In the early days of graphical user interfaces, there were no common standards on user interface design and every vendor placed buttons and menu options in the places they saw fit. Eventually, standards and GUI design guidelines appeared, thanks in part to IBM. Sadly, Google´s Chrome browser throws years of standardisation work down the toilet, all in the name of “simplicity”.
“Masqueraders paintin pictures flip the scriptures
Dont even know his name” –Ian Brown, “All Ablaze”
The new generations don’t know what “CUA” means, but any of us whom used the early Amiga computer graphical user interfaces know very well what kind of application-Hell lack of standards can bring. The whackypedia describes the mess as follows: “There were also no obliged user interface design guidelines regarding fixed menu options for software in general (i.e. the user must learn the various orderings of basic commands like Load, Save, Open, Close, Quit, etc.). This fact was more than once argued as a diminishing feature of Amiga by its detractors”. After AmigaOS 2.0 Commodore released a guide book and made a lot of emphasis on a set of “user interface guidelines” that developers should follow and the UI situation somewhat improved.
On the PC side, the mess was also present in the world of DOS based applications, where every vendor defined hotkeys and placement of menu options as they saw fit -if in doubt just ask any user of Wordperfect for DOS, the Wordstar word processor or Lotus 1-2-3 what it was like to jump from one application you’re familiar with to another. The learning curve was as steep as climbing Mt. Everest.
It was Big Blue which worked on CUA -Common User Access-, a set of guidelines for designing graphical interfaces in software applications. Among other issues, CUA included definitions for the menu structure of applications, the familiar “File”, “Edit”, “View” structure of menus that ends with “Help” as the last option. Power users, regardless of operating system used (be it Windows, Linux, or graphical flavours of Unix like OpenSolaris) can count on Ctrl-O to bring the “File open” menu, and Alt-F to bring the file menu, and the familiar Alt-F, x to exit.
Widget-like applets – the early offenders
One of the most popular Windows applications not to feature a menu bar was Winamp. However, Winamp does to this day implement many of the CUA keystrokes, so the pop-up menu that is called with a right click of the mouse can also be called by pressing Alt-F, so in a sense it’s a “hidden” File menu, including the “x” keystroke for exit, so Alt-F, followed by ‘x’ exits the program. In a sense, music players are like widgets: designed to be as visually small as possible, and their function is not so much user interaction but to function in the background doing its work -in this case, play music-. The second most popular offender was ironically Windows Media Player. Microsoft, in the name of “maximizing screen real state” made the menu bar hidden. But it’s there, it’s just hidden from plain view depending on the skin used until you press any of the menu hotkeys. When you do, the full array of menu options appear (File, edit, view, etc.)
Netscape 8.1, a creative solution.
When AOL released version 8.1 of its Netscape browser for Windows a few years ago -a browser which used Firefox as its underlying web engine-, it did something clever: it recovered screen real state by moving the CUA menu bar up and into the window´s title bar. That way, you could read the web page title along with browser name, and still have full access to the CUA-compliant menus like File, Edit, and the like. Why can´t Google do the same with Chrome?. Good question.
Google follows, then breaks CUA. Right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing?
Ironically, Google´s “GDocs” -Google Docs- team is fully aware of what CUA is, and implements a CUA-style menu bar in Google Docs. So the question comes to mind: if Google is aware that users are used to CUA-style menus, and implemented such menus in its Google Docs user interface, why subject Chrome users to a CUA-less user interface?. Can´t they do auto-hide of the menu bar like Microsoft´s Windows Media Player does? Can´t they replicate Netscape 8.1´s “Menu bar in the title bar” design?. The industry has copied good user interface designs from each other after the Borland-Lotus lawsuit -where Lotus sued Borland for copying its spreadsheet user interface, and Borland won, in a landmark legal case of the IT industry, around two decades and a half ago. Microsoft, it should be noted, has patented its ribbon UI, which could allow them to use it as a weapon against OpenOffice.org, proving the evil nature of software patents.
Due to the lack of a CUA style menu structure, at the time of the Chrome browser release, user confusion was evident, with one user for instance asking in the Chrome blog: “Yeah, I don’t really like the Chrome UI either. I haven’t even found out how to print something, for example.” -the answer was “press Ctrl-P”, ironically a CUA standard for printing, only that nobody can tell because there´s no “File” menu. Actually, what would be the File menu, is invoked in Chrome by clicking on the “Monkey Wrench” graphical button that has no text. Will Google replace all of its software to use a Monkey Wrench icon for the File menu?. If not, why break user interface guidelines and CUA standards in the browser UI?. Just because?. That´s not a good explanation. The point is that if every software developer starts replacing easy-to-understand text menus for its own graphical buttons located anywhere they please, the Pandora´s box would be open by then.
CUA-style menus are however alive and kicking in Google Docs.
Perhaps users do prefer text menus to graphic Egyptian hieroglyphs?
CUA style menus is the “single common denominator” of user interfaces. Of course you can innovate with ribbon bars, tabbed toolbars and the like. But replacing basic CUA menus with graphics buttons can only lead to UI-confusion, and ditches years of hard work -voluntary or not- to make CUA menus the de-facto standard.
This isn´t an anti-Chrome rant
We can anticipate an avalanche of hate mail on this news story, from rabid Google Chrome fans -or its GUI designers- saying that this is “a storm in a tea pot”, and that this scribbler makes much ado about nothing. Believe me, this is not an anti-Chrome rant. This scribbler uses Chrome -220.127.116.11 says the about box, for the record-, and I have little trouble hitting Alt-F to bring the “Monkey Wrench” menu. But it´s not Chrome what we are talking about. The point is that fiddling with the user interface and ditching CUA style menus for good under the false pretense of saving screen vertical space -all 23 pixels of it!- as if it would somehow improve productivity is ridiculous. Yet, we get some in the IT press drooling over the “improved screen real state”. The only way to prevent vertical scrolling would be to have 10-feet long vertical screens. Saving 23 vertical pixels does _not_ prevent anyone from scrolling down on a document. Any web page that is not a splash screen and contains meaningful information will have to be scrolled at some point. Otherwise the scroll wheel on mice wouldn´t exist. Get a grip, GUI designers!.
Conclusion – Text is better than egyptian hieroglyphics
The killing of CUA style menus in the name of “innovation” is wrong. It’s a level playing field that has simplified user interfaces and made jumping from one application to another easier for users of different levels of computing experience. The whackypedia agrees: ” Most of the standard keystrokes and basic GUI widgets specified by the CUA remain a feature of Windows. The newest major Unix/Linux environments —GNOME and KDE also feature extensive CUA compatibility. The subset of CUA implemented in Microsoft Windows or OSF/Motif is generally considered a de-facto standard to be followed by any new Unix GUI environment.”
If every software vendor stars replacing text menus with custom icons of a monkey wrench for File, a donkey for tools – I am making this up, but “why not?”, if standards do not matter, there´s no limit- and shuffling locations of these until-now basic standards, soon we´ll be left in a world where switching from one application to another won´t be intuitive at all, and we´ll have to learn whatever “egyptian hieroglyphics” the software designers choose to use for its application.
“Some say that´s progress, I say that´s cruel” -Midnight Oil
One last comment: if Google´s user interface rocket scientists are _so_ obsessed with “screen real state”, they can make the menus auto-hide, or move them to the title bar, as Netscape 8.1 did. Curiously, these designers seem to have no say in the biggest waster of screen vertical space: Google Toolbar, which the company flogs left and right to users of the Firefox and Internet Explorer web browsers. I guess vertical space doesn´t bother IE and Firefox users, then?. Then why cripple the Chrome UI?. User interface standards and guidelines were not agreed upon to restrict user interface creativity -Windows Media Player with its multiple “skins”, Real Player with its round borders, and other applications like Mozilla SeaMonkey show that you can innovate while keeping CUA menus in place.
Ditching those guidelines in the name of innovation is akin to car manufacturers suddenly deciding to place the steering wheel in a different place, so new drivers would need to re-learn to drive every brand of car. The placement of basic UI items is a standard, you can innovate everywhere else, but changing the shape of the steering wheel or its placement “just because” would only hurt the consumer.
Sadly Firefox seems to be going the same way. And of course, eveyone is doing things any way they please, without consulting each other on agreeing on new standards. Watch out for the GUI mess to continue “improving” in the 21th century, where bold new software developers suddenly feel the established standards nad user interface guidelines don´t matter anymore. In the words of E.L:O. “Fly across the city
Rise above the land. You can do most anything. Now you’re a 21st century man.”