What’s in Leopard for Designers (1): Core Animation

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In a week, you’ll be able to purchase Leopard. In a few years, you may look at it as a watershed event for a new interface paradigm. With over 300+ features Leopard is a big cat. Here, we’ll only explore key components to the extent they’ll likely influence hardware/software interface design in the next 2-5 years.

Core Animation

Often described as the biggest change to popular PC interfaces since the original Mac thirty years ago, Core Animation (CA) is Apple’s future:

Welcome to the next level in computer animation. No, it’s not a feature film — it’s your desktop. Core Animation is a framework that makes it simple for Mac developers to add visually stunning user interfaces, graphics, and animations to applications.

Scott Forstall, VP of platform experience at Apple, demonstrated the power of CA at the 2006 WWDC (video at 00:49:28 – 00:53-08):

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At one extreme, we have pundits who aren’t likely to grok Core Animation like John Dvorak whose first reaction to CA at the June 2007 WWDC was:

Not sure what the Vista comparison is here. The demo reminded me of Microsoft Max photo-sharing application. The WWDC developers attending the Jobs keynote didn’t seem wowed with this functionality.

Then there are developers of Mac apps like TextMate, FlySketch, VoodooPad and Delicious Library who are so giddy about CA that they already decided the next version of their apps will only work with CA on Leopard. Here’s Delicious Library developer Wil Shipley on CA:

…every time you give developers a chance to do better graphics with less code, you’re going to see another revolution in user experience. The revolution coming with Core Animation is akin to the one that came from the original Mac in 1984 — the Mac said “here’s a relatively easy way to add graphics to your user interface” and Core Animation says, “Here’s a very easy way to add composited layers and motion to your interface.”

and on upgrading to DL2:

Yes, Delicious Library 2 is based entirely around Core Animation and other key Leopard technologies, so our customers are going to have to upgrade their OS if they want to upgrade our program… We realized any app we released based on Tiger was going to look really pathetic when Leopard came out.

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Direct manipulation and Windowless UI

The potential of CA is a move away from proxy interaction via UI controls to direct manipulation of objects on screen with fluid, ‘natural’ and fun gestures, like flick-scroll and pinch-zoom on the iPhone. Shipley:

What we’ll see with Core Animation is a move away from widgets and into direct manipulation. In Delicious Library 2, we’re conveying much more information directly on our bookshelf view, instead of using textfields and the like, and similarly we’re allowing the user to interact more directly with the books on the shelf, instead of just looking at them and then pressing buttons on another part of a screen to change them.

For some designers, these gestural and animated UI paradigms may look like rather frivolous, GPU-wasting eye-candy. But, just as the iPhone forever changed phone UIs, so will CA on desktops and various mobile and media devices.

What makes CA critical to Apple’s future is the fact that Core Animation is not only in Mac OS X 10.5 but because Leopard is also the foundation of iPhone, iPod touch, AppleTV and likely other products to come, the direct manipulation UI paradigm now moves into a large spectrum of devices.

From tiled windows to windows-inside-of-windows MDI to overlapping Mac windows, we have come full circle. On these post-PC devices there are often no windows — no mouse, pull-down menus or scroll bars either.

Once users are exposed to useful UI paradigms, like instant in-line video playback via Flash or partial page refreshes via Ajax, there’s hardly any going back. As subtle CA effects seep into users’ daily interaction with their screens, we’ll all wonder how we ever lived without them. Here, for instance, is a list of many CA-type UI examples that are already a part of OS X users’ interaction lexicon: drawer, sheets, window minimization, Dock magnification, list shuffling, etc.

While manipulating screen objects via gestures and non-WIMP approaches are not entirely new, this moves from expensive, cumbersome, demo-only, limited-purpose or often Flash-based prototypes to a mainstream OS and daily exposure to tens of millions. Just how powerful an impact this could have can be seen in the explosion of ‘touch-screen’ phones from all sorts of manufacturers following the introduction of the iPhone. Now it’s not so easy to sell a high-end phone without some form touch-screen interface.

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With Leopard and the upcoming iPhone SDK for third-party developers, Pandora’s box is wide open. Of course, some will see this as regression into UI chaos. Starting prominently in 1999 with QuickTime 4.0, Apple has thrown open the gates of two decades of Human Interface Guidelines: the ‘lickable’ Aqua, Panther’s brush metal, iLife and pro apps, widgets, the ‘unified-look’ in Tiger, etc. Clearly, Core Animation is a new frontier that all designers will have to adjust to.

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Next, we’ll take a strategic look at other Leopard technologies that will affect designers, including virtualization, Time Machine, resolution independent UIs, widgets and others. Please come back or subscribe to the RSS feed.