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Where's the New Finder?
Developers get a little angry

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

During WWDC (Apple's World Wide Developers Conference), Steve Jobs did a demo of OS X Client Preview. At one point he worded things poorly, and showed the NeXT Browser (slightly updated) and presented it as the new "Finder". Many Mac Developers were pissed and annoyed, they thought Steve was going to try to sell the NeXT File Browser as a replacement for the Finder. More than that, I've been getting quite a few complaints from users out there telling me how dissatisfied they are with OS X Client and it's NeXT-like File Browser. They seem to have the impression that because OS X Server is more NeXT-like (than Mac-like) in User-Experience, and because OS X Client Preview is very NeXT-like, that the release is going to be more of the same. I doubt it.


The Mac and the NeXT Interface are coming from different places, with different goals.

The Mac Interface was designed with small screens (limited real-estate) in mind, and was done to be space efficient. It was designed for new Users and for simple clean interfaces and was specialized for onscreen display -- and was designed for a single user. It was originally black and white, but quickly moved to color and did a good job of that migration. It was also low-resolution and so many display elements were more abstract (simple). Beginning users tended to have lots of generalized things that they did, and so the OS is pretty general purpose. Users don't like being presented with lots of unneeded options -- and in general UI one good behavior is better than presenting two "optional" behaviors (with one being good and the other being less than good). The Mac was early UI work, but has evolved quite a bit in subtle ways. The Mac was a mainstream OS and a mainstream UI -- with both features designed accordingly.

The NeXT Interface was designed for a totally different market -- which means different requirements. NeXT cubes were designed for Academia and Schools and as scientific networked workstations. Many behaviors (features) were designed around the network, and it was designed around UNIX OS. It handled many users, file security and remote log-ins from the get-go. UNIX also mandates some behaviors and requirements -- and because UNIX was not very memory efficient (by 1987's standards) it was going to stay in high-end, workstation type markets. So NeXT used larger (more expensive) screens because that was what the NeXTs' market could bear. The NeXTs screens were also designed just to be a low-resolution mirror of what the printer was going to display, so that gave it some higher quality (and assumed higher resolution) -- which all meant that the interface was more wasteful of screen real-estate. But basically this was because they had more area to use (like we do today and will in the future) -- and most elements aren't too much different, it is mostly the icons and File-Browser that are the worst. NeXT also quickly moved grayscale to color. The market was for power users and specialized tasks because it got lots of UNIX Apps, and Workstation (or high end Business, Financial, Vertical Apps, and turnkey workstation or scientific Apps). So the Apps and Interface was much more focused towards having more options configuration and deeper functionality, and it seemed to use more "lifelike" (less abstract) elements -- again because they weren't as concerned about real-estate and the Apps were more individualized (people weren't as likely to use dozens of different Apps, and it was a more specialized solution). The NeXT boxes was more for geeks than the Mac -- though they did an amazingly good job of keeping things simple. Basically it assumed the users knew more and demanded that (in little subtle ways like directory structure and priorities and so on). It was a Workstation and Vertical Solutions Operating System, and the UI was tailored towards that -- but did a better job of that than any of the other OSs in its market.

Filing and Finding

The most obvious part of the UI (User Interface or User Experience) is the Filing Application. On the Mac this is the Finder (and the Open File Dialog / File Picker), and on NeXT it was the File Browser. Each has obvious advantages for certain behaviors -- which ironically seem somewhat designed for the others market.

The Mac Finder is very efficient at opening single folders files -- and tunneling to a place in a directory structure, and then staying there. It is great for reorganizing things, and displaying things in a variety of styles. (Giving the User some customizability). It is the standard desktop metaphor by which all the others are measured. It has more history than any other, and so has had more time to be polished. But it has disadvantages as well. The Mac Finder (for new users) is easy to get lost with -- it is a little hard to figure out your "history" of where windows are coming from (unless you know special secrets like command-clicking on a Window title, or unless you have just come from there). Every thing you do opens another window and layers this one on top of all the rest (unless you know special secret keys like option double-clicking when opening a folder). If you keep a few windows opened on how you normally work, or use power functions like popup Windows, then the Mac Interface is very efficient and shortcuts and file manipulation are very powerful and you have lots of configurability. But if you are keeping things in deep hierarchies (and all over the disk), and you keep cleaning things up when done (instead of leaving them open), then the can be a bit more painful. Worst of all, the Open File Dialog (File Picking) is significantly different in "look and feel" and behavior from the Finder (File Browsing/Manipulating). This means you teach new users two ways of doing things.

The NeXT File Browser is very efficient at tunneling through hierarchies in place. It requires that you start by using much more screen real estate for a single window than a single Mac Window to display it's information -- but when you start tunneling in, it doesn't require more space as you go in (where the Mac keeps adding layers and taking up more and more space for each Window). This is "browse-in-place", where the one window open keeps changing its context, instead of adding new windows all over the place. There are also fewer optional views and arrangements for the NeXT Browser, making it simpler for some things. The NeXT Browser is a bit more modal with the real estate of a window divided up into different areas with different features for each (like the favorites area at the top, or a history area, or columns offering history of where you came from) -- so it can take a little more time to get the basics, but once taught it is very easy to use and remember. When you start from standard places in a file hierarchy (like in UNIX) and you want to tunnel up and down, and go places, the NeXT Browser is superior to the Macs (either Finder or Open File Dialog), and is much better at giving visual cues as to where you actually are (and how you got there) at a given time. But that assumes that you care how you got there, and you are going to want to constantly start from nowhere (not just leave the Window open or use shortcuts / aliases to it). NeXT Browser also was designed to go through networks the same way that you go through local hierarchies -- the Mac has a few subtle uglies and inconsistencies in interface there (like dragging an Application or File to the desktop from a local drive just moves it -- but from a network drive it copies it). The NeXT File Browser is also the same interface for File Browsing as it is for File Picking. So it may be a tad more complex to teach, but it is more consistent once taught. So the NeXT Browser is faster at what it does (and going through hierarchies) -- but not quite as versatile (if you know what you are doing), and doesn't allow as much configurability.

So what are we going to get?

Nothing like having to write 2,000 words before I finally get to the point!

I have no official (or even much unofficial) information coming from Apple. So everything beyond this is just pure speculation and opinion.

Which market is better, and where does Apple go from here? The Mac market has spread and wants to go more into the NeXT markets (high end markets) -- but Apple is also picking up the more basic user market with things like iMacs and whatever the new iPortable is going to be called. The Mac Users still think about the interface -- the look and feel is the OS. The rest of the Industry (at least the geeks) tend to think that the underlying technology is the OS -- and the User Experience is just the shell. So we are getting as much of the NeXT technology, with as much of the Mac User Experience as can be easily shoehorned on top -- with now being the time to make interface changes and migrations.

As Mac Users we need to face the fact that the NeXT acquisition of Apple is complete. You get one guess at whose management team is in charge! They are certainly not stupid, and going to look at Mac Advantages and will use what they can. They don't want to burn and piss off all the current users, as demonstrated by things like Carbon and the backwards compatibility. I've been assured by User Interface people that what we are seeing today is not what will be shipped with OS X Client -- but that leaves lots of room for interpretation. The future of the Mac OS Client is using an awful lot of the NeXT way of doing things -- for some good reasons. Steve Jobs is in charge, and things will likely be done his way (for good or bad, and usually a bit of both).

So one of two things is going to happen:

A) Jobs likes the NeXT way and is more familiar with it than the Mac way -- so that is what we are going to get. The NeXT Mac OS X Client will look like NeXT Browser with more features (some borrowed from Mac). But we will have to adapt to the NeXT way because to some critical people, it is better.

B) Jobs likes to offer surprises and give people something new from out of the blue. Things get more attention when they come from no where, so there won't be much warning about the New User Experience. This is the chance to update some interface functionality, and add more power features, and really improve things. So the new way will be a truly new way that borrows from Mac, NeXT and whatever else out there that is good.

I think the truth is a bit of both -- but think that B is far more likely.

Apple is crunched for time -- and is working hard. Remember, OS X Client is a different foundation of code (from the Mac OS) -- so almost everything is new. Apple will work to make as much of the Mac OS Client as Mac-like as they can. -- but they will borrow the best from both, and add quite a bit new. I also think it would be foolish of Apple not to borrow from where it makes sense -- so I wouldn't be surprised if there were a few elements borrowed from elsewhere (see MS-Windows or some of the UNIX UI's). Apple has also been working for years on new interface concepts and scalable interfaces (ones that would be easier for new users, but can scale up and have more features for power users). I saw new User Experience Documents years ago that showed some pretty good and pretty radical ideas that borrowed from NeXT and Mac, and while I don't think they are close to what the final results will be, they showed that years ago Apple was thinking of these problems. Not only was that work started years ago, but that doesn't count the many years of interface work done for Copland/Maxwell -- and a project called MUSE (Maxwell User Experience -- Maxwell being the internal code name for Copland). There is certainly some ideas from there that could be borrowed from, and that isn't counting things in Apple's other Labs (ATG, OpenDoc, and so on).

I imagine a NeXT-like File Browser will be the new file picker -- with dramatic new additions like the final column being a preview (large Picture View of what the document contains before opening it). Apple also seems to be using more panes and drawers of late (regions of the screen or Window that do special things -- so I wouldn't be surprised by more of that in the future. Which means I expect that you can convert a standard Finder window into "Browser" mode (and have multiple panes for different things). But I fully expect that you will have the ability to open many windows and work a lot like the current Finder -- Apple knows that if they kill that behavior that they will lose a lot of the legacy users, and they are not that stupid. The new stuff will better handle networks, multiple users, remote access, tunneling in-place, larger icons, and so no. There will probably be all sorts of options for Icon Sizes, and list views and I even imagine mixing and matching different icon sizes (and views) in a single window. I fully expect to be pleased (with a few minor gripes in its first version -- as always with something new) -- but again I don't expect to lose many Mac features.

So I certainly expect that we OS X will not be delivered with the same interface we are seeing today (either Mac or NeXT) and there is a lot more to the functionality in there than we've seen. Apple will probably show this technology as late as possible -- and that could mean we have to wait until the actual release. (Dropping this stuff in and testing it separately is pretty easy). We will find out how we are actually going to use the new interface when Apple is good and ready to tell us. I have a lot of questions about how they are going to pull of things like the filing system itself (HFS+ or UFS) and little issues with both, but I know that I can think of a few good hacks for whichever way they go -- Apple has a lot of really good people, and I'm sure they've thought of those ways (and more) as well.

To those that are getting mad, or worried, I say, "stress isn't something someone else can give you -- it is something you have to take". Getting angry or worried over things you don't have control over is a waste of time. Sit back, relax and wait and see what happens. I have faith that it will be different enough from everything and that there will give something for everyone to hate (somewhere). Just my cynical side talking. I also have faith that the end results will be very usable and Apple hasn't lost their marbles and they are not going to try to make everyone use the NeXT Browser and call it "the New Finder".

Created: 06/27/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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