Archive for the ‘design’ Category

Gross iPhone OS Update Typography

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Check out the first line of the update message in the screen shot that I took on my iPod Touch below. The mistake between ‘O’ and ‘0’ is too apparent to not write about… not to mention typographically gross!

Screenshot Someone’s finger must have slipped from the ‘O’ to the ‘0’ — bad form!

iTunes Sucks

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

You know, it’s a shame that iTunes now sucks.

A few years ago in the midst of the chaotic world of digital jukeboxes, iTunes emerged as a simple application to manage and play music — offering the basic features that one would need. Although it wasn’t groundbreaking in most regards, it did manage to stand out among the rest due to its extremely simple interface and integration with Mac OS X*.

These days, iTunes has become the fat and greedy roommate of the OS — every time it is called upon, I can hear the squeak of the plastic sticking to it’s back as it readjusts it’s fat ass on the vinyl couch. Its shear size and its toll on the processor has grown immensely and we can thank the superfluous features that are bundled with it: an integrated music store, Quicktime (oh my God… Quicktime for heaven’s sake!), a synchronization manager for your events/contacts/ringtones, etc.

I’m a programmer so I know that little glitches occur here and there. But a stable release of software, especially when developed by a professional corporation such as Apple shouldn’t have the problems I’ve noticed with iTunes.

Erroneous progression bar in iTunes.20 seconds have elapsed and there is more than three minutes remaining. Why is the progress indicator at half?

Moving on… the application allows for adding media into its library by simply dragging and dropping files into the iTunes window. This feature is nice but unfortunately also very unreliable with large quantities of files. When I attempted to add many files by this method, I noticed that not all the songs I imported had made it. In fact, only about 80% of them were successfully copied. Yes, I can prove it:

Screenshot showing the differences between two iTunes Libraries.A diff of the original and imported librarys’ contents. The gaps on the right show files that never made it into the new library.

Why does fundamental functionality not work? Could it be because the application is so big now that there are more avenues for errors to be produced? Maybe errors like these emerged because Apple decided to add features like mad men to an application that wasn’t theirs to begin with.

What?

I know, but Iit’s true. iTunes evolved from an application called SoundJam which was originally developed by 3 people at Casady & Greene. Apple purchased from the rights to this bit of software and after a quick face lift, released it as their own “iTunes.” John Gruber talks a bit about related issues on Daring Fireball and John Knack responds with some insight. And if you’d like to know more about the early days of music players on the Mac platform, there is a very informative story written by the guys at Panic.

Anyway, company acquisitions and inheriting code is normal these days, but I fear that iTunes never had the proper foundation for the features that it now supports. The amount of functionalities in iTunes can be deceiving since it has managed to maintain the same basic interface structure over the years — a commendable design achievement considering the growth of iTunes in the last few years. But integrating new functionality and features under the same simplistic interface more often than not calls for shortcuts that can become problematic.

The LCD-like interface of iTunes which functionally is expected to show current track information is used for displaying the progress of a download.

For example, whenever the LCD-like display is used for anything but current track information, comprehension for the user becomes a problem. Applications mimic real-life objects in order achieve intuitive functionality, but when the expected functional behavior of an interface element is modified, confusion arises.

With the release of iTunes 9, other inconsistencies have shown up. Take the volume slider for example. The part to the left of the dial is now “filled in” like a progress bar. But the slider on the heads up display when watching videos remains like the previous version (which I personally prefer) which is just a simple dial on top of a slider bar.

Volume slider and progress bar inconsistencies in iTunes 9.

And wait a minute… isn’t watching videos in a music player an oxymoron?

I think the only reason I’m still able to use iTunes is because I disable everything that I can in the preferences. This way, I’m able to make iTunes appear like the simple music player it used to be; like the simple music player it should be. Even so, it’s still disturbing to know that all those frivolous features that I hate are still tucked in underneath and weighing my application down.

Trying to keep the interface of iTunes simple by disabling all the frivolous features.

I’ve disabled as many of the features I can in order to keep iTunes looking like a simple music player. But even with the features hidden, they are just itching to jump out at me because despite having disabled the iTunes Store, I see a “Contacting iTunes Store” message when I launch the application. How frustrating.

*Yes, soon after its initial release, iTunes did of course have the ability to synchronize music to a portable player, but this feature wasn’t new for jukeboxes. The problem (that iTunes “solved”) was that you couldn’t buy a portable music player from Company A and use a digital jukebox from Company B to efficiently synchronize your music. The best way to manage music on a device from Company A was to use Company A’s own proprietary jukebox software. It’s no different with Apple. iTunes synchronization only works with Apple’s line of portable MP3 players — uh, I think they’re called iPod — so the way that iTunes “solved” this problem was to gain dominance in the market so that everyone uses an iPod and iTunes anway.

If only there had been a way to quickly synchronize the contents of a music library from Company X with a portable music player from any other company. Hmmmmmm.

Written Rhetoric Blog Design

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

I designed and put together a site for my brother’s blog. It’s called Written Rhetoric and it’s got a whole bunch of content already so check it out.

The interface is pretty cool and almost every post was written in a different part of the world… if you click on where it was written, you can see that place on a map! (The location is located under the title of each post.)

Apple Security Threat

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

A recent occurrence has made me think twice about Apple’s Target Disk Mode boot option. Indeed it can be a very convenient feature, but like most conveniences this one is riddled with security threats. What is most bothersome, though, is how few people realize the problems it poses — not to mention the simplicity of a solution that Apple does not provide…at least not by default.


For those of you not up to speed, most of Apple’s computers allow themselves to be temporarily turned into an external hard drive simply by pressing the corresponding hot key (‘T’) during boot up. If the computer supports this option (most do) it will enter what is called Target Disk Mode (TDM) and allow itself to become a mass storage device and be connected to another computer via an IEEE 1394 interface (aka FireWire, i.LINK, Lynx…whatever).

Yes, this feature is convenient for transferring large amounts of data or if you need a quick makeshift external hard drive (assuming you have a male-male Firewire cable). Unfortunately, the feature also inherently bypasses the OS from ever being started on your computer allowing others access to all sorts of files that you assumed were secure by the OS’s login.

How It Works

When you press the power button on your computer the first thing to come to life is the firmware (a very low level program that lives in the hardware) and it decides what happens next — whether to boot into the installed OS, boot from a CD, boot from a network drive, etc. The decision is based on multiple factors, one of which is to check for certain hot keys on the keyboard.

The Problem

The problem with this convenience is that anyone with a finger has the ability to transform your computer into a large external drive. Yeah, including that person that just walked away with your laptop while you were getting another soy latte at Star Bucks.

Some would argue that if I’m this concerned with the security of my files, that I should enable FileVault in order to encrypt every file on my hard drive. Yeah? Well, I don’t think I should have to enable something that will have incredible amounts of overhead just because a back door exists that can completely circumvent the OS’s login prompt.

Solution (but not really)

Firmware Password Utility ApplicationThe solution is simple: eliminate the hot keys from influencing the firmware’s decision. Welding a steel plate on top of your keyboard would work I guess, but that’s not very convenient. A better idea would be to tell the firmware to not check the hot keys.

Currently, there is no way to disable these hot keys, but it turns out there is a way to password protect the firmware with some extra software. But after reading Apple documentation that states that the firmware password can be circumvented (quite easily), and that it could in fact be hazardous to your system, and that it is temperamental, I disabled it on my machine and don’t recommend it. Way to fuck us over, Apple:

“WARNING: Open Firmware settings are critical. Take great care when modifying these settings and when creating a secure Open Firmware password.”

“An Open Firmware password provides some protection, but it can be reset if a user has physical access to the machine and changes the physical memory configuration of the machine.”

“Open Firmware password protection can be bypassed if the user changes the physical memory configuration of the machine and then resets the PRAM three times (by holding down Command, Option, P, and R keys during system startup).”

The Rant

First of all, I think that the extra Firmware Password Utility (not included in a default installation…but available from the software installation disc (/Applications/Utilities/) and online) should not be necessary. I think there should be a simple check box in the System Preferences that enables/disables whether or not the keyboard is “heard” by the firmware.

I also think that the hot keys should be disabled by default. Apple is all about an ‘out of the box, ready to go’ mentality so I suspect they leave the feature enabled by default because that makes it more convenient for their users to make use of the TDM functionality. We’ve seen this same behavior before, but I think the security threat outweighs the convenience factor. Tisk, tisk Apple.

A More Intuitive iPod Shuffle Switch

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

The iPod Shuffle is a wonderful little product and in my opinion is by far the best mp3 player that doesn’t display information about what is playing. But there is an element of its design that I consider to be flawed and which I attribute to Apple’s consistent choice to sacrifice options for the sake of simplicity.

iPod Shuffle Close Up


One of the two switches on the iPod Shuffle chooses the play mode: either Continuous Playback or Shuffle. The former will repeatedly loop through all the songs in the order that they were added to the iPod from iTunes. The Shuffle mode will obviously play through them randomly, but will it stop playing after all the songs have been played through once? Are Shuffle and Continuous Playback mutually exclusive?

Different Shuffle Symbol Suggestions for the iPod ShuffleThis conflict seems minor, but there might be a major design flaw here. A switch is a user interface element that chooses between two possibilities. Ideally, neither choice implies the other (or else a different user interface element would be used…more about this later). But in the case of the iPod Shuffle, the Shuffle mode implies continuous playback as well. And I agree that it should—it’s intuitive to me that Shuffle would also continuously loop through all the songs. But with the current setup (Default Shuffle Symbol), however, moving the switch from Continuous Playback to Shuffle is contradictory. I would have at least made the symbol something like: Alternate Shuffle Symbol Suggestion 1 or Alternate Shuffle Symbol Suggestion 2.

You might now be saying to yourself: “That’s all fine and dandy because the current symbols on either side of the switch are simply graphical representations of two preset modes: one that continuously loops through the songs in order and another that continuously loops through the songs but in a random order.” Well, let’s not be so quick to make that assumption because as much as I’d agree with you, that’s not the way iTunes does it. iTunes uses buttons to select the mode allowing the user to turn both Shuffle and Continuous Playback on at the same time.

Playback choices in iTunesAnd let’s not kid ourselves that it is ok to have iTunes do something different than all the iPods out there. Apple’s success with their line of mp3 players (as well as their other products) is almost entirely attributable the almost necessary connection between their hardware and software components.