Prashant Deva's blog

Talks on technology and the latest developments in Placid Systems.

How many of your Windows apps use the native Windows UI?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Today I was looking at the screenshots of IntelliJ Idea 6 when something suddenly struck me. Intellij UI looks far better than Eclipse! I realized that in fact that the Eclipse UI looks far ugly than the UI of most of the programs I use. Since I use Eclipse as my everyday IDE, I just switched to it and tried to make out what is it about eclipse that makes it look so ugly. Hmmm... I thought for a second, maybe it's the icons. But no, the icons are pretty modern with all the gradients and stuff you would expect of any modern app. Then? Suddenly I realised what it was! The default Windows Xp UI!! Eclipse uses the SWT java lib which gives it the look of the native UI which in turn is not too good to look at while Intellij uses a custom Swing skin.

But then I thought, hey I am on windows. If the windows UI was so ugly then why don't I find all the other apps ugly too?That is when I started noticing this. How many programs of everday use *really* use the Windows native UI? Lets take a look.

First lets see the programs running in my system tray -
  • Windows Messenger
  • Yahoo Messenger
  • Google Talk
  • Outlook 2k3
  • ZoneAlarm
  • AVG Anti Virus
  • LeechGet
  • Copernic Desktop Search
Guess what, NONE of the above programs use the native Windows look and feel!!!

Then I look at my Quick Launch bar which is to the side of the Start Button.Here I just keep (instead of the 'Show Desktop' button)
  • Winamp
  • Itunes
NO windows native UI in these either!

Now I really start thinking. Here are some of the most commonly used programs which *don't* use native windows look and feel-
  • Everything in MS office (word, excel, etc)
  • Visual Studio
  • Windows Media Player
Actually NONE of MS programs have the native windows look and feel. Talk about following what you preach! Anyway continuing with our list -
  • Ad Aware
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver
  • Adobe Reader
  • Opera
  • WinDVD
  • Quick Time
  • Real Player

And of course a lot more.

In fact after noticing this I tried to see what programs that I frequently use on my computer *do* have the native look, and here is what I found -
  • Eclipse
  • Firefox
  • Solitare :)

So the next time you find that a UI is ugly, don't blame the programmers, they were just following the MS guidelines for Windows apps :)
posted by Prashant Deva, 4:02 AM


Actually your final list is a bit too long; Firefix does not use a totally native Windows interface, it uses XUL which is skinnable. The default skins looks much like, but not quite like, native Windows. You can readily use the Tools|Themes dialog to select another.

The native windows ui is actually 1e100 more beautiful to me than, say, swing ui's.

I know Firefox uses XUL and emulates the windows look but for most users it is good enough to be the default look and feel.

Sure the default swing UI is uglier than the native UI, but Intellij Idea uses a very nice custom Swing skin, which looks better than the native UI.

Your blog is wasting valuable electrons.

commented by Anonymous, 1:53 PM, August 03, 2006  

Outlook, Word, etc not using the Windows L&F is debatable. Sure they use a blue-tinted skin and Orange highlights** (and Excel has some very funky editboxes), but the L&F of the controls is very Windows - especially the uxthemed common controls.

Frankly, if you want a 'pure' Windows' L&F, you ought to stick to the accessories that ship with Windows. Nothing else will come close because most folk use component libraries that did not originate with the Windows team. Heck, even IE rolls its own UI widgets - they look a LOT like Windows common controls but have subtle differences (reference).

And yeah - 'better' is very subjective. I've always thought Eclipse looked better than IntelliJ, maybe I'm one of those who don't need a shiny UI to get my work done!

** which you can get rid of by installing the Royale (aka Media Center) XP theme from Microsoft, which IMHO is quite nice to look at.

Eclipse uses different styles for tabs, highlighting, etc as well, just like Office and VS.Net. It does make sense to enhance some UI components for a specific use case or to give a more distinct feel. SWT uses native widgets to make stuff real native _when you want it to_. But you can make stuff look different using SWT as well.

Personally, the UI does not need to be all shiny to me, and Eclipse does not look that different from IDEA to me. Even so, not using native look & feel in some cases (like most apps do) is entirely different from saying that native look & feel always sucks and should never be used.

Actually, the look of Office 2003 and Visual Studio 2005 reflects the new "Windows Forms 2.0" style that's present in .NET 2.0. Microsoft has done a decent job of standardizing the interface for common applications.

I actually don't really like skinnable applications, unless they provide a skin that meshes with the native look (ala Firefox). Or, if they provide lots and lots of skins so I can find one that I prefer. So often, skinnable apps lack the critical mass of skin developers to provide enough options.

Also, Swing is just hideous. (Although it's better than what Java had previousl offered.)

This post is pointless and stupid. Is it supposed to be funny? You yourself submitted this to dzone.com and tagged it as "humor," but it is not in the least bit humorous. You're wasting your time blogging.

commented by Anonymous, 9:35 PM, August 03, 2006  

Personally I hate most programs that have their own "non standard" GUI. I want my programs to "fit in" with the system and to h*ll with the ones that need for some reason or another "set themselves apart" from the rest.

I want my apps to be functional and if they can do that without being too ugly, so much the better, but I'd rather have an ugly app that "fits" than a gorgeous one that doesn't.

commented by Quintesse, 9:58 PM, August 03, 2006  

Excellent observation. I will remember this when people complain that BlogBridge doesn't look 100% native on Windows.

Mac OS X generally doesn't seem to have that problem. I think (although I didn't do a careful catalog) that there things match up a bit better.

Pito Salas

Some of the apps you list are egregious examples of flaunting UI standardization, not because of their looks, but because of their window behavior. Some of these apps trouble me a lot, so I stopped using them. They are:

1. iTunes: the big kahuna music player doesn't think its necessary for you to get to the search field using your keyboard. It has non-standard behavior that often gets in the way when minimizing and restoring.

2. Winamp: need i say more. Oh well, I'll say something: what a waste of time to try to figure out how this confusing bundle of inter-related windows works in tandem. Keyboard shortcuts are problematic between panes, as well as basic functions like minimize.

3. Google Talk: These guys get all the credit, but lets face it, this software, written specifically for windows, is virtually unmanagemable without the mouse and basically decides to do what it wants to do with its auto-joining of chat panes. This is a real pain. I like the software in the sense that these are people who don't translate my smileys into silly little icons, but even chatting with two people at once quickly gets out of control unless you take the time with your mouse to separate the windows from each other.

4. Adobe Acrobate Reader: Wow: could this thing get its head straight for just once on a reasonable handling of zoom? Maybe all the Adobe designers use 30 inch widescreens all day, but a lot of us use teensy weensy laptop screens. Oh and what's with that magical troll of a default mouse action that wants to constantly switch the view or page or zoom on you? Oh well, it's Acrobat. It was *sorta* cool in 1992.

I really wish these designers experimenting would think equally about good behaving user-interfaces, not just eye-candy.

Looking at the list of compliant apps, what do we see?: Eclipse, Firefox, and Solitaire. Skipping Solitaire for a moment (I seem to recall you can control it with the keyboard pretty well, but it's been ages, so I'm not sure)... Eclipse and Firefox are superbly behaving applications. And Firefox is skinnable. (Not that I've cared for any of the skins yey, hehe.)

Obviously pretty apps can be well behaved too:

-- MS Office 2007 introduces the new ribbon bar, and love it or hate it, watch what happens when you hold down the alt-key. Now that's how keyboard shortcuts should work!

-- MS Messenger and Yahoo Messenger: These actually behave reasonably well as windowed apps, with the keyboard, and pleasantly with the mouse, considering that they often hang out in the systray. They pretty much do what you want when you want it and how you want it.

I haven't used all the others, but I'd hate to think that all the focus is on eye candy cause it's engengendering some pretty horrible designs from some people who happen to get a lot of credit for their indiscretions.

Note to Apple: when you develop for windows, it's not a Mac. And lots of us like it that way. And no, don't force us into your weird little twilight zones where most but not all of the app is accessible through the keyboard. I know you guys like to keep reminding us you pushed the mouse early, do you want us to all sue you for carpal too?

(If you don't believe me, check out Mail.app on Mac OS X, unless they've fixed it by now, it was (is?) broken for ages with that dumb little slideout being practically inaccessible with the keyboard despite there being applications actions that could only be initiated in there. And of course, there's the Window iTune application. Hmmm, wonder if they've fixed that search entry box by now?)

Note to Google: that's an aweful lot of brainpower fueling sliding uncontrollable chats. Fortunately lover #1 hasn't learned about lover #2 yet through your windowing ways, but there have been close calls, (or more realistically: bossman didn't hear the wrong side of a conversations haha ;-)

Here's to eye candy with well behaving windows and elegant keyboard access!

FYI: I'm not a MS lover, and I'm not sure about that Ribbon, but I gotta say it again, that's some damn fine shortcutting :-)

commented by marcus, 7:04 AM, August 04, 2006  

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