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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Taking Apple’s lead

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Yosemite title bars

Apple’s often been a company that leads by example. When a new version of OS X was released, developers would often take cues from the design and functionality of the operating system and Apple’s own bundled apps. In its designs, Apple was demonstrating to all the other developers about how this generation’s apps should work, what metaphors to use, what approaches were consistent with the design philosophy behind the current release.

This isn’t to say that all developers slavishly followed Apple’s lead. Some would break with Apple’s examples and create things that were idiosyncratic and sometimes downright amazing. (Loren Brichter, author of Tweetie and Letterpress, is a great example.) But many others would diverge from Apple’s example and the result would just feel wrong. Apple’s designs would set the tone for the platform, and if you diverged too much you were taking a risk.

But the vast majority of apps wouldn’t diverge too much from the examples. I think most developers welcomed the hints that Apple would give with their designs. Those hints give them a starting point, a base design that can then be diverged from as necessary.

I bring all of this up because with the release of Yosemite, I feel like Apple’s not sending such clear signals to developers. And the two most glaring examples are the title bars of windows and the new dark Dock and menu bar option.

Title bar edge

So Yosemite introduces a new title bar style. Great! Yeah, it’s a little controversial. Traditionally there are two different rows of things on the top of your Mac windows. The title bar is kept fairly empty, just the “stoplight” buttons on the left side, maybe an ill-advised button on the right, and in the center, a big expanse of click-and-draggable real estate labeled with text that explains the window’s contents. Below that, there’s a traditional toolbar, full of all the traditional buttons and other toolbarish stuff that lives in a toolbar.

In Yosemite, there’s a new style. You see it in Safari and Contacts and Maps, to name three prominent examples. To save space, Apple has collapsed the two rows together into one. In Safari, the “stoplight” buttons are right next to the forward and back buttons, on the same level as the URL/search bar and all the rest of the toolbar items. This has the effect of reducing the height of the chrome on a Safari window, while also reducing the open space left to actually click on and move the window around the screen.

We can argue about whether or not this collapsed toolbar/title bar thing is a good idea. What bugs me is not that it exists, but that it only exists in a few of Apple’s apps. In Mail and Preview and TextEdit and even the new iWork apps, the old style prevails. The inconsistency rankles. If Apple thinks the tool/title bar is the future, why do many of its apps not follow the format?

It makes me wonder if Apple was initially enthusiastic about this approach, then realized it wasn’t applicable to many situations, and rather than abandoning it just decided to live with the inconsistency. There’s certainly no clear, this-is-the-future signal.

Then there’s “Dark Mode,” which is how Craig Federighi referred to the feature during the WWDC keynote. In the final version of Yosemite the setting to turn it on and off has a more prosaic label: “Use dark menu bar and Dock.” I don’t know about you, but when I heard the phrase “Dark Mode” I expected something bigger—the ability for apps to adapt to a darker environment, changing their color schemes to create a darker version.

Instead, it’s just a toggle that lets users of Apple’s (already dark-clad) pro apps have an interface that doesn’t clash. None of Apple’s apps adapt to the change, though all of Apple’s menu-bar extras do. I think the idea of a true Dark Mode is a cool one, and Apple’s apps could have led the way. They didn’t, and so I doubt anyone else will, either—which is too bad, as I’d love it if my text editor flipped from black-on-white to white-on-black when things get dark.

Are either of these features, and their lack of support from Apple’s own apps, going to shake the Mac to its foundations? Of course not. But it does feel a little strange for Apple to announce new wrinkles in the Mac interface and then not really follow through.

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