Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

WWDC dates announced

The entire of Twitter has imploded after noticing that Apple has announced the dates for WWDC, this year June 7-11. That’s too short notice for me to go, and having only recently started working again after a few months concentrating solely on Professional Cocoa Application Security, I can’t scrape together the few thousand pounds needed to reserve flights, hotel and ticket at a month’s notice.

I hope that those of you who are going have a great time. The conference looks decidedly thin on Mac content this year, and while I still class myself as more of a Mac developer than an iP* developer that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The main value in WWDC is in the social/networking side first, the labs second, and the lecture content third – so as long as you can find an engineer in the labs who remembers how a Mac works, you’ll probably still have a great week and learn a lot.

posted by Graham Lee at 15:52  

Saturday, June 13, 2009

WWDC wind-down

As everyone is getting on their respective planes and flying back to their respective homelands, it’s time to look back on what happened and what the conference means.

The event itself was great fun, as ever. Meeting loads of new people (a big thank-you to the #paddyinvasion for my dishonourary membership) as well as plenty of old friends is always enjoyable – especially when everyone’s so excited about what they’re working on, what they’ve discovered and what they’re up to the next day. It’s an infectious enthusiasm.

Interestingly the sessions and labs content has more of a dual impact. On the one hand it’s great to see how new things work, how I could use them, and to realise that I get what they do. The best feeling is taking some new information and being able to make use of it or see how it can be used. That’s another reason why talking to everyone else is great – they all have their own perspectives on what they’ve seen and we can share those views, learning things from each other that we didn’t get from the sessions. If you were wondering what the animated discussions and gesticulations were in the 4th Street Starbucks at 7am every morning, now you know.

On the other hand, it makes me realise that OS X is such a huge platform that there are parts I understand very well, and parts that I don’t really know at all. My own code spreads a wide path over a timeline between January 1, 1970 and September 2009 (not a typo). For instance, it wasn’t until about 2003 that I knew enough NetInfo to be able to write a program to use it (you may wonder why I didn’t just use DirectoryServices – well even in 2003 the program was for NeXTSTEP 3 which didn’t supply that API). I still have a level of knowledge of Mach APIs far below “grok”, and have never known even the smallest thing about HIToolbox.

There are various options for dealing with that. The most time-intensive is to take time to study – I’ve got a huge collection of papers on the Mach design and implementation, and occasionally find time to pop one off the stack. The least is to ignore the problem – as I have done with HIToolbox, because it offers nothing I can’t do with Cocoa. In-between are other strategies such as vicariously channeling the knowledge of Amit Singh or Mark Dalrymple and Aaron Hillegass. I expect that fully understanding Mac OS X is beyond the mental scope of any individual – but it’s certainly fun to try :-).

posted by Graham Lee at 16:01  

Monday, June 9, 2008

WWDC part 0

well, here it is, the pre-WWDC “I’m jetlagged so you have to put up with my wittering” post. I’m just waiting for a softwareupdate to finish so that I can go out with my camera, taking some early-morning pictures before heading off to stand in line for the Stevenote. I was out for beers with Ian and Neil last night, we’d all heard rumours of a 5 a.m. start to the queue. On the two previous occasions that I’ve been, 9 a.m. has been sufficient; but with the sellout nature of the event it’s likely that the room will fill up rather quickly so we’ve compromised on a 7 a.m. start. Actually, forget the 5 a.m. nonsense, there’s a line of overnight campers – I can’t decide whether they’re deliberately trying to re-enact a Joy of Tech cartoon, or actually have nothing to do with their lives.

posted by Graham Lee at 12:42  

Monday, April 21, 2008

Tracking the invisible, moving, unpredictable target

An idea which has been creeping up on me from the side over the last couple of weeks hit me square in the face today. No matter what standards we Cocoa types use to create our user interfaces, the official Aqua HIG, the seemingly-defunct IndieHIG, or whatever, ultimately producing what is considered a usable (or humane, if you like) interface for Mac OS X is not only difficult, but certainly unrepeatable over time.

The “interface” part of a Cocoa user interface is already hard enough to define, being a mash-up of sorts, and to differing degrees, between the Platinum HIG which directs the default behaviour of some of the *Manager controls and the OpenStep HIG which describes the default behaviour of most, if not all, of the AppKit controls. If that isn’t enough, there is an inexact intersection – some controls work differently in (what are loosely called, and I’m not getting into the debate) Cocoa apps than in Carbon apps. There have also been innovative additions on top of the aforementioned guides, such as sheets, unified toolbars and (the already legacy) textured interfaces. There have been subtractions from both – miniwindows still exist but nobody uses ’em, and window shading went west with Rhapsody.

But all of that is related to the user interface, not to user interaction (I’m in the middle of reading Cooper’s The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, I’m going to borrow some terminology but studiously avoid discussing any of the conclusions he presents until I’m done reading it). It’s possible to make HIG-compliant inspectors, or HIG-compliant master-detail views, or HIG-compliant browser views and so on. It’s also possible to make non-compliant but entirely Mac HID views, coverflow views, sidebars and so on. But which is correct? Well, whichever people want to use. But how do you know which people want to use? Well, you could get them to use them, but as that’s typically left until the beta phase you could ask usability gurus instead. Or you could take the reference implementation approach – what would Apple (or Omni, or Red Sweater, or whoever) do?

Well, what Apple would do can, I think, be summed up thus: Apple will continue doing whatever Apple were previously doing, until the Master User takes an interest in the project, then they do whatever the Master User currently thinks is the pinnacle of interaction design. The Master User acts a little like an eXtreme Programming user proxy, only with less frequent synchronisation, and without actually consulting with any of the other 26M users. The Master User is like a reference for userkind, if it all works for the Master User then at least it all works for one user, so everyone else will find it consistent, and if they don’t find it painful they should enjoy that. The official job title of the Master User role is Steve.

All of this means that even inside Apple, the “ideal” usability experience is only sporadically visited, changes every time you ask and doesn’t follow any obvious trend such as would be gained by normalisation over the 26M users. Maybe one day, the Master User likes inspectors. Then another day he likes multi-paned, MDI-esque interaction. On a third day he likes master-detail control, in fact so much so that he doesn’t want to leave the application even when it’s time to do unrelated work. Of course you don’t rewrite every application on each day, so only the ones that he actually sees get the modernisation treatment.

So now we come back to the obvious, and also dangerous, usability tactics which are so prevalent on the Windows platform, and one which I consciously abhor but subconsciously employ all the time: “I’m the developer, so I’ll do it my way”. Luckily there are usability, QA and other rational people around to point out that I’m talking shite most of the time, but the reasoning goes like this. I’m a Mac user, and have been for a long time. In fact, I might know more about how this platform works than anyone within a couple of miles of here, therefore(?) I know what makes a good application. One problem which affects my personal decisions when trying to control the usability is that I’m only tangentially a Mac person, I’m really a very young NeXTStep person who just keeps current with software and hardware updates. That means I have a tendency to inspector my way out of any problem, and to eschew custom views and Core Animation in favour of “HIG is king” standard controls, even when other applications don’t. And the great thing is that due to Moving Target reference implementation, I can find an application which does something “my” way, if that will lend credence to my irrational interface.

The trick is simply to observe that taking pride in your work and expressing humility at your capabilities are not mutually exclusive. If tens of other Mac users are telling me they don’t like the way it works, and I’m saying it’s right, apply Occam’s razor.

And if there isn’t enough fun for you in one usability experience, a bunch of us are presumably going to be providing the iPhone HIG-compliant V on top of our Ms and Cs before long.

posted by Graham Lee at 21:37  

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