This could alternatively be titled ‘How can iOS and AppStore design ruin perfectly good apps’. I feel bad about writing this, but I’m writing this for a reason, and frankly this is in a similar light to a lot of the new Skype for Mac criticism. The application in question here is Awaken, by Embraceware, what I considered to be the best of the alarm clock applications.
I think a lot of the new Skype criticism, especially that from Lukas Mathis, centres around the fact that the UI has changed, both making it difficult for regular and professional users of the program (who before used to tile the windows to support multiple conversations etc.) and for casual users (who just got used to the last interface and are now faced with a whole new kettle of fish). The change in Awaken is similar in some respects, the interface has changed from a ‘conforming explicitly with the HIG’ kind of style (see this excellent talk by Gruber for more info) to essentially an iOS app ported to Mac, using the iOS standard icons, switches and colour schemes. Frankly it’s not the fact that the UI has changed so boldly that annoys me, that on its own would be interesting (the new UI is rather striking), it’s the fact that the program has changed so much, breaking some of the little intricacies that made it better than similar apps. Let’s look at this in more detail.
On the previous style of Awaken (looking at version 4.0.20 here, which was generally very similar to the preceding versions), the standard interface looked a lot like this:
Notice the use of the ‘standard’ 10.5/10.6 title bar and generally consistent (with the OS UI) buttons, checkboxes and text (even the ‘cog’ icon symbolising the traditional one button mouse’s right click features, taken straight (and rightfully so according to the HIG) from OS X). Furthermore when editing a given alarm, the action can be completed in a number of ways, double clicking, hitting return, going to Alarms > Edit Alarm, or through the ‘cog’ icon. As before, very traditional and conforming. Doing so, brings up this screen to change or add an alarm.
As before, all elements of this are uniform and consistent with the OS UI. There’s a touch of confusion with the setting of the volumes of the alarm, as they’re not present, but then again they’re all in the preferences. I think the best bit here however is the play button. It may not work as expected to some people, and frankly it shouldn’t necessarily have a play symbol on it, but rather preview or something similar (at the end of the day the meaning is essentially implicit), but it previews exactly what happens when the alarm goes off. Click it and get transported to iTunes where your playlist of choice will start playing. Simple. Even when the alarm is playing, the interface is alarmingly (no pun intended) consistent and understandable.
There’s perhaps a little inconsistency with the interesting blue button ‘Stop Alarm’, and the previous and next track buttons, but all in all, it’s pretty simple and standard. Notice the album art and track info graciously taken from your iTunes, and displayed simply in the Awaken interface whilst all the music playing is handled by iTunes.
Furthermore, little things in this version of the program that were worth noting are the fact that by just having the program open, and the little box in the preferences that says ‘Wake Mac from sleep’ ticked, your Mac will successfully wake up when required, nothing else needed. Additionally one could install Awaken Helper, an additional app to wake up and open Awaken at alarm time, if you had perhaps forgotten to keep it open. However this was one of those little menubar cluttering apps, that you had to keep open all the time for it to work, when you could just make Awaken was open when you were going to need it. I always felt that it was a little pointless….
Now with the new design, it’s all rather different. Admittedly I was a little excited when I realised that there was an update, and that there may be some cool new features, and I was initially pleased, though slightly surprised when I saw it. This is from Awaken 5.0.1.
First off, there are a number of differences. The whole UI has been uphauled and simplified. Half the buttons have disappeared, the light grey titlebar has gone, and all in all it looks a lot more like an iOS app. It’s also a fair amount simpler to look at, but at the same time harder to use. To access the alarms you’ve set, you have to go to the alarm section (in many ways the buttons along the bottom are just like those from an iOS device), where it will display all your alarms, a lot like this.
Now it becomes even more apparent how iOS like this is. Never before iPhones and iPod touches would you see the faux sliding on/off switches and the ‘>’ arrows (of which the functionality is lost on the Mac (what happened to double clicking)). I almost feel like I could swipe sideways across it to delete alarms (sadly I can’t). It also shows less information than before, now you have no idea when the next alarm is (you can click the date to give you a countdown however), or what playlists/actions alarms will trigger. Slightly annoying. However this isn’t the main issue with me. When I updated the software, I assumed (boldly) that it would function similarly to the previous one. Much to my dismay the next morning when my MacBook did not wake at alarm time to sound the alarm. What a shame. Apparently (after just a little delving in the preferences) that feature had been removed from Awaken and given to Awaken Helper (talk about modularity). So now I needed to have Awaken Helper run all the time for alarms to go off. Great. Just what I didn’t like about the previous version. Next big niggle coming up here, but first off, have a look at the great (no sarcasm here) alarm screen.
Personally I think it looks better than the last one. It’s more clear what is going on. You can see the album art nice and big, the track info, and even the buttons (now that they don’t even have to remote resemble OS X UI buttons) are clearer. Good effort.
But wait! Try pressing pause on iTunes to stop the music temporarily, or even change the music and you might realise that iTunes isn’t even playing music. In face Awaken has taken over all control of the music playback. Interesting. So now you can have two applications playing from the same library, at different times, all just because you pressed ‘play/pause’ on your keyboard to stop your alarm. I think this is really a step backwards. Admittedly it stops any issue from occurring where an update to iTunes will break the compatibility with Awaken, which has happened in the past I seem to remember, (but then again controlling iTunes from a separate app is fairly straightforward if it’s anything like Applescript), and all the new music playback code must have taken a while to write, test and implement. It also makes the whole thing a little less modular, much unlike the Helper app idea. Personally I think it’s a bit of a weird decision. However there’s probably a few reasons why:
- Mac App store submissions may not like you using certain libraries (which I believe is what they used before) to control iTunes.
- It may have been similar code to the iOS version of the software, and as such may have been easy to port.
However still, it seems silly to implement a whole new way of playing alarms when the last one worked perfectly.
So anyway, I feel like I should wind up this whole mini discussion of the changing UI and workings of Awaken with a little bit of a summary, and my suggestions on how possibly to improve the new interface.
The advantages of the new Awaken interface I see as being:
- Looks sharper – More shiny, and eminently more lickable.
- More iOS like – This might not be an advantage, but it makes it simple for iOS migrators to easily use the app.
- Version 5 is smaller (somehow!).
And the disadvantages:
- Awaken Helper – Why oh why do I have to use this stupid little app in addition to Awaken to make it function!
- iTunes non-integration – It worked so much better before, why change it.
- More iOS like – This isn’t an iPhone, this is for a Mac, people can double click, and mouse cursors aren’t stubby like fingers. Let the UI reflect that.
- Any reference to Awaken Helper is fairly well hidden – It mentions it once in the preferences (you do have to look though).
- Why the unnecessary animation with the window fade in? – Try using exposé (all windows) with Awaken 5 open. It doesn’t even show up, just a black space where it should be. Probably worth fixing, and not worth it just for the animation.
And my thoughts on potential improvements:
- Bring back the actual iTunes integration – It seems so much more obvious to users if the music comes from iTunes
- Do away with Awaken Helper – Allow Awaken to (do as it says on the tin and) wake up your Mac, suggest users set it to auto open at login. Keep it small and light so it can always be running.
- Find a compromise between the iOS UI and the old style UI – The iOS UI is great, but only on iOS devices. It has it’s limitations, and some tasks can be accomplished better with a mouse.
I’m interested to hear other opinions on the subject. Leave a comment, let me know…
Update: I’ve gone back to using version 4. So much better and a joy to use.