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Windowed in Name Only

Mac-Like – Worms and Viruses

Jack Wellborn:

I have been using computers of various sorts for a long time, and one thing that has always been unique to the Mac is an enthusiasm for consistency. You rarely hear Windows users complain about programs not being “Windows-like”, and there isn’t really any fervent calls for “iOS-like” or “Android-like” apps either, but “Mac-like” (or Mac-assed, if you prefer) is something that exists. Mac users and developers see consistency as a mark of a quality app. It’s not just consistency within the app or even consistency with other apps, but consistency with the system. To them, the best Mac apps feel like they were cut from the same cloth as macOS itself.

For the majority of the history of the Mac, the user interface that Apple developed was a major selling point, so it's not surprising that they encouraged developers to take advantage of the features built-it to the Mac OS. (That focus has slipped somewhat since Apple now has multiple UI paradigms across its phones, tablets and computers, something that both developers and users have noticed.)

In comparison, Microsoft has been through several UI's for Windows over the decades, plus countless programming systems underneath. As a result, there are many kinds of 'Windows application' out there, and Microsoft has had to work extra hard to support them all as best it can.

(And then there are those applications that are neither Windows nor Mac — looking at you, Adobe and Google.)

The mental model I was thinking of, but didn’t put into writing at the time, was that windowed apps have a lot of surface area because they have a lot of visual contact with other apps. Not only does this matter when apps border and overlap with other apps, it also matters when multiple apps merely exist in the same visual space. By comparison, full screen apps have no surface area because they are visually exclusive. iOS and Android apps always run in full screen. iPadOS apps mostly run in full screen. Even many Windows apps typically run in full screen. Most Mac apps, on the other hand, are typically windowed and expected to share the desktop with other windowed apps.

This surface area deeply informs the role of an operating system. When apps only run in full screen and there is no surface area, the role of the operating system primarily revolves around navigation. The goal of iOS and Android is to quickly get you to the app you want. The user experience of those operating systems yields to whatever application is currently full-screened. When surface area is high, the role of the operating system shifts from navigating between apps to providing a cohesive user experience for all apps. It’s here where macOS shines, when work consists of going between multiple applications on the same desktop and that leverage the same user experience.

You may be thinking “isn’t it better for the operating system to just get out of the way?” That thinking only makes sense when the user experience of the operating system incongruously intrudes onto the user experience of the app. When the operating system and apps share the same user experience, there is nothing to “get out of the way.” In that scenario, the incongruous intruder is not the operating system, but inconsistency. Mac enthusiasts don’t want their operating system to get out of the way of their apps. Instead, they want their apps to get out of the way of the shared user experience of macOS.

(Emphases in above quote are mine.)

I have to wonder if this state of affairs on the Mac is still true today. While the vast majority of apps are indeed windowed, my feeling is that their setup tends to favour the full screen over sharing it with other applications. Or worse, they're sort-of-windowed, but actually not windowed at all, in that they don't respond to standard macOS window control. It doesn't help matters that Apple's own apps have started to drift away from their own macOS conventions, which in turn have been modified in recent versions.

It would be perhaps forgivable if Apple had also bolstered the Spaces features to make it easier to work with full-screen applications, but that doesn't appear to be a high priority.

Now, I'll freely admit that I normally use several applications on my Mac full-screen a majority of the time — but I also appreciate the ability to have two applications open side-by-side, and get mightily annoyed if said apps make life difficult for me in that scenario.

I don't think Apple has any desire to 'unify' macOS and iPadOS by throwing out the traditional macOS windowing system. For one thing, displaying multiple apps alongside each other on iPadOS is doable, but the means of doing so aren't immediately obvious, or even usable on some iPads like the Mini. More importantly, the macOS experience is a selling point, as I mentioned above — why on earth would Apple start throwing out the reasons why people still buy Macs? Yes, iPads have become very powerful, but the majority opinion appears to be that iPadOS is still a work-in-progress at harnessing that power.

And I'm not solely laying the blame at Apple's door here, although I think they've made the developer's job a lot harder when it comes to taking advantage of macOS's features. Is it any wonder that some developers choose a cross-platform approach instead?

Perhaps this is also due to the changing way in which users use their Macs. Having one application occupying the entire screen can improve our ability to focus on the task at hand, to be sure. But I think that because there's no attempt made to show users how to use and control windows, they may get discouraged by having lots of overlapping and/or hidden windows on the screen. It feels like those three little window controls are being allowed to whither away through a lack of both understanding and care.

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