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  • The Mac OS and Windows: Stuck in 1984

    June 13th, 2006

    Although it wasn’t the first graphical user interface, the original Mac OS that debuted over 22 years ago set the standard for simplicity and elegance. Some say it has never been equalled, that subsequent updates and imitations, such as the ones delivered by Microsoft, merely retain the same basic elements for the most part. True, Windows Vista attempts to eschew such things as the standard File, Edit and View menus unless you invoke a “Classic” menu option, but that doesn’t really advance the state of the art even if you like the new layout.

    To be sure, the plumbing on today’s Mac OS is far better than its predecessor, particularly when it comes to memory management and multitasking. On the other hand, it’s fair to regard it as fat, bloated, and as resource hungry as any modern operating system.

    But that’s another complaint for another day. Instead, the real culprit may very well be the user interface, which hasn’t progressed very far. Now in the scheme of things, I realize some of you feel that the Classic Mac OS was the pinnacle of computer operating system development, and everything went downhill from there. I’m sure I can find plenty of you who feel the same about Mac OS X, and surely there’s an element that would maintain that Windows is best, simply because it is good enough for more than 90% of the personal computers on the planet. No, I’m not going to enter into the issues of security prevention at this point.

    Instead, let’s turn back the clock, and take someone who was first exposed with Mac OS 1.0, and transport that person via our imaginary time machine direct to 2006. Expose them to today’s best Intel-based hardware from Apple and try to make them refrain from jaw-dropping or, worse, fainting with amazement. Once they recover, allow them to become accustomed to the way the operating system functions, and they will probably admit, as we all inevitably will, that not a whole lot has changed. The basic method of interacting with your computer is very much the same after you account for the eye-candy and other excesses.

    So is it fair to say that the only viable paradigm of personal computer operating system development was established in 1984, and we can move no further in the foreseeable future?

    Well, I remember that Star Trek movie from that era, when the late Jimmy Doohan, as “Scotty,” observed a 20th century computer during the Enterprise crew’s trip to bring whales back to their era to save the planet. “How quaint,” he remarked when told he must use the keyboard and mouse to interact with that device.

    Surely there’s a better way. Understand that I have written a number of commentaries over the years explaining that the Mac OS is still, in many respects, too complicated for the average person. Before you go attacking the intelligence of such people, hear me out. Moving your fingers, your wrists in rapid fashion in different ways even causes a painful injury to many, so I suppose you could say that the combination of the keyboard and mouse can be dangerous to your health. Maybe not as bad as smoking and other nasty habits, but certainly enough to cause you to take pain killers and perhaps undergo far more severe medical treatment, such as an operation.

    Even if you get past the matters of proper posture, exercise and all the rest, you have to consider that there are many things about the way personal computers behave that can confuse and frustrate the best of us. We have devices with such incredible power, but you and I still have to do a lot of the heavy-lifting for them.

    Now in the science fiction world, perhaps the best way to interact with your computer is to simply speak to it. Tell it what to do, and sit back and wait for it to happen. But today’s dictation software isn’t so efficient. In the end, you must train yourself to compensate for the limitations of the software rather than have it adjust to your needs.

    Of course, that’s just usually just a substitute when the use of traditional input devices is inconvenient, painful, or, in cases of a severe handicap, impossible. The actual operating system and the way your applications function remains the same, stuck in the 1984 zone.

    So are the brilliant people at Apple even now working on a genuine operating system of the 21st century, or will Leopard and its successors be just more smoke and mirrors from Steve Jobs and his marketing team? Surely you can’t look to Microsoft for solace, because they can’t seem to figure out how to deliver an operating system on time with all the features intact. I suppose, of course, that it could force them to try some real innovation for a change, but that might be a little extreme.

    On the other hand, it is always possible that a couple of college students in a dorm are hard at work addressing the shortcomings of today’s personal computers. Or maybe the solution will be provided by some drop-outs working out of a kitchen or a garage.

    Now while some of you are perfectly satisfied with what we have now, although I’m sure you can suggest changes, I fervently hope that a real solution will soon burst forth. It couldn’t come soon enough.



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