Wednesday, October 05, 2005

It was Col. Panic, in the computer room, with a monkey wrench

I don’t talk about them much, but I have strong opinions about human-computer interface design. I am also a lifelong Macintosh aficionado, and I believe that Apple Human Interface Guidelines: The Apple Desktop Interface (1987) is a neglected classic.

One of the original ideas for the Mac was that it would be an "appliance" computer, whose users would exclusively experience its simple graphical/spatial "surface" rather than its complicated digital/linear innards. Over the years, Apple has leapt through hoops to maintain the illusion of simplicity, even though its modern operating system has Unix under the hood, making it achingly nerd-worthy.

Although this illusion is often beneficial and even elegant, many computer-savvy people interpret it as condescension. I think this feeling of being condescended to is the source of much of the hatred of Macs that's out there. Although I generally disapprove of that response, let me tell you now: Sometimes, I understand how they feel.

Case in point, the following error message, which has been showing up on my Powerbook at boot:

It would be polite to call this a "headscratcher." Now, it turns out that this screen indicates something known as a kernel panic, a Unix term for a certain rare kind of system error. The interesting thing is that Apple has changed the error message. In earlier versions of OS X, a kernel panic caused potentially useful diagnostic information to be displayed, like this:

The information previously displayed is now logged to an obscure location (especially unhelpful if, as in my case, it is impossible to boot the computer and read the logfile). Fitting into bad Apple stereotypes like a huckster into a plaid suit, this change (a) prettied things up while (b) hiding any useful information and (c) stating the infuriatingly obvious. We mustn't frighten the users.

You can witness the evolution here. Myself, I'd prefer some intelligent design.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can change this to print out the error rather than logging it to a file by booting into OF and setting the boot-args to "debug=0x144"

10/05/2005 1:41 AM  
Blogger John said...

I am impressed — what a quick anonymous response! I guess Mac folks stick together. I would try this out, but I've taken the Powerbook to the shop anyway (it's on warranty).

10/05/2005 3:13 PM  

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