The Apple goes mushy: OS X’s interface decline

Nicholas W. Howard:

Wander into almost any online forum or article comment section about a controversial announcement from Apple Inc. and you will almost certainly hear a variation of this sentence: “Apple has gone downhill since Steve Jobs died.” The sentence slithers around vaguely; it never seems to specify how, or in what ways, Apple has gone downhill. I agree, nonetheless, that it has. Whether or not Steve Jobs’s absence caused the decline (though I suspect it did), I grow frustrated as I watch each software update further erode one pillar of Apple’s formerly astronomical greatness.

No: I am not referring to their software’s stability, important and perhaps worsening with time as it may be. I walk a different tightrope. The design-community-approved articles pertaining to an “Apple software decline” focus on bugs (see Marco Arment, Glenn Fleishman, Russell Ivanovic) or even lunge for their shields to claim that Apple has no such software problems (see Jim Lynch), with the glaring exception of this thoughtful and much-needed lament by Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini. The article you are about to read will address the same unsung subject as Norman and Tognazzini’s article: the design, not the engineering, of Apple’s graphical user interfaces. But where their article is general, I have harvested specific example after specific example of the user interface decline of (the now-former) OS X.

A great article with which I wholeheartedly agree – but my agreement comes with a twist.

Where Howard seems to regard the purest form of the Aqua graphical user interface as the bar for the decline, I consider the bar to be what is now referred to as the Classic graphical user interface, but which is actually named Platinum, which reached its zenith in Mac OS 9.

Platinum in Mac OS 9 was elegant, clear, memorable, focused, and pleasant. Forget OS 9’s multitude of structural problems – it was a terribly designed house of cards that would crumble if you looked at it funny – and just focus on the UI, in which elements are clearly marked, there’s tons of useful but not annoying visual feedback, and a rare sense of spatiality to it all.

Aqua has always been too candy cane for me, and it’s only gone downhill from there for Apple – iOS and Mac OS today are dreadfully bland and void of character, and this article does a decent job illustrating it.


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