may recall, had a 9-inch screen. The standard screen size has crept upward over the decades, but even today, the most common Mac screen size is only 15 inches, like the one on the iMac. Considering all the palettes, button bars, and control panels today's software requires, that's not a lot of real estate.

For years, Apple Computer Inc. has led the industry in clever ways to conserve screen acreage. To pack hundreds of options in very little space, Apple excelled at designing interface elements that work like drawers-you click on something to pull open a much broader menu of choices, which closes up when you're done. So many Mac OS elements work this way: pop-up windows, contextual menus, flippy folder triangles, topic buttons on the Launcher, the Apple menu, and the Control Strip (which is like drawers within a drawer).

Good screen-saving ideas come from other software companies, too. Adobe has helped make collapsible, dockable palettes a standard feature in graphics software. Microsoft Word 5 popularized icon bars on the Mac. And years ago, the creators of FileMaker were apparently the first to notice that a computer screen is wider than it is tall-and that therefore the best place to put administrative junk like tool palettes is at the side of the screen, where they don't eat up your document space.

Unfortunately, Apple's software designers now threaten to undo all of their predecessors' good work. As I noted last month, the prototype of Mac OS X lacks most of the OS's "drawer" features. Then there's AppleWorks 6, whose list of shortcomings has been well documented online (at macintouch.com, for example): it's slow, comes with no user manual, and can't import or export Word files.

But for my money, its biggest flaw is the way it hogs real estate. Can anyone explain, for example, why the AppleWorks toolbox icons had to bloat from 55 pixels wide (in AppleWorks 5) to 80? The toolbox palette alone now guzzles 10 percent of an iMac's screen width (or 16 percent at 640 by 480 pixels) and shoves your document into a smaller part of the screen.

There's a customizable button bar, too; in AppleWorks 5 it was successful because it so deeply respected screen space. For example, you could drag it to any edge of your screen or rip it off into a palette you could park anywhere.

In AppleWorks 6, however, all of those features are gone. Instead, you get one rigid, jumbo button bar you can't resize or reshape as a palette to make better use of your screen.

Furthermore, Apple is doing a lot of icon-enlargement surgery these days, whether in Mac OS X or AppleWorks 6. Fewer of these supersize icons fit the AppleWorks 6 button bar. So how does AppleWorks 6 handle the overflow? It adds scroll bars to the button bar. Scroll bars?! The entire purpose of a button bar is to keep commonly used functions on the screen at all times! If a button bar hides some of its commands, how is it any improvement over a menu? A button bar you have to scroll is like a car you have to pull around on a trailer.

Now, I get angry letters from readers whenever I say something nice about Microsoft. But lately Microsoft has been bending over backward to respect and conserve screen space. Witness Internet Explorer 5: with a single keystroke, you can hide all the bars-button, status, Favorites, and otherwise. Nor is Microsoft finished with its mission to maximize screen space: the next versions of Word and Excel for the Mac, says the company, will each open with only one tool bar.

It wasn't always thus. I can remember making fun of Microsoft Corp. in this very column for the bungled design of Word 6, which opened so many tool bars that your document window huddled in one corner of the screen. But it's funny how a company's mood and fortunes affect its determination to do things right: the higher Apple flies, the less it seems to care about how much trouble its software design causes us. Meanwhile, as Microsoft flails in court and in the public eye, it hunkers down, conducts user studies, and becomes paranoid about pleasing us.

Then again, maybe Apple's carelessness about screen space, and Microsoft's new space-saving religion, have nothing to do with their moods and fortunes. Maybe it boils down to a much simpler fact: of the two companies, only one profits from the sale of bigger monitors.

DAVID POGUE (http://www.davidpogue.com) is the author of the just released iMovie: The Missing Manual (Pogue Press/O'Reilly, 2000).

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