January 31, 2013

How Software Is Built Today

I spent about a day this week polishing a detail of Tinderbox Six. I’d like to walk you through some of the design because it’s interesting and accessible, and because I think it demonstrates why our expectations of software are leading us into such a terrible mess.

Under the hood, this feature is called Tansey Tabs, named for the distinguished university administrator who first suggested it. Tinderbox encourages you to open lots of windows on different facets of your document. You might have a map of the section you’re working on, an outline of references and sources, another outline of tasks remaining to be done, perhaps a treemap overview of everything. This gives you lots of flexibility and lets you tailor your workspace. But using lots of windows can sometimes be tricky, and increasingly it’s not something people discover for themselves; why not use tabs within one window to provide quick and easy access to as many views as you need?

How Software Is Built Today

This isn’t off the shelf, but that’s OK — we’ll just build it, it’s not rocket science. And it’s a feature that’s nice, not one that’s essential. Lot’s of people won’t use these tabs.

So, what do we need to think about when adding a bar of tabs like this?

How Software Is Built Today

This is a hell of a lot of design and implementation for a small feature. The old answer was “reusability,” but that’s no good; we need more than NSSegmentedControl can give us.

This kind of detailing gets lots of attention in the tech press, because it’s thought to be a secret of Apple’s success and talking about (or against) Apple is always good for circulation.

This is a hell of a lot of design and implementation for $0.99. But that’s increasingly what people expect to pay for software. OK: maybe $19.95 for something really terrific. But can you sell an extra 100 copies of the program because it’s got draggable tabs? If you can’t, don’t you have better things to do with your time?

This is a hell of a lot of design and implementation for an auxiliary feature. Tinderbox isn’t about tabs. Tinderbox is a tool for notes, for visualizing, analyzing, and sharing. Tabs are just a nice things that some people will use and others won’t. And some people will give you 1-star reviews because they don’t like the shadows, or the typography looks bad in Sanskrit. There’s always something you forget.

But it can be done. One day to implement the tab bar. One day for dragging and saving tabs. OK: a pretty good day both times, but just a day. And if I can just string about 270 of those days together, we’ll be ready for beta.