Apple's UI Guidelines promoting their Brand Strategy?
Monday, Feb 17, 2003
Irate Scottsman has an interesting entry on inconsistencies in UI controls amongst Apple's own iApplications.

Personally, ever since Apple started with the iApps, I've been questioning the conflict of interest between Apple's setting UI guidelines, and then breaking them in their own applications in order to make those applications feel more appealing than third-party options.

The 'chrome' UI window theme used by iTunes, iPhoto, Safari and others is the clearest example of this. It lends the applications a sense of utility and refinement above that of applications that actually follow Apple's published UI guidelines.

It goes further than that though. Back when we were implementing webcams into the mac version of Yahoo Messenger, and I was creating the interface for the webcam broadcaster, I sought to follow the play/pause/ffw designs that Apple had established. Seeing the similarity in the webcam broadcaster's utility with that of quicktime, it made sense to leverage off the media controls OS X users were already familiar with.

Quicktime controls
Quicktime Controls

I got in touch with the UI evangelist at Apple and asked where I could get the approved 'bead' graphics for the play/pause/stop buttons, and I was told that not only were those graphics unavailable for third-party use, but that they are specific to Apple, and that other applications with interfaces requiring play, pause and stop buttons should not seek to emulate these controls.

What? Beaded buttons are one of the primary differentiating visual characteristics of OS X, and Apple goes through great pains to make sure they're used pervasively in third-party applications. Yet somehow media buttons fall outside the fold.

My first thought was that Apple's software revenue is tightly focused on digital media applications, but if that were the case, I would think that they'd put more effort in keeping their interface controls consistent across their own cutting-edge apps. Instead, each iApp tweaks the standard, either slightly, by beveling it down into a chrome window (iTunes), swapping the order of the 'rewind' and 'full rewinid' controls (iMovie 2), or eventually abandoning the bead style completely, as iMovie 3 has done:

iTunes controls
iTunes Controls

iMovie 2 controls
iMovie 2 Controls

Movie 3 controls
iMovie 3 Controls

Sadly, it seems that Apple's UI guidelines are created by waterfall design. They create cool new applications, then update the guidelines to accommodate. Thus, the application designer with the keys to the Apple UI palace can innovate all they want, then declare it the standard upon release. Third-party apps rush to follow suit, but by the time they do they seem outdated and boring, and Apple's taken the next step.

It reminds me of the Microsoft light bulb joke: "How many Microsoft engineers does it take to screw in a light bulb?" "None: They just adopt darkness as the new standard, then charge customers for the right to unscrew their own light bulbs for compliance."

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