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. Ken Collins says:

    Imagine this. Land vehicles have had round wheels since the dawn of human history. There has been no substantive design change. The wheels have been made of various materials, and a fabrication techniques are still the same, but wheels are still round! And, worse yet, we are still using them!

    What’s even WORSE [horrors} computers have been using CPUs even longer than that! No one has thought of a different way of doing it.

    So I am not too concerned that the desktop metaphor isn’t gone after 20 years, or that computers have CPUs.

    Real technological advances do not arise out of the desire to get rid of something. They arise out of the desire to add something new. No one sat around to figure out how to obsolete railroads and came up with the airplane as an idea. The airplane was invented because someone wanted to fly.

    So if you sit down and try to figure out how to get rid of the desktop metaphor, or the mouse, or the keyboard, or for that matter even the CPU, they aren’t going to invent squat. Inventive genius arises out of the desire to create something new, not to obsolete something for the sake of obsoleting it.

    Sometimes a new invention supplants an old one–we no longer use punched paper tape. Other times a new invention fills a gap without obsoleting anything else.

    The desktop metaphor is only 20 years old, give me a break. I have houseplants older than that. The least efficient and least successful technique is to replace something for the sake of replacing it. The hardest technique is to come up with something totally new. The best and most efficient technique is to improve what already is and let serendipity happen.

  2. Poster says:

    Real technical innovations do arise out of the desire to get rid of something. Ahem. You use a dishwasher. You use a microwave. You drive a car. All of these arose out of a desire to get rid of something — be it manually washing dishes, firing up the stove, or getting on a horse to go somewhere. Likewise, GUI/OS innovations often arise out of a desire to eliminate something or another. In the case of universal search, it’s the desire to remove the overhead of keeping track of where your files are. There is no good reason to burden the user with hours of manually navigating file structures if the OS can bring up the relevent files quickly. Can the OS keep track of that for me? Sure it can. In short, efficiency is a true catalyst.

  3. Our computing platforms may be stuck in 1984, but our government is stuck in 1984. I’m more worried about the latter.

  4. Ian says:

    “In the case of universal search, it’s the desire to remove the overhead of keeping track of where your files are. There is no good reason to burden the user with hours of manually navigating file structures if the OS can bring up the relevent files quickly. Can the OS keep track of that for me? Sure it can. In short, efficiency is a true catalyst.”

    I think it’s a bit different, though. File management based on universal search isn’t objectively better or more advanced than the desktop metaphor. Some people are ecstatic about it, but I could care less. It really depends on how you use your computer. The people who tend to leave all their files on the desktop in a fearsome, screen-covering grid are going to get a lot of mileage out of universal search, but people like me, who like to create deep folder hierarchies, would just be slowed down by it. I can typically remember where I stored a file faster than Spotlight or a similar service can find it for me. What’s more, I can instantly make groupings and sub-groupings of files that are completely unrelated to the files’ attributes, which seems like it would take a bit of time in a search-based system. Universal search isn’t better or more advanced than the file/folder concept; it’s just a different way of doing things that will serve some people better. We’ll have to wait a while longer (and I think it will be quite a while) before the real revolution in UI comes along. I’m in no hurry to ditch what I have, though.

  5. sjk says:

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

    One limitation of the desktop/file/folder metaphor and content management UIs is being too tightly coupled to the hierarchical filesystem.

    I’d like UIs for managing content without being so heavily dependent on files/folders as a primary method of organization enforced by the filesystem. The trouble with “files” is they want to exist in only one folder (managing aliases/links for them is awkward). The trouble with “folders” is they can only have one parent. They’re begging for a new dimension for creating more arbitrary relationships.

    I can imagine something like an iTunes/iPhoto metaphor on steroids for (meta)data content management, with an abstraction that separates storage details (the “Library”) from organization details (“playlists/albums”). With virtual objects representing multiple instances of files/folders, traditional nested hierarchies could co-exist with other content arrangements, as ephemeral or permanent as necessary. Creating multiple “projects” with different lifetimes that share content could be as easy as creating/deleting iTunes playlists. Modifying the actual content gets tricky; sort of analogous to copy-on-write and other memory management issues. I’m just brainstorming a few ideas here, not fleshing out implementation details. 🙂

    I hope there’s a forward escape from the tedium of traditional file management (which I’ve mastered and outgrown), with backward compatibility for those who still prefer it that way.

    PS – Comment previewing would be useful here, Gene. The optional live previewing on Hawk Wings and Red Sweater blogs is quite nice.

  6. Olson says:

    I have thought a fair bit about input options to replace the KM combo. The best thing I came up with was sign language using sensors on you hands. It would be quick, ergonomic and based on a tested and established form of communication. The downside would be the same of speaking, in that anyone can see what you are “writing”.

    I think the biggest problem with todays input methods is that the keyboard we use is designed for a command line interface, with the mouse just thrown in back when the GUI came along. The optimal number of arms for operating a modern computer is three. Hardly ideal for humans. I think the best way to go is to evolve current technology into something more adapted to GUI’s. One way could be to make use of something like the Optimus Keyboard. When a user is finished typing his email he can, instead of mousing up and clicking the send button, press a function key on his keyboard, and the keys turn into various commands (like Send, Save, Attach etc.), allowing him to keep his hands on the keyboard as much as possible. This way you could do mostly without the mouse for regular office applications, resulting in a more ergonomic, but still user friendly operation of the computer. Productivity might even go up.

  7. Jörgen Olsson says:

    Think about cars – nothing has changed with the user interface in the last 70 years or so. The way to interact with a machine really has to do with how you can interact – what technolology allows. Today the fast internet connections and cheap microphones and cameras has made video chat possible, but that is still just improving how we interact with ech other.
    I think human interaction is so much more important than how we interact with the machine – and here we can see email. chat, blogging etc adding so much more to the user experience that we really should not complain about the mouse and the keyboard.

  8. Will says:

    Touch Screen. Yeah it’s done, and it is do-able, but apple can make it standard! Like at Citibank when i deposit or withdraw money, we can navigate by touching the screen. It removes the mouse from the picture. We can just use a keyboard. But even so, the keyboard can be updated. Making it touch sensitive too. Some people might not like it, but i the USB ports will allow people to work via classic standards. THAT MY FRIEND, IS A R E V O L U T I O N IN USER INTERFACE.

  9. Galen D. W. says:

    Nice article. However, I think that, at least for the foreseeable future, the mouse and keyboard are here to stay. The “Star Trek”-esque technology just isn’t here yet, and the technical hurdles are significant. There’s also problems with the voice-interactive user interface. Example: Say you want to open a file to take a quick look, say a graph you made a few weeks ago. It’s buried six levels down in your user folder. You don’t remember the file name but you do know roughly how to get there, but not exactly. How do you tell the computer how to access it? “Open that one file” won’t cut it.

    As to Will’s comment (directly above), making a new type of keyboard and a touch-sensitive screen is not a revolution. All the technology to do it is at least five years old (they were talking about laser-projected keyboards in 2001), and it doesn’t really change anything.

    I don’t think we should go trying to “revolutionize” anything until we’ve exhausted all possible options, and I don’t think we’ve come to that point with the computer GUI yet.

    And remember, there’s always the command line…

  10. Will says:

    My point is not in regards to how old the technology is, my point is to make the technology commercial. Making it commercial will be revolutionary. I think people will love the idea to just touch the screen. Most people are visual learners. Like a kid picking an ice cream from an ice cream truck menu; he doesn’t name the ice cream, he points and says “that one!”

    So basically transform the palm pilot idea to a Personal Computer.

    Apple likes to make things as simple as possible. Touching is simple, speaking is complex (to some degree). Just imagine right now, for every thing you’re going to do, close a window, click on the dock, open your folders, or just even shutting down, eliminate the mouse from your steps and just press the screen. With the mouse you just “point and click”; that’s 2 steps.

    Make life easier and just make it just 1 step, just point.

    Obviously I’ve been influenced by Nintendo’s hand held system the Nintendo DS. But I really believe that it would be great if everyone does it. Lot’s of money to be made there.

  11. Olson says:

    I think you could be right, Will. But I think it would take more than just adding touch sensitivity to todays hardware. Touching a screen that is verical in front of you is tiring and unergonomic. The best place for a touch screen would be horizontal-ish on the desk right in front of you.

    I would like to see this put into computers. If it is as good as in those Multi-Touch videos. How about a multi-touch-screen iMac with a stand that lets you use it both vertically and horizontally? I’d buy that.

  12. sjk says:

    From the main product page:

    Liquifile is a new file browser for Mac OS X. An alternative Finder, if you will.

  13. James says:

    well – here is the multi-touch screen and more. Who is going to be first with this? Out of all the stuff I have seen and read about this seems to fit the bill for a future computing interface more than other. Brilliant!

  14. Michael says:

    Hmmm seems many people don’t remember stuff b4 1984.

    The first Graphical interface puter in production, color and all… that I remember, was also known as the WOZ… right WOZ?

    It was the Apple IIGS. And in it’s final stage of development it had slots for SIMM’s chips, slots for… MSDOS cards and.. would you believe… an actual working Mac card. It had other stuff too… until someone (SJ) pulled the plug.. and he did that literally.

    THE GS WOZ featured the first Integrated desktop Word Processor/Spread Sheet/Database/Communication package…. called Appleworks GS. WOZ rocked… still does. Loved the 3D dream from the guy who dreamed up the Apple II.

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