Lion: Breaking the Boundaries

New operating systems always bring so much to be annoyed by. In an attempt (perhaps already failed!) to look less like a curmudgeon, I’m going to talk about one of these things in a constructive way.

Full-Screen Animations in Non-Full-Screen Apps

You may have noticed that in Lion’s Mail.app, sending an email results in a somewhat disconcerting animation. (If you think this animation is delightful and aids your comprehension, I guess you should stop reading now.) The message window zooms up and offscreen, a visual metaphor for your email dispatching to the cloud to be routed to its intended recipient. Or something.

Similarly, in the Month and Year views of iCal, hitting the “next”button causes the current calendar “page” to peel up and zoom, again, up and offscreen. This time it’s a visual metaphor for time passing, seasons changing, your life slowly slipping away. Seriously, if a student filmmaker has not yet created a montage featuring the flipping calendar page, it’s only because students can’t afford new computers.

The common element here is an animation breaking out of the bounds of the application frame. iCal is a single-window application. Mail is, too. It’s easy to describe the boundary between iCal and not-iCal; it’s simply the frame of the window. While we’ve had transitional animations within apps for some time, animations that break that boundary are, as far as I can tell, a new thing in Lion.

Why Is This a Thing Now?

These new animations are clearly inspired by iOS. The Mail animation is the same one you see when sending an email from a landscape-oriented iPad. And the iCal animation is the same as the iPad’s Calendar app.

These particular animations are useful in the heavily animation-driven interface of iOS devices. They serve as smooth transitions between states, and, a nice bonus on low-powered mobile devices, give the CPU time to do the necessary work of changing states while the GPU entertains the user. Transitioning between states is particularly important in the Mail example: not only is the app going from writing to reading, but also from modal to main — that is, the interface that was unusable while the composition window was up becomes active again.

Is That Necessary on the Desktop?

The desktop comes from a static legacy. Animation used to be costly in every sense: programmer time, cpu time, memory, and so on. Apple’s designers have been on a slow journey of shedding that legacy; the example of iOS has accelerated the change. I’m okay with this! I am perfectly happy to see the desktop become a more animated place, if the animations serve a useful purpose. What I don’t want to see is animations ported from iOS without a serious re-examination of their utility. It’s still important and useful to transition smoothly between states on the desktop, of course. But is that happening?

The iCal animation seems like a no-brainer. Move from month to month, see a pretty animation, what else could one want? But back up a minute. I mean it: hit the “previous” button. The new month “page” doesn’t zoom down from the top of the screen, even though the “next” animation sets that expectation. Instead, it appears at the top of the window, translucent but rapidly gaining opacity as it drapes over the old page. That’s jarring! To my mind, it’s less of a seamless transition than simply swapping window contents. (Not even to mention a simple push animation, as on iPhone.)

The Mail animation is more problematic. For one thing, there’s no modal/main distinction to transition across — when a new message window is open, the rest of the interface is still usable. Perhaps more importantly, it’s not an incidental animation of a custom UI element like the iCal calendar page. It’s a standard system window, suddenly taken out of the user’s control. For the lifetime of the desktop metaphor we’ve had two states for standard windows: open, and thus usable, versus closed, and invisible. Even if the contents of an open window are greyed out, the user can still do window management functions like resizing or repositioning. Now, for the sake of an interstitial animation, Apple has introduced a new state. The window is open, it looks usable, but it is not manageable. (Indeed, it’s running away.) This, to put it mildly, breaks expectations.

Aside from all that app-specific stuff, both of these animations suffer from the issue with which I started the post: they break the application’s boundaries. This doesn’t happen on iOS because an application’s boundaries are necessarily the boundaries of the screen. The zooming window, the flipping page, all are neatly confined within the display. Not so on the desktop. If you have a 27″ iMac and a small iCal window, that flipping page has to travel some serious distance before it can gracefully disappear! Same goes for Mail. More than anything, this is a distraction. For all the effort Apple spent on making the content come to the fore in Lion, the design team seems not to have considered that UI zooming over all of it might have the opposite effect.

What Can You Do?

Well, you can run all your apps in full-screen! This seems to be the use case these animations were designed for. They’ll no longer break the application boundaries, the iCal “previous” animation won’t be broken, and everything will feel much more iOS-like. Power users may not like this idea (I know I don’t); hopefully it won’t become mandatory in 10.8. Interleaving windows from different applications is a big feature of modern window management systems, and I’m not quite ready to give it up.

Or you can turn off the Mail animations! It’s better than nothing. And you can manually disable the iCal animations.

What Should Apple Do?

Accept that not everything from iOS belongs on the desktop! While it’s true that iOS is a rich source of inspiration, the new ideas there stem from the unique challenges and opportunities provided by a tiny, low-power, touch-sensitive device. Not all of those ideas belong on the desktop.

Coming to this realization will take the Apple design team time, but they could get there. We’ve seen them get a little over-excited about new paradigms before, but sometimes they do end up reigning themselves in. Remember lickability, or brushed metal? In the meantime, let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Joel Kraut

About Joel Kraut

Developing on Apple platforms for, holy shit, over ten years now. Find me on linkedin and twitter. My personal website is foon.us.
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