• Mac OS 10.5: Time for a New User Interface?

    April 2nd, 2005

    The other day I read an article comparing the NeXT operating system to today’s Mac OS X. It is interesting to see the obvious resemblances, such as the Preview application, a Dock and a file viewer (they didn’t call it Finder, or risk an Apple lawsuit) that sported a column view feature. At the same time, some interface elements were downright irritating. Author Marc Zeedar remarked that “app icons show up in two places, vertically on the Dock and horizontally across the bottom of the screen as you launch new apps. That had to be confusing to newbies.” And even experienced users, actually.

    But NeXT had its charms, and shareware authors quickly imitated some of the interface elements in their Mac system add-ons. One was called “Black Box,” as I recall, although I don’t think it ever past beyond the beta stage.

    In any case, there have been long debates on how much today’s Mac OS is really Mac and how much is just warmed over NeXT. Regardless, the fundamentals are the same, even if the executions differ somewhat. And, 21 years after the Mac first appeared, I can understand the late Jeff Raskin’s frustration that things haven’t really gotten much better.

    Regardless of the claims of simplicity, a personal computer is a complicated beast, and prone to computerized versions of temper tantrums. Before Mac OS X came about, Macs crashed with abandon, and some graphic artists felt lucky when they only had to restart three or four times a day. However, troubleshooting was fairly straightforward. Get rid of pesky extensions and corrupted preference files, toss out a few damaged fonts, and things would run all right until the next crash.

    Before some of you write and tell me that you never encountered such erratic behavior on your Macs, don’t bother. I realize experiences differ. But the the more you wanted your Mac to do, the less dependable it became. Windows? Well, it can work all right sometimes, but become a ragged mess all too often. Even before it was overwhelmed by malware, you’d be forced to engage in such arcane acts as fiddling with the system’s registry to make things right, with no guarantee of success.

    In any case, Mac OS X, if nothing else, delivers amazing levels of reliability, and certainly fails in a far more friendly fashion. You rarely have to restart, except when you install new software that requires it. To be fair to Windows users, those PC boxes can work pretty well too once the spyware and viruses are exorcized. But only until the next epidemic of malware appears.

    But in all this, what have Apple and Microsoft done to make computers easier to use? Note that I’ve avoided the issues of troubleshooting Mac OS X, but let me address that briefly. While corrupted preferences and system add-ons can do damage, you are sometimes forced to enter the dark recesses of the command line to get out of a jam. Not a pleasant prospect, but fortunately one that doesn’t happen very often.

    We all know, from Apple’s descriptions of Tiger, that it will sport more features but few changes in the user interface. Any user of an earlier version of Mac OS X should be able to figure things out pretty quickly, without having to take many trips to the Help menu or an instruction book.

    As I’ve said before, Apple no doubt has a preliminary roadmap on what it wants to do with Mac OS 10.5 and beyond. I’m sure the rumor sites will be delivering lots of speculation over the next year or two, until the system appears. In the meantime, rather than think up another 200 features, maybe Apple could take a little time rethinking usability. In fact, a little time isn’t enough; usability ought to be job number one for 10.5.

    While it’s possible some startup somewhere will get there first, it’s clear to me that Apple has a staff of brilliant programmers that are the envy of the industry. While new versions of Mac OS X are released on a regular basis, Microsoft’s Longhorn is barely in beta stage and way late. Of course, when Apple couldn’t get operating systems on time, it was pronounced dead and buried. Nobody would dare suggest that of Microsoft.

    So what can Apple do to make its operating system easier to master? Well, if I could deliver a long treatise on the subject, complete with examples, I would probably be working for Apple rather than writing about them. And earning a lot more money. In any case, I’d rather think in terms of goals than the nuts and bolts.

    I do not know how Apple tests its user interfaces now, but I would suggest that novices be brought in on a regular basis to see how they work their Macs, and where they encounter trouble. Here a combination of inspiration and lots of perspiration might mesh and deliver solid ideas on what has to change. There has to be a better way.

    While your Mac may seem fairly easy to use now, do you recall how you felt when someone put a mouse in your hand, or when you first looked at the Mac desktop and tried to figure things out? Now maybe someone showed you what to do, guiding you through a few simple steps to get accustomed to the lay of the land. Maybe you bought a book, but computer titles these days rarely sell all that well, and sales of 10,000 or so, believe or not, are considered close to the best seller level.

    But wouldn’t it be great if a novice could just sit down in front of a computer and figure things out quickly with a minimum of instruction? No, I don’t mean mastering a complicated graphics application; you will still need to acquire the skills necessary to become adept at one particular job or another.

    When the operating system gets in the way, though, you have less time to sit there and produce something. Sure, in the scheme of things, Apple’s apps, particularly iPhoto and iTunes, are remarkably easy to use, but getting there can be a chore.

    You don’t think so? Take someone who has never used a personal computer, push them into a chair, and see if they can figure it all out without crying for help.

    Computers should work for us, not against us. If Apple can rethink the graphical user interface in 21st century terms for 10.5, it will be responsible for a new operating system revolution. Maybe computers will finally catch up with the visions of science fiction writers, and I’m not talking about the malevolent “Hal” in 2001. A goal or a pipedream? Only time will tell.

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