Tiny Steps to Raskin’s Unification

I’ve taken a shine to a couple of blogs that focus on small touches that make software experiences smoother, and might often otherwise go unnoticed (as good design, by its nature, often does). Little Big Details was the first of this breed, and sets a standard for an observant eye and the ability to dive into the details of how small touches make big differences.

It was on a second blog, though, that I found something worth noting about the overall evolution of Mac OS. On the Finer Things in Mac blog, Dave Chartier notes that in OS X Lion,

When clicking a Quick Look window’s new “Open with Preview” button in its top toolbar, that window morphs into the new Preview window that opens. Classy! The same happens with RTF files and, it seems, just about any files Preview supports.

I’d noticed the more polished approach to Quick Look in Lion, but not this detail. It’s a small touch, but what it speaks to carries a long way back to Jef Raskin’s concept of Unification, where the functions provided by applications are available to all other applications all the time. Describing the problem, Raskin noted that many people keep calculators beside their computers. Think about that for a second. From The Humane Interface:

The present structure of computer software, consisting of an operating system under which application programs execute, is inherently modal… Because gestures, such as those that invoke commands, in one application may not be available in another, you must be conscious of which application is currently active. But you cannot reliably do this when your locus of attention is the task you are trying to accomplish. You will sometimes use a gesture with either no result or the incorrect result.

Raskin goes on to describe system-wide functions like calculating, spell-checking, sending something as an email and so on, that can be applied to their natural targets (numbers, text, etc.) regardless of the application being used to create them. That capability has existed in Mac OS under Services for some time, but the accessibility and promotion of the Services is abysmal.

On the surface the touch of morphing a preview window into an application is cosmetic, but suggests the direction of Mac OS, where we see the barriers between applications dissolve more and more, and data flowing between the tasks we are trying to accomplish. Morphing from a Quick Look window to a Preview window conveys a sense of commonality and flow that are part of the OS, not of the individual applications that run on that OS.

The application paradigm sailed into choppy waters with the rise of the iOS App Store, and then the Mac App Store. By taking over the prime distribution channels, Apple challenged the idea that applications are free agents on the open field of the OS, taking care of everything the OS won’t or can’t do well.

With current and planned changes under Lion, the trend is clearly for an OS that asserts itself as the force that sustains and guides applications in their behaviour. By graceful cosmetic touches like this one, or by more forceful coercion like the coming requirement of application sandboxing, we seem to be on the road to some form of Raskin’s Unification.

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