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So, the whole Wikileaks thing, eh. What should you think about it? Read on to find out.

What’s it all about anyway?

Maybe you didn’t follow, so let’s recap. Wikileaks is a website that publishes well, leaked information. Mostly governmental documents, diplomatic cables and the like, but lots of other stuff too.

Now, the interesting part which deserves a reaction is that recently, various governments have strongly criticized Wikileaks, and called it a security threat, calling for it’s censorship and for it to be basically closed down.

Not only is that preposterous, but quite dangerous and wrong. The rest of this post will show why.

The appropriate reaction

Let’s assume for a minute that Wikileaks’ revelations are reprehensible. What is the appropriate reaction towards reprehensible contents? The answer for this is known for decades, and yet people – and especially governments – keep advocating the wrong response.

Basically, the choice is between a censorship system, or a responsibility system. Annoyingly, it seems many people are confused as to what both systems mean.

Censorship

Censorship means blocking speech a priori, i.e., it is blocked before it is even publicly uttered. There are two ways this is usually implemented. Either someone (usually a government agency) reviews all speech to be published and either accepts or refuses it’s publication, or somebody is purely and simply silenced.

If you support either censorship system you are basically saying that you do not believe in freedom of speech, since you consider people are only entitled to publicize approved speech. This is very much a totalitarian system.

Worryingly, this is what people explicitly or implicitly advocate in the Wikileaks case.

Responsibility

A responsibility based system is a posteriori. It’s quite simple really. If publicly expressed speech is harmful, the publisher is responsible. As always, reparation can be made both in nature (removal of the harmful content), and by equivalent (paying money to whoever was harmed).

The key element is that no assumption is made on who is speaking. Only specific contents are punished. If both harmful and unharmful contents are uttered by a specific person or organisation, only the harmful ones are punished.

Why responsibility is better

It should be obvious, but as so often, I’d rather make sure the obvious is stated:

– The first censorship implementation system requires an impartial party to review all contents. Who can be entrusted with this mission, bearing in mind nobody will be able to review his actions since the contents won’t be published? In all known such systems, the review was highly opinion-based, politically motivated. And it cannot be otherwise.

– Responsibility only punishes actual harm, whereas the second implementation method of censorship (currently advocated by many in the Wikileaks case) blocks both harmful and unharmful contents. This means that such censorship actually punishes you for crimes you haven’t yet committed.

– Responsibility requires an actual damage being proven (including for instance violation of a law). This allows for a factual review, in front of a court of law, allowing for proper defence by the person uttering the speech. This is not possible in a censorship system, where you’re just blocked and have nothing to say about it.

Debunking some lame arguments

I have hopefully shown that whatever you think of Wikileaks, if action should be taken against it, it should be responsibility based. Now I will debunk a series of criticisms targeted against Wikileaks.

It’s illegal!

Well, I would not be surprised quite a few of Wikileaks’ documents (and their publishing) infringe on certain laws. However, if that is so, how come Wikileaks hasn’t been brought to court? Australian Police recently concluded there was no evidence of unlawfulness. So maybe they haven’t done anything legally wrong. If so, seeking any form of punishment is, well, illegal and totalitarian.

Wikileaks endangers people

I fail to fully understand this one. Wikileaks doesn’t reveal plans that haven’t yet been executed upon. Revealing stuff after the fact doesn’t endanger anyone [UPDATE: by stuff, I mean anything else than people’s names]. Furthermore, when they did mess up the anonymization of certain documents (which is the only case where after the fact damage can be made), they swiftly suggested partnerships with their critics to improve the anonymization process. Tellingly, the critics did next to nothing. Makes me think this argument is a straw man.

Furthermore, as far as privacy violations go, regular newspapers do much worse. They routinely disclose names of criminal suspect investigations, often ruining lives in the process. Singling out Wikileaks for this is hypocritical at best.

Why not disclose all personal emails?

This one is quite funny. If you’re so keen on having all these secret governmental papers disclosed, the argument goes, how would you like it if all your emails were publicly disclosed?

Of course, this is a ludicrous argument that completely misses the point. Natural persons have a (very important) right to privacy, which would be violated by the disclosure of their personal communications. Governments and their agencies, on the other hand, don’t. What’s more, Governments should be accountable to the people for their actions. Knowing what they do is necessary for this, and disclosure of their communications aids this goal.

I’ll dig into this further, but for now, let’s just remember that it’s ridiculous to compare Governments and natural persons in this context.

Wikileaks hasn’t released anything important

This one is funny too. It says that Wikileaks is useless because it hasn’t revealed anything important or interesting. If so, then why make a fuss about it and not just let it be?

Unless the point being made is that only useful and ground breaking information deserves to be published. If that’s the reasoning, then most of what is being published, whether on the web or in paper, should be banned, because most of what’s out there is useless drivel.

Not everyone can handle the information

This is one of the more interesting, and also more worrying, arguments made.

It actually contains two parts:

1) There is too much information, nobody can process that much information.

2) The information is too complex, very few people can make anything out of it.

Where can I even start with this?

First off, nobody ever said everyone in the whole wide world should master knowledge about all subjects equally. Well, I’m pretty sure some crackpot socialist might have said that once, but let’s get real.

Nobody can process the quantity of information being published in all the newspapers of a small country like Belgium either. Should they all be banned too? And maybe replaced by only one manageable newspaper which we could call The Truth? Oh wait, that’s been done already… Seriously, people!

And then the argument that not everybody can understand the information or put it in context. So what? I’m fairly certain that most people coming across my post here aren’t able to properly understand the latest journals in particle physics either. Should they be banned too?

Let me break the news: we live in a complex world. Nobody can fully understand it today. But that’s ok. Because different people have different areas of expertise and master various different areas of knowledge.

After all, the complexity of the information being leaked isn’t any greater than what becomes available to the general public in governmental archives after 30 years. And guess what: the information in those archives is meaningfully processed by experts. We call them historians, political scientists, and sometimes journalists. Why couldn’t they process more recent information which is the same in nature?

The importance of what these people do will be re-stated later.

Secrets are necessary

Another perplexing one as far as I’m concerned. I hear claims that governments need to protect secrets.

I’m very sorry, but which governmental secrets deserve to be protected?

The usual suspect is diplomacy. “Oh my, but diplomacy wouldn’t work without secrecy”, is an oft made claim. Well, would it really be such a bad thing if diplomacy didn’t work? I mean, if we’re saying that Governments should be able to publicly say one thing and secretly do another, very sorry, but no. That removes all accountability and basically means citizens are deceived. Which is unacceptable.

Now, if the purpose is to say that negotiations sometimes need to carry some secrecy to be effective, sure. But then who’s to be blamed if the these secrets are revealed? The whistle-blower, or the negligent party who allowed the secret to be revealed?

And, to be honest, I even have some defiance about these secret negotiations. A few examples will come later as to why.

Another area where secrecy is claimed to be useful is the military. First, it should be noted that Wikileaks has only, to the best of my knowledge, revealed things after the fact, i.e., has not revealed any military plans while they were current.

Furthermore, you should here again be much more worried about the fact that a relatively limited organisation such as Wikileaks could gain access to military information. It means the people who could benefit from that knowledge sure as hell could gain access to it too.

Apart from those ones, I haven’t yet heard of any even remotely convincing example of governmental secret that deserves to be kept.

Why Wikileaks style free speech matters

I’ve hopefully shown that arguments against Wikileaks are weak at best, and that if Wikileaks does commit something bad, it should be acted upon based on responsibility and not censorship.

But now it’s time to see why Wikileaks is something extremely healthy indeed.

See, if democracy is to even remotely work, you have to be certain that checks and balances are correctly in place. This basically means that no single government or governmental agency can act without being controlled and kept in check by counter-powers.

One of the most important of these counter-powers is traditionally, but incorrectly, known as the press.

Naming this the press is historically understandable, but inaccurate. The actual counter-power is the free flow of information within the governed society. The press has historically been the main vector of this flow, but is by no means the only one, especially in this day and age.

Basically, this counter-power is based on the fact citizens can have access to information that enables them to better judge and evaluate their Government, and, ultimately, control it. Which is kind of the point in the first place.

As we have seen, some are so rash as to say that Wikileaks is too complex for citizens. But that’s where historians, political scientists and journalists come in handy. They can use Wikileaks as a source to better inform citizens, via analysis and vulgarization.

Whether Wikileaks has yet completely fulfilled this role is irrelevant. It has the potential to do so. And the hidden agenda of those opposing it is to silence counter-powers. Which is downright terrifying.

Because contrary to what some naysayers try to make believe, this kind of counter-power is useful. At the end of the day, this is the kind of thing that allowed to know about (very non-exhaustive list) in no particular order:

Watergate

The Iran Contra affair

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (Those defending the secrecy of diplomatic negotiations don’t look so good now, do they?)

The Iraq prison abuse scandals

– Miterrand’s involvement in the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior

Gulags

Etc. These things were revealed by investigative journalism. Which has nearly gone the way of the dodo. It’s good that Wikileaks is picking up the mantle.

So it’s really up to you to decide. Do you want to be on the side of those who would rather this kind of thing remained secret “for the greater good of the State”?

I don’t.

Conclusion

All in all, the whole story is quite easy.

Arguments against Wikileaks are mostly bogus. Wikileaks is one example of those phenomena that make the difference between (relative…) freedom and totalitarianism. So it should be supported on principle, all the more so because there is no evidence it has caused any harm other than ruffling Governments’ feathers.

Were it to err, the adequate solution would be the time tested solution of responsibility. Not censorship.

You’re free to disagree. Totalitarians do. But unlike me, they’ll deny you the freedom to disagree with them.

My last post about Apple was quite withering. Furthermore, I often poke jabs at Apple. It thus surprised a lot of people when I announced my next computer would probably be a MacBook Pro. Does this mean I’m inconsistent or changed my mind? Hardly.

What I dislike about Apple

Just to clarify a bit what I meant in my last post, what I dislike about Apple is not their products. Their products have immense qualities. They also have their flaws, as I pointed out. What I dislike with a passion is blind fanboyism, the fact people blindly assume everything Apple does is just perfect. It’s not. I also dislike Steve Jobs. And I certainly disagree with the constant Microsoft bashing that Apple fanboys enjoy so much, because I believe Microsoft to have delivered outstanding products, and to have actually raised their quality levels in recent years.

My last post aimed at demonstrating that Apple is far from flawless, and that some humility on the side of Apple lovers would be welcome. But Apple has some very appealing products indeed. Here’s why.

Bringing sexiness to IT

If there’s one single fact nobody in their right mind could disagree on regarding Apple is that is that they have mastered the art of making a computer look good. They were the first ones to aim at that, and nobody comes close to their current results – even though PCs have become much less ugly as a consequence.

Seriously, how gorgeous is the current iMac line?

Picture of the very sexy iMac

Remember, this is the full computer, no ugly grey box attached under or upon your desk. Furthermore, the quality of the screen is astounding. Interestingly, by the way, the entry-level iMac is a good bang for your buck, even compared to a similar PC set-up.

The same beauty exudes the laptop line, Macbooks.

But it’s not only the devices that look nice. The operating system, Mac OS X, is also built towards pretty in lots of ways, from useless but pleasing eye-candy such as the animations that go with minimizing a window, to pretty ways of fulfilling a function such as the pleasing animation that highlights the dock icon currently active.

 

Samples of how Mac OS X does “pretty”

 

The drawback of this is that sometimes beauty has trumped functionality. This is most infamously the case with Apple mice, which look good, but are consistently less comfortable to use from an ergonomics point of view than other companies’ mice.

Quite touchy

I don’t care much for the iPad and other “non-computer computing devices”, but even in the realm of pure computers, Apple absolutely leads the pack in the area of touch input. Case in point: the wonderful touchpads sported by Macbooks, and the very natural implementation of multi-touch that Apple has brought to them. No other touchpad in the industry even comes close to being as comfortable and useful as Apple’s. So much so that the Magic trackpad Apple has started to sell for desktops actually starts making sense to me. And I’m a guy who never uses the touchpad on my PC laptops.

Niftiness as an art form

For the various reasons I explained in my previous post, I don’t buy the “attention to detail” argument. Apple can screw up on details and even big things, just like any one else in the industry. However, it’s true they consistently come up with nifty little features the likes of which are seldom seen in other products. I’m not going to list all of them, but just give a few examples.

On their Macbook pro line, they have this very nice little way of seeing how charged the laptop is, even when it’s turned off. Just push a little button, and LEDs light up to tell you how much battery you have left. Very nice for checking whether you need to take a power chord with you or not.

The battery charge indicator on a Macbook pro

Another nifty feature, on OS level this time, is installation and removal of programs. Installing a program is as easy as copying one file in your application folder. Removing it is as easy as dragging it to the trashcan. Easy, comfortable.

Active screen corners is also a very nice idea. Basically slam your mouse into a corner of the screen, and depending on how you configured it, an action will automatically be carried out, such as showing your desktop, showing your widgets, putting your computer to sleep, etc. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

At application level, iTunes does a nice bit of nifty too. Select a song, and click on genius playlist, and iTunes will build a playlist of similar tunes. Very nice.

The list goes on really. Lots of nifty little features which, taken separately, aren’t game-changers, but as a whole make for a very pleasant experience.

Apple ’nixed it

One of the best ideas Apple ever had for Mac OS X was to give it Unix roots. Mac OS X is basically a Unix since it’s POSIX compliant. Lots of good things entail. It gives the OS the kind of stability you can expect from a Unix system, and the relatively strong security credentials that go with it. Contrary to popular belief, there can be viruses and malware for Mac OS X, but between the inherent security of a Unix system and the relatively limited user base, chances are quite slim you’ll encounter any.

It also means that if you are the geeky type, you can mess around in the same way you would with a Unix, with a command line interface and everything. 

SMB friendliness

Apple products can still remain a headache for large enterprises, when compatibility with enterprise software can be an issue. But for SMBs, Apple products can be a very smart choice.

SMBs have fairly limited software needs. And what needs they have are very well addressed. Regarding productivity software, iWork is actually a very good suite. While less powerful than MS Office, it allows non specialists to make very professional looking documents with outstanding looks very easily, with less effort than MS Office. This allows an SMB to create great looking commercial presentations, mailings, invoices, proposals etc. without needing the help of an external designer. And this comes at a fraction of the price of MS Office (roughly 80€). It’s compatible with MS Office, but as so often, if you use either’s advanced capabilities, you might come across some formatting issues.

iWork Numbers templates

No sweat, MS Office is available on Mac too, and marginally cheaper than on PC.

Even in the area of more specialized software, there are some great products available. Merlin is a great project management product, that is arguably superior to MS Project (as often with Apple oriented products, it might lose out a bit on advanced functionality, but over-compensates with ease of use and stunning looks).

Of course, depending on your business, you will need to check that what you need is available on the platform.

In a nutshell

Perfection is not of this world, and Apple is no exception. Apple products however have many qualities. In many cases, these can justify the premium you need to pay to purchase most Apple products, if you have the budget available. Are Apple products “better” than PC equivalents? No. But depending on your needs and tastes, they might well suit you a whole lot better.

I recently had an interesting discussion on twitter with @e_jim and @Davanlo about why Europe was a good thing. I have come to believe it isn’t, and I will expand slightly on why I believe that here .

Regulation costs

The key point to why I have come to distrust Europe is because it over-regulates. But it’s not just about the fact Europe regulates too much (although it does). It’s about the excessive cost of European regulation.

As you know, when Europe emits a regulation, it has to be transposed into local legislation. This is not a trivial exercise for the Member States, and requires full legislative efforts on their behalf.

This means you bear the cost of regulating twice: once on European level and once at country level.

Furthermore, because Member States have a degree of freedom in transposing European legislation, the whole idea of a unique legislative framework for Europe is actually negated. The same policy decisions are applicable all over Europe, but legislation does differ.

So we bear the costs of two levels of regulation instead of one.

Lack of legislative competition

The suggested solution to this is to skip the national level implementation. This would indeed solve the cost problem more or less, but a more fundamental problem would remain. The lack of legislative competition.

The idea is simple really. With legislation at lower levels, you can more easily compare the effects of different policies, see which work, and go in the right direction. In the same way competition leads to success of the best products, legislative competition leads to the success of the best policies. This is how communism and harsh protectionism finally went were they deserved to.

This occurs among others through voting and, more importantly, voters voting with their feet. It becomes much more difficult to do this if the same policies apply across a territory as large as Europe’s. And of course, having less reference points, it becomes much more difficult to spot the better policy. All the more so when all policies are half baked compromise policies as they are today.

The problem with compromise politics is that it becomes impossible to identify the part of the compromise which is responsible for the failure of the policy. So it just continues going on, and having no easy comparison point, the policy sustains itself despite lacklustre results.

More thoughts on this can be found in this post and it’s comments.

It should be added that legislative competition at higher levels (say, between the US and Europe and China) doesn’t work. Because of the massive size of the regions, and the massively different history and contexts, difference of policy performance is explained away. “This American policy wouldn’t work in Europe”, etc. And one has to admit, the argument has merit. For competition to be able to work, you do need some form of homogeneity, to make the comparison valid. The complexity of comparing the US to Europe makes the exercise nearly impossible. Belgium and France on the other hand, are manageable comparison units.

Special interests

Another issue is that centralization of power leads to the power of lobbies & special interest groups. I seem to be meeting a lobbyist every other week in Brussels these days. Of course, having a central locus of power to focus upon makes lobbies’ jobs so much easier. As such, it is my belief they gain much more traction than when powers were more local, and money runs the show in ways not conceivable before.

Again, this boils down to legislative competition. Realistically, a given lobby could hardly lobby all the local governments successfully. As such, only certain local governments would see their policies influenced by the lobby. And it would quickly become apparent how the policy is flawed.

This does not happen when lobbies can influence Brussels directly.

Just consider whether agriculture in Europe would be the same without the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe. And ask yourself if it would be a bad thing. The fine print if you lack the imagination is that France would not have the money to sustain such an ill-advised policy on it’s own, but it can thanks to the fact all of Europe pays for it.

The same applies to much less obvious domains though, areas where lobbies didn’t even exist due to organisational costs when the locus of power was more local.

Protectionism

Protectionism is an interesting topic, and one easily misunderstood. An argument in favour of the European Union is that it stops the Member States from adopting protectionist policies. While that is true, the Union as it currently exists is massive overkill to achieve that goal. Trade agreements are enough for that.

Furthermore, the largely unperceived perverse effect of the Union is that it acts as an incentive to develop protectionism of the Union against other regions of the world. Which is one of the factors spurring the extreme over-regulation of the Union. If you think consumer law is only about protecting the consumer an not blocking off foreign competition, think again. Think about the Microsoft trials. The Galileo project.

And contrary to protectionism at a lower level, the adverse effects don’t hurt the Union fast enough for the policy to be quickly identified as negative and repelled.

In a nutshell

The Union generates excessive regulation costs, stops legislative competition from taking place and allows for protectionism. Further reading on why I distrust the EU can be found here and what I suggest as alternative can be found here.

Apple, for some reason, has a reputation of making usable products, and of using very good engineering. Of course, I’m out to point out how neither couldn’t be further from the truth.

Engineering for dummies

I am not an engineer. But I do have a minimal understanding of what engineering is all about. Which is apparently more than can be said about all the idiots raving about the quality of Apple’s engineering.

Specially for them, this little excerpt of that difficultly consultable source of information, Wikipedia:

Engineering is the discipline, art and profession of acquiring and applying technical, scientific, and mathematical knowledge to design and implement materials, structures, machines, devices, systems, and processes that safely realize a desired objective or invention.

Now our idiotic Apple apologists seem to not know about the last portion of the definition. Engineering aims at realizing a desired objective. It’s not gratuitous aimless technological feats.

The irony is that Apple is extremely bad at engineering. At times they pull off industrial design decently, and even that, much less frequently than most people think. The rest of this post is dedicated to exemplifying this.

A few cheap shots

Before getting into the more complex arguments, I have to address, with spiteful delight, a few of the most idiotic arguments people give to defend the idea Apple is good at engineering.

The best one, and certainly the most ridiculous one, is the infamous “straight solder line” episode. According to some sources, Steve Jobs insisted all solder lines on the Apple ][ be perfectly straight. This is seen by some as attention to detail.

Sorry folks, that’s just plain idiocy. It has no added value whatsoever. It doesn’t enhance functionality, or provide extra reliability. It is just misspent effort.

Then of course, fast forward to 2010, and you have the iPhone 4 with it’s revolutionary antenna. Indeed, it is quite revolutionary to dare put out a phone with an antenna which is faulty by design in 2010. That’s not even attention to meaningless detail, it’s just sloppy – this kind of thing should be identified during testing.

UPDATE: Come on, serious engineers do not discard the warnings given by other engineers and partners.

With that out of the way, let’s get on to the more serious stuff – and please note I’m talking about computers in the rest of this post.

Computers designed not to be used: hardware

Apple & our favourite rodent

Apple brought us the mouse. Of course, contrary to what uninformed people sometimes believe, they didn’t invent it nor were they the first to put it on the market, but they were definitely the ones to popularize it.

Ironically, they have consistently made the worst mice on the market ever since. Raneko’s excellent mice gallery hereunder will help me illustrate the point. It lists Apple mice chronologically from right to left.

One can vaguely excuse the discomfort induced by most of the early mice it made – awful cubical boxes that actually hurt your hands seen on the right hand side of the picture – by the fact that they were the first mice around. Everybody needs experience to learn. Nobody was doing better at the time.

In 1993, they finally moved in the right direction with something a bit more round, vaguely more comfortable, the Apple Desktop Bus Mouse II. However, by that time, Logitech already had several much more comfortable products out there. Oh yeah, and they included multiple buttons too.

You’d think Apple would learn something from competitors, wouldn’t you? Wrong. They then go out of their way to design the pretty, but ridiculously uncomfortable “hockey puck” mouse for iMacs in 1998. By this time, very ergonomic mice are available for PCs. Good engineering usually does not include going from slightly decent to extremely bad, but that is what Apple did.

In the 2000’s, Apple ups the ante with the awful Mighty Mouse. Sure, it looks nice, but is uncomfortable to use, the long awaited arrival of extra buttons is countered by the fact they are nearly impossible to use. And in the day and age everybody was moving away from mechanical balls under mice because they clog up so easily, Apple goes and puts that on top of the mouse as a scrolling device. Massive failure.

Not to worry, in 2009 Apple shows it still has it’s mojo by producing a stunningly gorgeous mouse, the Magic Mouse, which is still ill-conceived. It’s a pity really. It sports lots of nifty features never seen before on a desktop mouse, but forgets to do what other manufacturers have figured out how to do over twenty years ago: be comfortable.

And that’s the key to it all really. Apple has, for thirty years, consistently failed at making a mouse which is comfortable to use, respecting basic ergonomics of human hands. This has been unacceptable for twenty years. And yet these guys are engineering geniuses? Sorry, but a mouse’s first feature is to be comfortable in your hand when controlling your computer for any period of time.

But Apple makes computers that are supposed to be pretty to look at, not used.

Apple & the keys to your computer

That also shows in their keyboards.

In this domain, their track record is decent. Their keyboards have been more or less acceptable, given the era, most of the time.

But then, in 2009, Apple decides numeric pads, a standard feature on most desktop keyboards since the IBM PC went on the market, are not useful anymore.  This is the time where more and more laptops include numeric pads. Any heavy computer user appreciates a numeric pad, even if, granted, one can live without it.

But better than that, they made the keys perfectly flat. Not concave at all.

Casual computer users won’t mind. But anyone who does extensive work on computers should be complaining. Because flat keys are a huge pain for touch typing. This is not something people have just discovered either. Keyboards have had concave tops for decades for precisely this reason. A good engineer never discards lessons from the past without good reason.

Again, hardware made to be looked at rather than used a lot.

Quality first – sometimes

Apple computers and devices are on average more expensive than other brands. All the more so – and this is seldom taken into account – because it’s usually quite harder to upgrade a Mac than a PC, and if your screen dies, well, you’re basically good to buy another computer.

But Apple loyalists like to claim this is due to the high quality of the products.

Unfortunately for them, that’s just not true. Regardless the design flaws pointed out above (which should actually not be disregarded when paying a premium).

Quality control at Apple means massively delivering non-booting iMacs (or alternatively broken screens). A company that takes build quality seriously – while actually charging a premium for it – would not have that kind of issue. This kind of problem is expected of low-end devices, not top of the range machines.

Even more interesting is the failure rate of Apple laptops. While being bested by Sony, who basically builds premium laptops too, is acceptable, it is quite damning for Apple to be bested by Toshiba and Asus, two companies which are in the commodity laptop business. Much cheaper and more reliable.

What was that about quality again?

It’s the software stupid!

But of course, Apple loyalists will be quick to point out that I’m missing the point, because the Apple experience is all about the quality of their software, their beloved Mac OS X.

Now there’s no disputing the fact Mac OS X is a good OS. But it is far from immune from criticism, including in the engineering & usability department. Given Apple’s reputation, I find that quite ironic.

Usability issues

The Apple menu bar

The Apple menu bar is one of my favourites. It’s a typical case of difference between Windows and Mac OS, so people usually tell me it’s a question of getting used to it. Unfortunately, that’s not all it is.

Just a reminder for those unfamiliar with Mac OS: the Apple menu bar provides the functionality you get with Windows applications in a central unique location for all applications on your Mac: at the top of the screen. Check out the link above if you want to know more.

The idea behind placing all that up there is to conform to Fitts’s law. This basically states that

the time required to rapidly move to a target area is a function of the distance to and the size of the target.

The consequence being that the top of your screen having “infinite width”, it’s easier to acquire the top of your screen than the top of your window.

The problem is not that Fitts’s law is untrue. It’s that it is a very bad metric.

For better or for worse, computer interfaces have been for decades using the desktop metaphor. Here again, Apple deserves credit for popularizing the desktop metaphor (with the Macintosh). The basic idea is that your computer mimics, insofar as applicable, the way you work with your physical desktop.

Now the desktop metaphor is broken in many ways, and most operating systems wander away from it in various ways, usually for good reasons. For instance, spatial file-browsing just sucks for most people, so breaking the metaphor in that case is a good idea.

But the way the Apple menu bar breaks the metaphor is Very Bad™. Basically, it breaks away the application and it’s configuration (and options, etc.). Which is the equivalent of needing to rummage in your desk drawers to configure the stapler that is in your hands. It dissociates an object (the application) from it’s properties (configuration, options etc.). Which is a disruption of your thought process.

Furthermore, if Fitts’s law really mattered to Apple, most actions could be carried out by a context click (equivalent of the right-click in Windows), since no movement whatsoever is needed. But that’s not the case. Understandably so, since the actual right-click is still a despised feature only begrudgingly given to it’s users by Apple.

Adding insult to injury, and perfectly negating any benefits one might have found in Fitts’s law’s application, the Apple menu bar can also result in unnecessary mouse-clicks. Indeed, if another window than the one you want to access the menu of is in focus, you need first to bring that window in focus, and then only do you have the opportunity to access the menu. Talk about usability.

And of course, let’s not forget that with larger and larger screens, multiple screens and the like, reaching the very top left of your screen is getting to be more of a big deal than it was on the screens of thirty years ago.

Window controls

Another usability pet peeve of mine is the non-discoverability of the window controls in OS X.  You see, the close button, the “zoom” button (what comes closest to maximize in the Apple world) and the minimize button sport the red, green and orange colours respectively. No visual cue as to what they do. Just colours. So while red is about as universal as an X for signalling that what the user is about to do is dismiss or reject what he is doing (=close his application), green and orange tell me nothing at all about the current functionality of the button. To have the faintest idea, I need to hover to the button to get the visual cues which Windows (among others) permanently provides.

And just to make it more fun, the colours will change according to your theme. I guess that helps the colour-blind people who would otherwise be screwed… Not really user-friendly.

Ergonomics placement

Finally, another ergonomics issue which people dismiss as a question of habit when it is far from it.

For this example, I’ll start off with the windows way. You see, the Windows menu and the window controls are placed like they are for a reason. The Windows menu is at the bottom left of your screen, while window controls (minimize, maximize, close) are at the top right of your window.

This is purposefully thought out for right-handed people, which are, after all, the vast majority of people (sorry lefties). Why? Those areas, which are destined to be very frequently used, are the ones which require the less physical effort to reach with a mouse. It’s a simple rotation of your arm on your elbow axis which allows you to reach them. Your elbow doesn’t need to move. In Mac OS, those window controls are top left. Which means you necessarily need to move your whole arm (elbow included) to reach them.

Probably not a big deal, but here again, attention to detail is far from characterizing Apple, and in this case does characterize Windows.

Keep it simple… as long as it’s simple

Just for laughs, I’ll add a link to Bruce Tognazzini’s webpage. I disagree with him on a number of questions, but this particular page made me smile in agreement. For reference, the guy is one of the original Mac OS engineers and founded the Apple Human Interface Group. The most important take-away is that Apple’s “keep it simple” philosophy actually makes your life harder over time. But it’s alright as long as you don’t use your computer much…

Engineering issues

Then there are those nice little things in OS X that are just plain dumb. It actually doesn’t even boil down to engineering, but just to plain common sense.

See, that close button I was talking about, it doesn’t actually close the application, it just closes the window. While I can make sense out of that as all geeks can (because no, an application is not just the window), my non-geek friends can’t (because to them the application is just the window).

Again, this simply breaks the desktop metaphor. If I dismiss an object on my desk, it’s not supposed to be lying around on the desk afterwards. Otherwise I would have left it available (which is what minimizing is for in computing). Yet in Mac OS X, that’s what it does, it’s still there, hogging up space (system resources). And it’s even quite confusing to the casual user because it’s there hogging up resources, yet it’s not clearly visible.

And there is no one-click way to actually quit the application. If I want to do it, I have to use keyboard shortcuts or multiple clicks. Great.

Now let’s even concede the difference between closing the window and quitting the application to Apple (we shouldn’t, certainly not to an OS that claims to be so user-friendly, but still, just for the sake of argument). It’s poorly executed.

First, it’s not done consistently. There are applications which you actually quit (for good) by clicking on the close button. Just not all of them. See, those where you can only open a single window are actually quit, while those where multiple windows can be opened are left running (even if only one window is open). Good luck explaining that to a casual user. That’s bad engineering, and bad usability.

Second, if you’re going to do that kind of “close window but not quit application” nonsense in an operating system that is basically built on top of Unix, you should use the suspend function that has been around in Unix for decades, so that you waste no resources. But that is of course not how it is done. Bad engineering.

And then there’s a last unrelated engineering mess-up I find amusing. Mouse acceleration is exceedingly lousy on Macs. It’s one of the reasons I always feel weird when using one. It’s actually so bad that users have actually started a petition to request it be changed and there are several freeware applications out there to correct the problem…

Let me spell it out for you. Not only has Apple succeeded in mis-implementing the algorithm for mouse acceleration so that default behaviour is sucky, but they do not provide controls to fix this problem (even though such controls are fairly trivial to implement). And when it gets hilarious is when you notice this problem was introduced by Mac OS X – previous versions handled this correctly. Again, Apple manages to actually regress instead of progress. Congratulations!

Where does that leave us?

Am I trying to argue that Apple only makes badly engineered unusable lame products? Hardly. Apple makes good products. Definitely very desirable products, and the looks of most of them are absolutely beautiful – even though I am personally starting to tire of the “white iPod” look all over the place and welcome the change that is currently occurring.

Only an idiot would defend the viewpoint that Mac OS is a crappy OS or that the iMac is a bad computer.

However, Apple products have just as many quirks as other manufacturer’s products do, and the track record is actually getting spottier by the day. Furthermore, between the premium price and the much more limited software availability than on the Wintel platform, the products just exclude themselves out of many markets – it’s no surprise Apple doesn’t sell that much to enterprises these days.  And of course, the overarching impression that form is more important than functionality oozes ever more strongly out of the Cupertino-based products (re-read the hardware section if you’re still in denial about this).

As such, what are Apple products? Niche products. In the same way shiny sports cars are niche products. A few of the more affluent people with specific tastes will buy them. In the case of sports cars, because driving fast and “sporty” is enjoyable. In the case of Apple, because owning a beautiful computer is pleasing. And for the geekier because you have a Unix foundation.

But just like the sports car owner would be an idiot to mock the sedan/station wagon owner or deride him about engineering feats when his sports car can’t carry many people around or hurts his back, the Mac owner is in a very bad position to mock computers whose primary goal is not to be aesthetically pleasing, but to get the job done.

And just like sports cars are niche, so are Macs. With a market penetration of 5.1%. Because despite the hype, PCs are the true computers for the rest of us.

In a nutshell

Apple’s engineering and quality is certainly not above industry par. It is just as guilty as the next company of releasing shoddy products (and has a consistent track record of this in the mouse area). It routinely fails to apply basic principles, even going so far as to make things worse over time.

As such, it’s reputation of quality and good engineering is an absolute myth. Given the low standards of the IT industry, this doesn’t stop them from making desirable products, mainly thanks to their aesthetics. As such, there is a very good market for Apple products – albeit a niche one. There’s definitely nothing stupid about buying a Mac, but it’s definitely ridiculous to claim Macs are vastly superior to PCs in any domain other than aesthetics.

It’s much too early to start commenting on Google TV, with the little that is really known about the details. As such, it’s quite unwise to do so. Hence why I will.

The Good

There’s something great about Google TV, and that’s probably what’s garnering all the enthusiasm right now: convergence is finally coming. Come on, we’ve been talking about it for years, and this seems to be the first really exciting example of it (IP telephony is another example. Not exciting).

So basically, the idea of a web enabled TV sounds great of course. And that’s what everybody’s excited about. And rightly so might I add.

The Bad

But of course, as you know, I’m a grumpy old man, and as such, I always poop the party. In this case, several things bother me.

  • Once more, Google gets to know what you do. One more area where they know your every single move. Yay.
  • For all the coolness of “search for a video on the internet and watch it”, the reality of it is that much of what’s available out there will look just awful on a half decent TV. And websites aren’t optimized for TVs. I think there’s years ahead before the content a web enabled TV adds to a TV is quite as exciting as the content normally available on your TV. I do think there’s probably a discrepancy between US and Europe in that regard (penetration of Netflix etc.)
  • True convergence to me should go much deeper. One day your TV will basically be wirelessly connected to your PC, as an additional screen, and your PC’s OS will know the difference and translate (re-format the interface if you will) as needed. And everything will go through your PC, whether satellite TV or web. Of course, there’s many years ahead before we get that and it’s really usable, and that’s just my preferred vision of a not too close future. Might as well never happen. But I wanted to share…

 

The Ugly

Well Google getting to access another area of your life really is very ugly too, but ok, I’ve already been there and there’s something else.

Is this all Google has left? Are they running out of innovative ideas? A TV, really?

Of course it’s a cool product and whatnot (at least conceptually, in practice it remains to be seriously tested). But how obvious is it?

I see a few people who think it’s not obvious and aren’t following.

Google is an advertising company. Coming (back) to TV strikes me of a very conservative move (even though it does have a very innovative twist in this case). If all of a sudden all Google can think of to increase it’s revenue stream is to get more via television, then it seems to me it has run out of ideas on how to monetize ads (which I personally might be thankful for, but still…). It’s coming back to the best bread winner for ad companies there ever was.

If this is a sign of where Google’s heading, then it might be an indication that the time of intense web innovation at Google is over.

Whether this is true, or even whether that is a bad thing remains to be seen. I welcome your thoughts on both points.