Personal Computer Interfaces: The More Things Change…

March 5th, 2005

Although the late Jef Raskin was widely regarded as the father of the Macintosh, a lot changed between the time he left the project and its ultimate release. In fact, in one of his last interviews, it was clear he wasn’t happy with the way the operating system turned out, declaring, “the Mac is now a mess” and went on to suggest that “there is only a little difference between using a Mac and a Windows machine.”

I will be gentle here, because Raskin is no longer with us and cannot respond, but some might regard his feelings as containing perhaps a little bit of sour grapes, because of his forced departure from the Macintosh project. But I can agree with him that using a personal computer, be it Mac or PC, is unnecessarily complex. Really, how can you say Mac OS X is easy when you have books containing upwards of 1,000 pages explaining how to use it? In addition, while Ted Landau’s Mac OS X Help Line, is a stellar writing achievement, it’s sad that you need a book of that size for troubleshooting and maintenance.

Is there no better way?

When I first began to write books about Mac OS X, I included screen shots comparing it to the look of Mac OS 1.0. Yes, today we have color, 3D effects and lots more, but the fundamentals of the Mac operating system are really essentially unchanged. We have a desktop and folders, and you still double click to launch an application. That’s how today’s typical graphical user interface is supposed to work, of course, but how can you say it’s all that intuitive?

I am not prepared to suggest that Raskin’s Humane Interface is the solution, except to say that work on the project will continue, and I’m sure we’re all curious to see the result. It’s high time that the way we interact with a computer was rethought.

Over the years, I have looked at the science fiction concept of using simple speech as the ultimate solution. Tell the computer what you want it to do, and it’ll follow through with your commands, ala Star Trek. Or perhaps just think about it, and let it happen. Typing on a keyboard? “How quaint,” was the reaction of Scotty the engineer in the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Of course, some of you already interact with your Macs via voice command, using dictation software. But the process is decidedly awkward, and you are pretty much forced to learn to speak in a fashion that is convenient for the software, not the other way around. It is also far from perfect, as anyone who has tried these applications can attest. Speech recognition is better than it used to be, but it has a ways to go. This is particularly true of some of those luxury cars that offer voice command features. I’ve tried one or two in a test drive in the past year, but I found it all too easy to confound these systems with what I felt were basically simple instructions. Thank heavens you can’t use your voice to accelerate, brake or steer. I hesitate to think what havoc that would cause.

In large part, then we must continue to rely on the keyboard, mouse and display. Whether inspired by the works of Jef Raskin or a couple of teens on a kitchen table, there is a crying need to make personal computers more efficient in a lot of ways.

In addition to overhauling user interfaces, there’s the basic fact that today’s software is so damned inefficient. Again, I quote Jef Raskin, and I’m sure we can pretty much concur with the this pronouncement: “The quest for CPU power has been largely defeated by bloated software in applications and operating systems. Some programs I wrote in Basic on an Apple II ran faster than when written in a modern language on a G4 Dual-processor Mac with hardware 1,000 times faster.”

This axiom has been true for years: Software becomes more inefficient as processor power increases. Do you really think, for example, that Word 2004 on a Power Mac G5 runs any faster than Word 5.1a on a Mac IIci? Consider this carefully. Yes, today’s Word does a whole lot more, but it fails to take advantage of the fact that we have a supercomputer on a desktop. And consider that the entire Office 2004 suite weighs in at over 500MB in storage space. Back in the early 1990s, that would far exceed the capacity of the largest available consumer hard drives.

Mac OS X itself is, despite its many charms and superior reliability, one of the most blatant examples of software bloat. Consider how speedily the original Mac OS ran on those first Macs, and then put Panther on a vintage iMac and see if it runs any faster, or can even keep up. All right, Apple has infused it with fancy graphics that strain the capabilities of the fastest video hardware. It looks just great, but at what cost?

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with taking advantage of today’s super powerful microprocessors and I wouldn’t suggest that Apple dispense with the fluff. I’m really more concerned with the state of the user interface. The Mac was supposed to be the computer for the rest of us, but did it lose its way?

In many respects it did, and I don’t think we’ll attain that original goal until the Mac becomes so simple to use, that even the rank beginner will be able to master it with a 24-page booklet.

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