Sunday, August 22, 2010

Quickie: The Cross Platform Quandry

When an app runs on multiple platforms, it seems like there are two basic designs that they can choose to follow.  Either they try to integrate with each platform, or they try to appear the same on each platform.

It's not clear to me that either of these ways are correct.  Obviously, in the case where the differences between the platforms are hidden to the greatest degree possible, the app doesn't match the look and feel of platform-native applications.  This is the situation with old Mozilla builds that drew virtually all the UI themselves: the chosen GTK+ theme had no effect on Linux.  An app that looks "the same everywhere" can look like it belongs with at most one platform.

Meanwhile, since Mac users in particular are vocal about their dislike for using non-Mac-like apps, most modern cross-platform apps have switched to trying to integrate with each platform.  Firefox has a different theme and adjusts its button order on the various platforms; likewise, GIMP for Windows switches its button order to match the Windows custom of putting Cancel in the corner instead of OK.

As a habitual user of Firefox, Gimp, and Pidgin on both Linux and Windows, this second approach turns out to be less-than-ideal for people who frequently switch platforms.  In this case, the "same" app behaves differently on the different platforms, and I have to remember which platform I'm on so that I can hit the correct buttons.  Of course, this doesn't always happen, so frequently in Windows Gimp, I spend a couple of minutes selecting the perfect color, only to hit Cancel by mistake.  Another frequent source of mistakes is the way that Pidgin's tray icon toggles the buddy list with a double-click on Windows, but a single-click on Linux.  I'm frequently opening-then-closing Linux Pidgin with a double-click.

One last problem with writing a cross-platform app for Linux/BSD specifically is that these are not all-in-one platforms.  An app like Firefox that's written in GTK and follows the Gnome HIG is still going to fail to integrate with the KDE desktop on the points where their respective conventions differ.

Given these difficulties, it's not surprising that most apps aren't cross-platform.  The ones which are face the choice of whether they should integrate with platforms and appear different in the details to people who work on multiple platforms, or whether they should look the same everywhere and look alien or second-class on each platform.

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