X11: Blessing or Curse?

(For those of you unfamiliar with what X11 is, it’s essentially the protocol Unix/Linux systems use to control their interfaces. For more information, as always, Wikipedia is your friend.)

As you may or may not know, Mac OS X includes an X11 server, no doubt in deference to its Unix roots. This is perceived by many to be a Good Thing™, as one can run all of one’s favourite graphical Unix applications on a Mac with the minimum of reprogramming required. The bevy of developers writing open source applications (free in whatever sense of the word you like) for the various Unices can produce Mac versions and we, the Mac users, can download and use them. The GIMP on your Mac: check. OpenOffice on your Mac: check. All through the beauty of the X11 server. You get all the fruits of open source software development right there on your Mac.

Unfortunately, you also get all the fruits of Unix open source interface designers right there on your Mac.

It is a well-documented phenomenon that interface design and usability in general of open-source software tends to be bad. Like really bad. Similarly unfortunate, albeit in a slightly different way, its conventions are very different to those of a Mac. On a Mac, you press +W to close a window: when running an X11 application, this tries to shut down the X11 server. While this does at least prompt you when you have applications using the server, it’s not overly pleasant.

So what’s my point with all of this? I suppose my point is that, while having an X11 server included with OS X is probably a good thing overall in that it allows me to get hold of decent (and free) image processing and office applications, it’s also something of a problem in that it makes it too easy for open source developers to produce lazy ports of their applications, leaving us with clunky apps which just don’t feel “Maccy” (both of the applications I’ve mentioned previously, plus many others). So my message to all the thousands of developers of high-profile Unix software (ahem) my message is this: if you’re going to produce an OS X port of your application, please take the effort to make it a good one, make it fit in with the OS X conventions and themes (look, Apple have produced reams and reams of documentation about this) and make it really feel like a Mac application. Do this and I will love you forever.

4 Responses to “X11: Blessing or Curse?”

    •  Gravatar for jono
    • From jono
    • Wednesday 27 July 2005 at 23:31

    heh. I love the Apple HI guidelines, very interesting document. I was extremely suprised to see so many guidelines on icon design and their use. Apple sure know their stuff (as they should, I suppose :) )

    •  Gravatar for Ben
    • From Ben
    • Thursday 28 July 2005 at 00:27

    This entry is also titled: ‘FAO: The maintainers of that NeoOffice/J monstrosity’. I swear, running that is like having Windows 95 vomitting all over my otherwise wonderfully designed MacOS. I’m sure they are planning to improve it, and I know it’s not really their fault, but right now NO/J is turd.

    •  Gravatar for Meri
    • From Meri
    • Thursday 28 July 2005 at 10:18

    AFAIK, most of the OSX ports that look very clunky are done by people who have a need and a Mac and port them themselves. The open-source-on-a-Mac using community is too small for open source projects to actively develop for them, especially since people with Macs tend not to develop back for Linux/Win.

    •  Gravatar for Steven Marshall
    • From Steven Marshall
    • Thursday 28 July 2005 at 19:00
    one can run all of one’s favourite graphical Unix applications

    Isn’t that kind of like saying ‘one can eat all of one’s own excrement’? The general effect on the digestive system tends to be about the same, if my past experiences with The GIMP and OpenOffice are anything to go by…

    I _love_ the Apple HI guidelines, very interesting document.

    The current HIG are nice an’ all, but it’s not a patch on the old Mac OS (System 8 and before) HIG, from what I hear… That said, I’ve not had a chance to read the latter much (note to self: print a copy at work to take to Florida) Also, everyone knows that proprietary document formats are the wave of the future 😉