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Exclusive: New Tiger window style deciphered

Paul Thurrott accidentally wrote a pretty favorable review of Mac OS X 10.4 (“Tiger”). Towards the end, he apparently realized he was losing all his street cred in the Windows world, so he threw in some gratuitously negative comments — “Tiger is in fact a minor upgrade with few major new features, more akin to what we’d call a service pack in the Windows world” — which, apart from being patently ridiculous, supports the not-very-original premise that Apple fans are “suckers” who will immediately cough up the cash for mere glitz.

  • Pretty tough stance for a self-described “Mac fan [his] entire life”; so much so, we learn, that in 1987 he replaced his Commodore 64 with … an Apple IIgs. This was followed by an Amiga; then, when Commodore went belly up, a PC running OS/2 — this is one industry analyst who really knows how to pick winners — and finally, in 2001, an iBook. Pity the poor “Mac fan”, pressing his nose against the glass for fourteen years.

I mention all this as an excuse to use another of Thurrott’s comments as a jumping-off point for an observation I have not seen elsewhere as yet. (Not that anyone’s going to see it here, but at least I’ll be on the record.) By now many people have commented on the new window style seen in Mail, where the title bar and toolbar blend together in a single gradient. Thurrott remarks upon “yet another user interface style”, which he calls “plastic”; others have called this change “arbitrary” or “gratuitous” or “confusing”.

Well, I think I’ve figured out the logic. Here are some applications using the new window style: Mail, Help Viewer, System Preferences, Xcode 2, and the Spotlight window itself. What do these all have in common? The Spotlight search field. The new window style, to me, is a visual cue that the application supports Spotlight as a primary navigation mechanism.

Unfortunately this analysis fails in two important respects:

  1. I haven’t found anything in the Apple documentation that suggests this usage is intentional. (Of course, the Tiger developer documentation hasn’t been publicly released yet.)

  2. A huge exception to the rule is the Finder, whose windows still (inexplicably) use the “brushed metal” style. You’d expect that if a Spotlight cue were present anywhere, it’d be in the new Finder.

Still, this is the best theory I know to explain the new style, and I haven’t seen anyone else mention it, so I hereby take credit for it.

  • On the other hand, Mail’s toolbar icons… I understand why they’re in “capsules” (to allow for toolbar button “groups” — though it makes the non-grouped icons needlessly cramped), and I even know why they’re “centered” (they’re not; they’re left-justified over the message list, skipping over the mailbox source list — a bit of a hack, but having Delete and Junk over the source list is potentially confusing). But I won’t make apologies for them, either.

[2005-04-16: Added Help Viewer to the sample applications.]

[2005-04-22: Well, I could be wrong… see first comment.]

[2005-05-05: Yes, I’m wrong… see second comment.]


  1. rsfinn
    rsfinn April 22, 2005

    Well, I could be wrong… NetNewsWire also has this look under Tiger. Perhaps it’s just how applications with toolbars look now.

  2. rsfinn
    rsfinn May 5, 2005

    No, it’s not that… it’s the “Unified title/toolbar look” option on an NSWindow in Interface Builder.

    And when do we use it? The Apple Human Interface Guidelines don’t say, except that their section on toolbars shows a window with this look, but no commentary. So I guess… whenever you feel like it. **sigh**

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