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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35 Responses to “The Mac OS and Windows: Stuck in 1984”

  1. woz says:

    Nice article, once again. I’d put my money on the drop-outs in the garage. One thing is for sure: It will be created in the US of A.

  2. Ken Collins says:

    I for one hope the keyboard and mouse are here to stay.

    Occasionally it would be nice to operate the computer by talking to it, but I can’t think of many scenarios where that is desirable. You can’t use that sort of interface in Starbucks or the library. You can’t use it when you are browsing the web during lunch at your desk–it’s bad enough when you stumble on a web site that plays music or an ad. Imagine the cacaphony as workers in cubicles try to get their work done. The computers might be able to tell their voices apart, but I think the noise would drive the humans bats. Even worse, imagine your doctor telling the computer at the nurse’s station all about your colonoscopy or your hemorrhoidectomy. And just when and where are you going to compose those emails to your sweetie?

    Talking to the computer might be very Star-Trekish, but I would prefer the privacy of the keyboard and mouse. I only want to talk to my computer when I’m alone in the room with the door closed.

    There is a difference between change and progress.

  3. Terry says:

    I must agree with Ken Collins. Just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done. Much of today’s software is bloated with features that some software engineer thought that someone somewhere someday might use. Whatever happened to “lite” versions of programs like
    simpletext and Eudora lite?

  4. setomi says:

    Well at least we got rid of the command line. But wait, it’s still there, now in OSX too!

  5. jerry o. says:

    If you’re gonna talk about Vista then maybe you need to actually run it first. Watch the interviews with UI developers in MSDN channel9. See videos all over the net. Download (or buy) the Beta2 (very popular). Then you’ll see what the excitement is about. You’ll see certain elements of Vista that exceed what the current OSX can do. Yea we know it’s not perfect, but that’s not the point. Take off those Microsoft blinders and take a look at the Vista user interface.

  6. Weili says:

    I agree with Ken Collins that sometimes it’s simply inconvenient to “speak” to your computer, especially in public places. Don’t we already get enough annoyance from people who speak loudly on their cell phones in public places?

    Not only that, I can’t speak for everyone else but I type MUCH faster than I speak. Also, when people type, they are essentially writing, therefore whatever comes out is different from normal speech. Imagine someone “writing” an article by speaking to the computer, you’d get something that reads like someone talking to you… If you’ve ever read anything written by someone who obviously doesn’t know how to write, you’ll know what I mean.

    Finally, if computers are so perfect, what would people whose jobs rely on computer’s imperfection do? “Get real jobs” one might say. Yes that’s easy to say until we come up with something to replace YOUR job, something YOU have trained for years to do…

  7. setomi says:

    UI has this dillema:

    Some prefer ease of use. This means some things are done automatically for you or non essential features are left out.

    Some prefer flexibility. This means more human interaction to achieve the customized results you want.

    Some prefer to switch between ease of use and flexibility.

    Today, the only way to handle such things is to separate consumer software from the pro software.

    Example: iMovie versus FinalCut Pro. OSX Mail versus Entourage.

    Most of the time the user is in the application software and the OS is just a layer beneath it or it provides certain features that the app can use (but doesnt have to).

  8. Jerry O: It’s a mistake to make assumptions about what I’ve seen and not seen, and read and not read, OK?

    I stand by my comments about Vista. When it is really released, however, I’ll certainly be happy to modify those comments if the end result proves superior and Microsoft resolves the well-known interface issues.


  9. setomi says:

    Hey, what about “skin” the OS to your own liking and be able to share your customizations with others? Example see

  10. brent lee says:

    Great article!

  11. Kevin J. Weise says:

    Once again, an article about how aged and obsolete the GUI is. I’ve been seeing these since 1995, and my feelings about them are still the same. Nobody complains that your car has four tires and a steering wheel, and drives on the surface of the earth on a road, just like 100 years ago. What about that noisy, polluting internal combustion engine? (Although more people are definitely complaining about so many of them running on gasoline). Where are our flying cars, as we were expecting back in the 1950’s? And how about your doctors, still operating on patients with scalpels, cutting and sewing people like garments? Where are the non-intrusive Star Trek medical devices that cure just about everything, and practically instantly? What’s wrong with our medical system that they’ve been stuck in that rut for well over a century? And what’s with the power distribution network in our country, using cables and high-tension power lines to transport electricity just like Edison did before the turn of the 20th century? How come we can’t have broadcast power, where your devices get their electrical power out of the air? And these huge jetliners, relying on aerodynamic lift from wings, the same as the Wright brothers did, for crying out loud.

    I am not afraid of change; change can be good. But sometimes, what we have today is the way it is because its economical, tried and proven, and it just plain works. If someone creates a better way to do something, it will win out in the grand public marketplace. Ford showed that in the early 20th century with the Model A. Apple showed that in the 1980’s with the original Macintosh. If you don’t like the way something is today, go invent a better way. But whining about how obsolete something is without promoting a better way accomplishes little, or nothing. I will give you credit for suggesting a voice interface to your computer, but you need to do a little research on current state of the art before promoting it as the grand solution. Voice recognition, parsing vocal input, even a generalized formal voice interface and protocol are all very hard problems that require more than a Microsoft-sized software development organization to conquer. Perhaps voice recognition isn’t the way of the future, just as nuclear fusion never was the future of the power industry. (Anybody remember the claims about how the big breakthroughs were only a decade away, and electricity would be so cheap you wouldn’t need a meter?)

    Personally, I’m voting for the guy(s) in the garage… I wonder if they’ll be the ones to make that holographic interface with hand gestures work?

  12. Bluejade says:

    Can you imagine to speak to the computer for 8 hours a day? I can’t. And besides, moving cursor with mouse is much faster than navigating via voice. I would prefer mind reading or telepathy instead : )

  13. Consider the plight of the person who cannot use a keyboard for whatever reason. Now, mind reading: Aha, there’s a concept. Just don’t think nasty thoughts.


  14. Weili says:

    Mind reading?

    Thought police, anyone?

  15. Melangell says:

    Oh please, jerry o… We’ve heard this line from Windows apologists since Longhorn/Vista was first announced. Like Gene implies… when it is a finalized, shipping product then you can start shouting how much better it is than OS 10.4. Of course at that time 10.5 will be out. As it is, Longhorn/Vista is still is beta, and has had many big features totally dropped and has had to be reworked extensively. From what I see, it’s UI and especially it’s new security pisses people off to no end. I personally can’t figure out why Microsoft software engineers seem to love huge real estate wasting window borders and sidebars and Las Vegas Strip-like garish colors. Anyway, back to what I was saying… please wait until Vista is actually a finalized product (to actually see what is left) before attempting to compare it to something that is used by millions. It just makes you seem silly.

  16. Andrew says:

    I’m downloading Vista Beta 2 as I write this, though I’m not expecting much in terms of UI improvement. I take a less is more approach to UI, prefering a clean look without a lot of eye candy. System 7.1 was probably my favorite version of the Mac OS for appearance, though Tiger is pleasantly austere compared to early versions of X. Likewise, I much prefer the look and feel of Windows 2000 over XP and its Luna(cy) theme, though thankfully the Windows XP UI can be reverted to (almost) Windows 2000, with only a few icon changes.

    While I prefer a plain look, that does not mean I’m willing to go back. As the classic MacOS evolved, we had some great additions to the UI that while not necessarily pretty, quickly became indispensible. Multiple file copy appeared somewhere during the System 7/OS 8 years, as did window shades, application switching in various forms and a wealth of other features that are tough to give up when using an older system. Likewise in OS X I’ve come to swear by, rather than at Expose and Dashboard, and CMD-Tab (borrowed from Windows, I believe) is an indispensible part of my work routine.

    Windows has gotten better as well. Windows XP, while ugly in its native form, does improve on some things to the point where I had to buy shareware utilities to duplicate them on my Windows 2000 machine. Features like locking the slider on the quicklaunch toolbar, the ability to selectively hide system tray icons but reveal them all with a single click and ClearType text rendering are things that I’ve come to like in XP, and really miss when using Windows 2000.

    I haven’t loaded Vista yet, but I’m anxious to see both what has changed, and what I can revert to the same. If I can get a 2-dimensional Windows 2000-like UI but still have access to the application and window viewing utilities of Aero than I’ll be happy with it. I’m also very curious as to what will work on what video hardware. I have two PCs, one is a desktop with integrated graphics that while sharing VRAM, is on the list of Aero Glass capable chipsets (GMA950) while the other is a laptop with a seriously wimpy video card (ATI Mobility Radeon 16MB – roughly equal to Radeon 7000) that most definitely does NOT support Aero glass and will have to use the low-end display system in Vista. I have a sneaking suspicion that the low-end video will be more to my liking anyway.

  17. woz says:

    I’d be great if someone could actually get the ‘real 3D interface’ to work. Image sitting in a relaxed chair, with 3D spectacles and actually ‘grabbing’ the tools you require to get the job done. Imagine working in Photoshop or illustrator and grabbing a tool like the airbrush and actuaaly paint in your document as if it was in front of you. The virtual desktop and a virtual keybord floating nearby. No more mouse, you can really grab what you require. If you want to take a closer look, just grab the letter you’re reading and hold it closer to your virtual eyes… No needd for icons, things will just look like they do (or did!) i the real world. All that is required is 3D gasses and special gloves to interact with your virtual enviroment. Makes working at home a lot easier too!

  18. Terry says:

    the fact that personal computers are general purpose machines means that change be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

    The idea that there is a better way to interact with a computer is thwarted by the general nature of the device. Interfaces are easier to change when the computing power i embedded and specific.

    I would like to see all OS’s dispatch with the eye candy and use resources for more computing power. I like my OS X 10.4. It runs on a modern, powerful piece of hardware. I am only marginally more productive now than when I was running Photoshop 3 on a mac 8500. Process larger files? I work in newspapers. Our images are medium resolution printed on newsprint. It looks pretty though

  19. Poster says:

    I think everyone but one dude missed Gene’s point. The point was (ahem) that the whole paradigm hasn’t changed since 1984. It’s still based on a hi-tech mockup of an office. There are files, and there are folders. There are applications, which are just analogs of doing something in your office. Nothing has changed.

    You still have to tell the computer where to save your file, what to call it, open the file for later processing, and then do all the work with the file a la usual. A real paradigm shift would be to get that file-handling bs out of the way and rely upon universal search instead.

    OS X is integrating search (a la Spotlight) with the OS. This is a move away from the old paradigm. Vista is dropping file menus, which too is shifting the focus from bookkeeping to actual work. Linspire’s click-and-run functionality moves away from keeping track of what’s on your harddrive and what you can run.

    I’m sick of file management. I’d much rather just work on the files.

  20. Ian says:

    I agree with Kevin J. Weise. I enjoyed the article, but I don’t think the fact that the basic computer UI principles haven’t changed in 20 years is a cause for concern. Actually, what concerns me is the opposite: that modern GUI designers are approximating the foundations of the “desktop metaphor,” without really understanding the essence of it. You can mark me as one of those people who considers Mac OS 9 as the pinnacle of GUI development (not technical development, though: I’d give that honor to BeOS 5). Aside from very few exceptions, like Exposé, I can’t name anything beneficial that’s been added to the Mac OS or Windows interface in the past, say, six years. Microsoft, with its whole “task-based” approach, is moving in a somewhat unique direction, and while I’ll give them credit for that, I personally don’t see why I should be interested in a “task-based” interface (it looks very limiting), and a lot of the things they’re doing look like they’re being done just for the sake of being different. All I can see Vista offering us is a new level of overkill in icon sizes. I feel the same way about the “universal search” idea that’s been floating around. Some people are very enthusiastic about it, but I don’t see the value of dumping all files into one large repository and searching to get what you want. Spotlight is a great thing to have on the side when I can’t find something, but I would hate to have to use it in place of the Finder.

    Anyway, many technologies have remained unchanged for decades or even longer for good reason, and if anything, I think UI designers need to take a step back and ask themselves if some of the changes they’re making are really improving anything, or just diluting the quality of the product.

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