Skeuomorphism: Apple’s weak spot?

At home I use Mac laptops, Windows desktops and a combination of Linux and Windows in the workshops. So I am pretty used to the strengths and weaknesses of each.

When I first started using Windows 8 I was blown away by the cleanness of the graphical design. It is elegant and clutter free. Such a shame therefore that they have possibly ruined it by making it practically unusable. I don’t care how pretty a system is, if I can’t work out how to use it then it has failed.

Microsoft’s mistake is making a radical change in the way the system works without giving the user any clue as to how to adapt to their new environment. Back when I was at the MIT AI lab folk used to joke that the LISP machine was an intelligence test for the user. Microsoft seem to have fallen foul of that mode of thinking for a mass market product.

So what mistake is Apple making right now? Austin Carr thinks it might be skeuomorphism and after reading his fascinating article, I think he might be right.

Skeuomorphism is a fancy name for the Apple fetish of making the UI look like real objects. The bookcase in the library has a wood grain texture, the notebook is leather-bound and so on. Reportedly, Steve Jobs loved that approach. I have always thought it looks tacky. However good a bitmap of a wood veneer is, it is a fake finish. It looks just as cheap and nasty viewed on my MacBook Pro Retina as it did on the Air that preceded it.

Real wood is a three dimensional texture, it has grain and depth and it changes with the light. Viewed on a glossy MacBooks display, Apple’s faux wood textures only remind me of Formica, a cheap plastic laminate that is used to hide chipboard.

I don’t want my expensive laptop covered in tacky faux finishes. According to the article, many Apple insiders agree. But as you might expect, only the non-Apple designers can say so in public:

In addition to being unhelpfully ostentatious, the visual metaphors are also outmoded in the eyes of many. Designer Gadi Amit, whose firm, NewDealDesign, designed the Lytro camera and Fitbit, points to the common use of the digital Rolodex to denote where contacts are stored. “I’m old enough, sure, but some of the guys in my office have never seen a Rolodex in real life,” Amit says. “So these metaphors that were, in the early days of the computing revolution, relevant to assisting people in bridging the gap between the physical and digital worlds, are no longer necessary. Our culture has changed. We don’t need translation of the digital medium in mechanical real-life terms. It’s an old-fashioned paradigm.”

This problem was brought home to me trying to explain the computer to my children. They have never seen a floppy disk in their life, so how are they meant to understand that the floppy disk icon means ‘save’?

As for Linux, it really hasn’t changed in the 20 years since I was on the AI lab UNIX-haters list, excerpts from which made their way into Simpson Garfinkel’s excellent book, The Unix Hater’s Handbook which is available online for free.

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