When it comes to software “design”, the ability to be precise is critical. As with any human creative pursuit, the software designer is entitled to assurances that their labors will be reflected to those who consume them precisely as the creator intended.
The general public doesn’t regard software as something to be appreciated in the same way one may appreciate art (or graphic design), food, or fashion, but eventually they will. The entire concept of human-digital-interfaces is so immature, and recent history colored so much more by utilitarian and practical applications, that it is far too early to reasonably expect this. It may be decades before we witness the rise of “celebrity” software designers – but we will, just as we see in other industries (restaurants, fashion) that initiate by necessity but mature with creative refinement. The idea of a celebrity chef fifty years ago would have been positively laughable.
To consider current examples, it is my opinion that Apple is the only group in tech that grasps this, across the board (they’re famously forward-thinking, you know). The implication is not that other companies do not produce well-thought-out or well-executed products. Google has some great products, and I love my XBox, even if I never play it – but the products these companies produce do not all share consistency in form and function with other products from their respective creators. Each product stands on its own – there are few unifying threads beyond interoperability.
Whether or not you happen to like Apple products, as a company, they bring a level of attention to detail and consistency that is unparalleled. Apple has a character and flavor reflected in every product it brings to market – and this is what it means to “design” products – not simply to make them. Achieving perfection is always the goal, and it’s never achieved, but striving for it across an array of processes or applications, while at the same time bringing a unique and discernible character to each, is what makes something creatively valuable, instead of simply practical or “useful”.
A talented painter, photographer, writer, or chef may very well create a brilliant work. What distinguishes a true “master” is the ability – as time goes on – to continue to expand media or methodology, to pioneer and mature, and yet to always maintain a refined consistency or signature that makes the object of your labor (be it a painting, photograph, book, or mobile operating system), yours – spoken in your unique voice. Apple does this with its technology products, and no-one else does (currently). It’s also important to remember that it is not Apple’s fault that no-one else does this.
In tech communities Apple is often criticized for being overly concerned about design. Among more the more militants (read: Linuxers), they’re accused of fashioning a fancy face on top of ill-conceived programmatic underpinnings. Certainly there are plenty of merited technical arguments – I myself have more than many – but overall this argument is completely hollow. You won’t find Mercedes slipping two-stroke engines into cars featuring full leather interiors, not because they have an altruistic commitment to quality engineering but simply because they know that the experience of driving a car is reflected in both the parts that you interact with directly (ie, the cabin), and the parts you don’t. The proof is in the pudding when you go to use it – and the same is absolutely true of software engineering. To install a Unix-based operating system with 3-clicks (which is what it takes to install Mac OS X 10.6) is an exceptional feat from an engineering perspective – and if Apple really is all smoke and mirrors, I challenge any Linux developer to mimic this installation method – build me an installer of any flavor of Linux that will install on a reasonably broad range of hardware with three clicks. In fact, nix that – I’ll give you the benefit of Apple’s closed-hardware-platform doubt – make it run on just one piece computer with a pre-defined set of hardware/drivers.
Plenty of technical companies, particularly in mobile space, actually do apply custom/fancy interfaces to mediocre operating systems (or even capable, but ill-fitting), to obvious result – it’s crap. Windows Vista, anyone?
It is perfectly legitimate to imply that Apple employs interface decisions that are limiting. They choose to make the most common tasks obvious and simple, to the detriment of a user with slightly unusual or exceptional needs. This is true. Viewed in a positive light, this is “thoughtful”. In a negative, its “heavy-handed”. Personally, I tend to think the method works as it should, and I favor it – but I also have the benefit of falling to the command line whenever it suits me. Bear in mind the command line in Mac OS X is *every* bit as capable, powerful, and versatile as the command line of any Linux distribution under the sun. The losers in this scenario then are those who fall in the upper-echelons of general computer knowledge, capable of knowing what is they want or what is missing, but unable achieve it for themselves. This is of course a logical conundrum on any system that tries to make things “easier”.
Finally, I’d also mention: There are plenty of situations and applications that are purely utilitarian, that don’t demand pixel precision, that don’t demand “design”. Any given consumer or developer may be quite happy to accept this. But there will also be those who insist, rightly so, that greatness, in all human creative endeavors, is achieved through thoughtful conception and precise execution – to continuously strive for a perfection that may never be reached.