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a blog by ken pardue

Archive for May, 2008 3.0 Beta Thoughts

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008 beta was released today.  I think I can already post about it since it appears to be the same build as the BEA300m2 developer snapshot that I had been using.  Overall, it feels like a lackluster release that hasn’t received much usability love.  Really, you’d expect a lot more from a product that has broad corporate support from Sun Microsystems and IBM and is the de facto standard cross-platform office suite.  There’s a problem when your main version release takes upwards of two years to make and the big features that you highlight are “the new ‘Start Centre’, new fresh-looking icons, and a new zoom control in the status bar”.

I hate to tell the OpenOffice devs, but these ‘new fresh-looking icons’ passed the point of being either new or fresh looking around 2001. I know I’m a Mac guy and probably vain about my user interface, but seriously… these icons are unattractive at the small size, and downright hideous at the large size.  Tango icons look much better, and Tango is nothing to write home about.  Thing is, if it weren’t for those icons you wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference between 2.x and 3.x.

There seem to have been very few, if any, usability improvements.  Apple is doing innovative stuff with iWork Pages in simplifying the UI and adding context sensitive formatting; IBM is doing some innovative stuff with Symphony by putting all of the context-sensitive editing on the right side of the screen to take better advantage of documents being vertical and most new monitors being widescreen; Microsoft is doing usability studies and trying to find a way that works better for their users, although there have been some issues with the “Ribbon,” at least they’re trying.  I understand’s philosophy is ‘looks like Word ’97’, but can’t they find a better key selling point than “you should use our product because we don’t evolve from a familiar, crufty old interface.”

Some months ago, one of the developers was arguing against critics of’s look and feel, saying that it could and would be made to look native on platforms, OS X in particular.  And one person posted on the 3.0 roadmap wiki extolling the merits of taking the approach that IBM was with Symphony.  I guess these persons weren’t very high up on the food chain.

I’m a strong supporter of open standards, OASIS OpenDocument in particular.  I whole heartedly believe that OOXML is wrong to be a standard because of the lack of attention to technical flaws, complexity, and less-than-a-single-vendor implementation (not to mention how the whole standardization process went down).  But, given the ISO’s approval of OOXML and the fact that this new represents the “best of” breed in ODF suites, I’m afraid that we’d all better start learning to speak Chinese… that is… recognizing OOXML.  Actually, I guess everyone else already has.

I realize that this is a lot of criticism for a fresh out of the oven Beta, but I also realize that there’s not likely to be many UI changes between now and 3.0 final in September.  At least I can count on some performance improvements though, because the Beta that I’m using runs like a crippled dog on a quad-core Mac Pro.

Lightning Looking Good

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

Lightning is supposed to reach 0.9 in the August timeframe, and it’s going to be a long wait.  I haven’t used Lightning because the interface was so kludgy to me that I didn’t feel like it was making me productive (yeah, superficial of me, whatever).  But at the recent Calendar face to face the developers put a lot of spit and polish into how the calendar works and addressed some real usability issues, focusing on giving the user the most important information (and no more) in a modern, attractive way.  God bless them, they even removed the 2px border on the months and replaced it with something less fugly.

A developer’s outline of some of the changes can be found on Bryan Clark’s blog here, and additional interface mockups can be found on the Mozilla Wiki here and here.

Now, I’m hopeful that the Thunderbird devs will also apply the spit and polish to the 3.0 release due out at the end of the year or (more likely) early next year.  I’d love to see Thunderbird come into the modern age of email and set defaults that people actually USE instead of being idealistic about how email SHOULD function.  Specifically

  • The account setup is a mess, and there are way too many redundant options between Options and Accounts
  • All modern email programs just assume that you’re going to be using HTML.  I don’t know of any other (popular) program that would assume that you’re sending plain text or put up an annoying prompt to send in plain text, html, or both.  I know that email *should* be in plain text and there’s no reason for it not to, but people just don’t use it that way.
  • All modern email programs also assume a sans serif font for message composition.  While serifs are great for printed documents, it doesn’t have as usable place in the world of electronic, on-screen purposes.
  • Why is the default behavior set to put the reply BELOW the message being replied to?  I mean, I understand that as a holdout from the newsgroup days it makes more logical sense for the conversation to flow properly from top to bottom with the more recent stuff at the bottom of the page.  But seriously… who uses email like that?
  • Nearly every email program I’ve ever seen that people actually use forwards messages inline and not as attachments.  Why does Thunderbird insist on the default being to forward as an attachment?

I know those are a couple of items that have been controversial within the developer community before, but whenever I recommend Thunderbird to someone else I find that they either stop using it or ask me to change it to work like Outlook Express.  I know those options can be changed, but it’s a confusing process to do so in the plethora of options menus.  It’s time to do to Thunderbird what Mozilla did to Firefox: Simply, simplify, simplify, and add better defaults!