Form Eats Function (Disco Fever)

MCMMonday, November 6, 2006

Jason Harris writes on his My Dream App blog about a shift in the worldview of the Mac development community. The shift is all about Delicious Library and how it changed popular Mac software from plain-Jane Windows copycats to really slick, polished mini-experiences that you remember more for their looks than for what you do with them. It's certainly threatening to those who'd call themselves "old guard" programmers, because it's essentially the GoLive-ing of application design. And nobody likes GoLive users.

Historically, making a solid, useful program required a good knowledge of some variety of coding, and lots of hard-spent time to execute it properly. Programmers notoriously dislike artists (especially those who dabble in UI design), so any competent development team was bound to resist the idea of giving some artsy-fartsy tablet-using pastel-loving twerp control over their application's public face. And even if Marketing insisted there be some gloss to wow customers, there could always be technical hurdles to make the gloss hard to do, to the point where the artists existed only by permission of their codewarrior overlords.

Lots of companies have tried to make applications really really easy to code. Hell, I used to work for one (back when they owned devicetop.com). If you make the OS, you want it to be drop-dead simple to make applications, because that's what makes your OS popular. Linux being totally open has a lot going for it in that way, but still, it's not something you can just do without some serious grounding in the basics of computer programming. Some would say that's a good thing.

OS X has had its developer tools for some time now, and they really are fantastically great. You can make a fully-functional application with so little effort it's very nearly criminal. The tools are so intuitive and safe that even a fool like me can make a simple app in a week, and doesn't run the risk of erasing any sensitive data while dabbling. The basics are easy. And if the basics are easy, you have to decide where you want to go next...

Some go for complexity: build me a system dynamics modelling program with lightning-fast simulations. But others go for gloss, for user experience, because seriously: what the hell do they know about complex simulation engines? Sure, some of the gloss is excessive, unnecessary and even a bit silly. Disco isn't tremendously necessary, but it is fun to look at. And if I have no preconceived notions about what program I like best... choosing between a slick-looking well-thought-out Disco and a holy-crap-that's-a-busy-screen Toast, I'm going with Disco in a heartbeat. It sounds stupid, but given the general high quality of apps out there for Mac right now, I really do decide on software based on looks. And it tends to work out well.

Really, Jason's write-up is only half-right. The ones who dislike the new way of doing apps don't have to worry that this is a sign of the apocalypse. There will always be types of programs that are just too hard to be sexed up with gradients and simulated smoke. They'll require teams of programmers with no space for designers, and the classic Windows 3.1 motif will be alive and well for generations to come. On the other hand, any concepts are too easy or too obvious (like disc-burning) will eventually become the domain of the whole-experience crowd, who will go beyond a simple computerizing of an analog process, and brand it like only Macs can (currently) do.

The only people who have anything to worry about are the ones who won't make an effort to do better. And they should worry anyway.

semi-related: If someone out there can make something similar to this program run on OS X, I will love you forever. Talk about programmers fighting 21st century trends... sheesh...

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