Biggie Installs

In the past week or so, I’ve had to update or install new versions of software from Apple, Microsoft and Adobe. Having undertaken these tasks more or less in succession, I noticed something I’d never paid conscious attention to before: how the sizes of their progress screens — the dialog boxes that visually track the completion of each software installation — also served as visual indicators for the character of each application.

Small, Medium, Large

If you look at the screen captures below, you’ll see what I mean. Apple’s progress screen for the iWeb component of its iLife suite is reasonably sized and fairly discreet. By contrast, its Microsoft Office counterpart demands a markedly greater amount of attention while, at the same time, projecting an outsized version of its logo behind the progress bar. Meanwhile, the new progress screen for Adobe’s Photoshop CS3 beta release is larger still, even as its progress bars are paradoxically thinner than either of the other two.

Right: Size who? From top, installation progress screens from Apple, Microsoft and Adobe.
Three Installation Progress Screens

In terms of screen real estate, Microsoft’s progress screen is over twice as large as Apple’s, and Adobe’s is three times as large. Yet all three display the same amount of useful information, exactly the same amount. You can argue that it’s helpful to see how the Photoshop installer ticks off the various stages of the installation process, but it doesn’t truly tell the user anything more valuable than does Apple’s, which displays one event at a time in text above its progress bar.

About the Size of It

There’s really no truly compelling reason for the disparity in sizes amongst these functionally similar interfaces, I think, except perhaps to visually communicate the power of the software. Which is to say that the Microsoft and Adobe screens presumably help reassure customers who’ve just spent the small fortunes required to purchase these products that they’ve acquired a large passel of powerful tools.

To me, it’s no accident that the size of these progress screens also bear some relation to each program’s complexity; Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop are among the most feature-intensive and frequently problematic applications on the market, and the size of their respective installation interfaces inadvertently hint at that fact. It reminds me a bit, too, of the phenomenon of people who drive exceedingly large cars, or buy houses that are simply far larger than they could possibly need: the concept of bigness, which is often used to connote strength and demonstrate value, can very often communicate a lack of self-awareness and hint at deep troubles. Size matters, folks.


TextMate Installer

Thanks to Emir Bukva, I’m appending here the installation progress screen from the popular TextMate text editor. It’s shown at the same scale as the Apple, Microsoft and Adobe installers, above. Relative to TextMate’s reputation as a favorite tool of Macintosh programmers turning out some of today’s most elegant and least bloated software, the economical screen real estate that this installer claims only helps prove my point, I think.

  1. Well, in the case of the Adobe installer, perhaps the main installer screen doesn’t need so much space, but the uninstaller/reinstaller screen does benefit from the extra size. In those modes the large interface starts to make a lot more sense.

    I, for one, (as a sysadmin) was pleased as punch (yes, punch) with the PS CS3 installer — its ability to uninstall and reinstall either the entire PS CS3 package, or individual bits and pieces — and wrote about it here on my blog.

    Perhaps the extra-large interface is indicative not just of the great power and complexity of the app, but also of the fact that the Adobe PS CS3 installer itself does so much more than simply install files.

    This installer is SO much better than previous iterations, or, say, the Reader installer. I think the Adobe installer guys deserve some props on this one.


  2. Well, I am in the process of learning a new artistic tool, one that allow me to work on music and video (and nearly everything else, minus my imagination) MAX/MSP with Jitter.
    The installation window and info is light (nearly like the apple one). And it’s a software that cost more than Office or Photoshop and is way more complex.

    So it may be true for big compagnie, but I don’t think so. Maybe it’s more relative to their ego?

  3. Systemsboy: I’ll certainly give props to the Adobe team for creating a more elegant installation product this time than they have the previous few outings. (I even think Photoshop itself is much improved in CS3.) Still, I think the size of its progress screen is probably unnecessarily large; my biases against their recent history of software bloat lead me to draw unflattering conclusions as to why the screen is so big, but I understand if others may not.

  4. Regarding the MS installer: You’ll notice it’s “Powered by VISE X” which in turn in only mimicking the size and style of the built-in package installer that OS X uses. If you’ve ever downloaded an OS X update and installed it manually, you’d know that it looks very similar to that.

  5. Ugh, VISE, a sign of the Mac BU’s sorry walk into obsolescence. Adobe are stuck in the same Codewarrior boat, yet seem to be handling the Intel transition much better, in CS3 at least. Losing VB and being stuck last in the line for the code to make the Office 2007 file format converter … poor Mac BU. Fingers crossed iWork can plug the growing gap.

  6. I think it has more to do with branding than anything related to technical features.

    Apple, in its place as the owner of the operating system, can remain more subtle.

  7. I agree CS3 is improved over CS2 (both installer and app), albeit mostly because of the speed increases with the new build. I was honestly hoping someone would take advantage of this long wait for a universal PS and come up with a slim alternative with all the essential functions and steal away a few frustrated-with-bloat customers. Say, Seashore with PS keyboard shortcuts, Save for Web, paths/shapes, better text support, and a wee bit more polish — I don’t use 75% of what PS offers. So slim, even, it wouldn’t NEED an installer! (ok, sad attempt to tie back into yr post… and that wishlist of features oddly enough made me start appreciating what CS3 DOES offer, haha.)

  8. It would be very interesting to add a screenshot of TextMate’s installer dialog box to the list.

    It may not be fair to compare it to these three considering the size/complexity and number of features, but TextMate’s installer is by far the least obtrusive one I’ve run across yet.

  9. Great idea, Emir. As per our offline discussion, I’ve added the TextMate installer to the post, above. Thanks!

    Chris: Well, in fairness, it’s hard to say that Apple is modest about their products. They’re arguably less arrogant than the other two, but humble, they’re not.

  10. This is an inaccurate comparison.

    iWeb’s and TextMate’s screens are their *updating* screens. Photoshop’s and Office’s screens are their *installing* screens.

    TextMate’s installation screen is arguably a screen shot of its disk image – it has no installer. iWeb is part of iLife, which has an installer (this installer is similar in size to Office’s installer – it’s an ordinary Installer package, and runs with the app Installer in the Utilities folder). (Unless you’re upgrading to the next major version, you never see it since it’s bundled with the machine.)

    What this all adds up to is that you point out specifically as iWeb’s installation screen is just Software Update, and that what you point out as TextMate’s installation screen is its built-in Software Update workalike “Check for Updates” (and subsequent upgrading), while only Office’s and Photoshop’s actual installers are shown.

    I agree with the major thrust of the article (especially that Adobe and Microsoft have more or less pre-canned installers and that it’s the one-man-show TextMate that brings self-updating software to the table), but the facts are misrepresented. Upgrading is not installing.

  11. Jesper: You’re right, it’s an inaccurate comparison. That’s kind of the nature of throwing these posts together quickly. But in my defense, it’s not inaccurate in quite the way you describe.

    The screen for Office is actually an updating screen, not an installing screen. So a more fair comparison would be between the iWeb updating screen, TextMate’s updating screen and Office’s updating screen.

    And, in a different set, I could compare the iLife installer (not shown here), the TextMate installer (not shown here) and the Photoshop installer.

    Anyway, the basic thrust of the piece is more or less the same, though I take your point: I could have been more conscientious in preparing the argument. Thanks for the input.

  12. while marginally interesting… after reading this article and thread, i wondered? do these guys realize that among an endless myriad of other problems this world faces… our oceans are dying and up to a third of the worlds species may disappear in our lifetime? i hope you all turn off your flat screen monitors and various electronic gizmos at night – at the very least.

  13. About this TextMate updater: it’s an updater not only used by TextMate but also by Adium, CSSEdit,…
    It’s an automation of what you would do when you’d install the apllication: download and ‘drag’ it in the apps folder.
    It’s cool a lot of applications use this framework so there’s a universal way of updating apps. Of course the ‘big ones’ like MacBU and Adobe don’t use such frameworks, they generally have their own way to do and design things (for porting reasons I guess).

  14. I was actually one of the designers involved with Adobe’s revised OOBE (out of the box experience) UI initiative last year, focused on Acrobat 8 and CS3. The issues you’ve highlighted are right on. However, as I rapidly realized in my first few weeks on the project, Installers and Updaters are massively complex undertakings at multiple levels, comprising many levels of engineering, marketing, QA, tech/docs, and other parties, including outside contractors and outsourced devs. That’s not an excuse for user experience inadequacies for Installers, but simply a statement of fact/reality (ie, constraints) for something we (I include myself) would think should be so darn easy! I was flabbergasted (and humbled) at the complexity, worthy of a massive Visio IA diagram 🙂

    If there’s anything I learned so far in software design–the organizational will and political (even more than the technical) complexity of problems often outweigh ingenious solutions. Phrased differently, design’s easy; influence is vital.

    Oh one thing I wanted to mention: regarding the massive layout of Adobe’s Installer. That’s partly due to internationalization of text (estimate 30% + , etc.) and the dialog default sizing had to accommodate text-heavy dialogs you (and most others) don’t see, such as error/warning conditions and backdoor screens. Finally, i think some limits on sizing that was capped at a pre-set pixel size/ratio, just too late in the pipeline to change after code freeze… oh well!

    If anything, I hope the introduction of left-hand steps provides useful context that was absent from previous Adobe Installers (which were an endless stream of dialogs without any context or orientation of whence they came).

    Small wins, folks. Small wins…

  15. Software Update is designed to tuck out of the way, so you can get on with something else. Only when it requires attention such as an EULA agreement or restart does it grow in size.

    Perhaps that’s why the Photoshop installer is so big, Adobe don’t want you to forget that a large and complicated installation is going on, probably not the best time to launch something “big”.

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