Does Apple Want to Rethink the User Interface?

December 16th, 2010

All right, so we all know that Mac OS X Lion is going to incorporate some stuff from the iOS, but those few features are mostly special effects, rather than actual productive tools. Chief among the additions are Mission Control, a single window showing open apps and comments, Launchpad, which mimics the icon display on an iOS device, and the full-screen document window feature.

Two other features, automatic saving of documents and resuming apps, are pretty useful, though unexceptional. Especially the first, even though Apple is doing little more than incorporating a feature in the operating system that has long been available in certain apps and by third-party utilities. The real question is why it took Apple over two decades to get the message that people often forget to save critical documents regularly, and need a little help.

With auto-resume, you can reopen to an app in an instant, same as on the iOS. You won’t have to endure those dreadful 20 to 30 second launch times on some software, particularly the stuff that loads plugins and extensions on first launch. But you’ll have to wait for apps to actually support the system frameworks that’ll no doubt be required to allow that to happen. Don’t expect Adobe, Microsoft, or even Quark Inc. to jump on that bandwagon for a year or two.

One other feature in desperate need for improvement is Time Machine, but we don’t know if anything of that sort will happen in Lion. Yes, it’s great to have a fairly seamless automatic backup capability as standard issue in Mac OS X. We all know that Mac users are as bad as their PC counterparts when it comes to protecting their stuff. But Time Machine is also inflexible, and, just as bad, dreadfully slow. You can get third-party utilities that’ll allow more scheduling choices, but you still can’t easily restore an entire volume. You’re forced into a scheme not much different from Apple’s Migration Assistant, which is used to grab your stuff from your old Mac to your new one. It’s not as if you can restart from a backup drive in case something goes wrong with your hard drive, as you can with some of those nifty backup apps that make actual clone backups.

My backup routine, for example, uses Time Machine — which sends my stuff to an Apple Time Capsule — but I also use Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper!, which backs up my entire drive to an external device. It’s a smart product, because you don’t have to back up all your stuff after the initial run. An incremental feature, common with such apps, only copies the new or changed files, and removes the ones you’ve deleted. What this means is that, as of the time my daily backup is done, the backup drive mirrors my iMac’s internal drive. Apple’s clearly got some work to do to catch up.

The most important issue, however, is whether Apple will actually deliver something original to Lion. The fluff is fine, the rethinking of old utilities is also encouraging, but where does Apple want to take us? Would it be a couple of hundred flashy features or minor enhancements that leave the significant capabilities alone, or will Apple try something totally different and attempt to wean us off the old fashioned file/folder metaphor of the last century?

When Mac OS X first came out, fans and critics alike talked about the fancy Aqua interface, sitting atop a tried and true Unix operating system. When I wrote a book on the new OS at the time, my first chapter was meant to show how similar Mac OS X seemed when compared to the first Mac OS in 1984. You still had files, folders, pull-down menus and document windows. Even in 2010, of the skills you learned 26 years ago are readily applied to the Mac of today. Yes, there are interface refinements and some changes in the way things are done, but the learning curve for a mythical time traveler from the days of the original Mac wouldn’t be so severe. I rather think such a visitor would be surprised how similar things turned out. What about Star Trek’s talking computers?

Of course, you don’t change the fundamentals of personal computing casually. It’s nowhere as trivial as ditching the floppy or optical drive, or replacing SCSI and ADB with FireWire and USB. There will be lots of relearning to be done, unless, of course, the replacement interface is more intuitive, more readily grasped even by the inexperienced user.

Today’s iOS has some of that down pat. The original ads for the iPad, with voiceovers from actor Peter Coyote, promised that “you already know how to use it.” Indeed, even a child will touch things to learn more about them. It doesn’t take a whole lot of practice to master an iPad or iPhone’s touchscreen. While there are some power user tips to be discovered, most of you, I’m sure, don’t need them. What you need to know to make these gadgets work is readily grasped without the learning curve.

Now touch isn’t so useful with a large screen, although Apple has been expanding the things you can do with trackpads and, of course, the Magic Mouse. But that’s just input, and it doesn’t change how you actually manage your documents. Worse, even power users may run into trouble, from time to time, dealing with files, folders, and figuring out what goes where. Managing the OS should be an afterthought. It should be seamless, not an ever-present intrusion that far too often prevents you from actually doing something productive with your Mac.

Does Apple have a solution at hand? I’m not expecting to see it in Mac OS X Lion, but I sure would love to be amazed one more time.

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5 Responses to “Does Apple Want to Rethink the User Interface?”

  1. Brian M says:

    something like ZFS would be a big step in making systems easier to manage with multiple drives, although there would still be some use for temporary storage like USB sticks to move data from one location to another.

    As for your Time Machine comments especially about speed. Time Machine is as fast as the interface, same as any other backup solution. If you have an internal drive, or an external FW800 drive, it is plenty fast at what it does. Especially compared to 3rd party solutions if you are doing incremental backups, Time Machine starts the backup within seconds instead of having to calculate for a while.
    Because I’m a tech, I always have a bootable external drive available for emergency work. For some users I have setup a small bootable partition with their basic programs & prefs, or even a clone of their existing system minus most of their user documents. Then Time Machine on its own partition where the backups regularly take place.

    There are many valid means of doing backups, for many people Time Machine is great as it is. Set it up, and forget its even running. For those few that need something different, there are either apps to tweak Time Machine, or entirely different 3rd party apps to do clones/backups.

    It would be nice if there were some more options for how often Time Machine backs up and such, along with some other areas of the Operating System and default apps, but adding options takes programming time along with additional testing time.

  2. Scott Steinman says:

    It’s still too early for commenting about Lion and what it may or may not include. Apple would not disclose everything in Lion this soon. It would allow other companies to copy them easily. Apple will show all of the features at next year’s WWDC, leaving too little time for its features to be copied.

  3. Lazer Wolf says:

    This is an interesting topic and it’s always fun to try and predict what Apple will do next to the OS. Certainly, there is always room for improvement and advancement in the technology they have. But in a sense it seems the changes we are talking about is the desktop metaphor. I think some of the OS and UI changes we see in iOS are in fact changing the metaphor but it remains to be seen whether these will aid productivity. For myself, I am not sure about having all my Apps displayed on my desktop like they are on my iPhone. I actually prefer using an App launcher like Spotlight or Quicksilver or Alfred. Whatever I want is a keystroke away otherwise it is out of sight, not even in the dock. But another aspect of this change that I think gets lost is whether the underlying philosophy of tightly controlling most aspects of UI and OS and keeping things simple will allow Apple to grow into the future. I mean as people become more familiar with OSx and iOS, we all progressively become more advanced users and want to do things that maybe we can’t right now. For example, the finger strokes on the track pad are useful and intuitive. But I’d really like to assign my own functions to a three finger swipe, for example. Will Apple provide tools to allow us to do more things with UI or OS and empower us to adapt the UI or OS so it most productive for us as individuals?

    Thanks Gene.

  4. Travis Butler says:

    “I mean as people become more familiar with OSx and iOS, we all progressively become more advanced users and want to do things that maybe we can’t right now.”

    I’ve seen this idea advanced many times, almost always by tech geeks wanting to make (or keep) their OS of choice more powerful at the cost of being more complex. And while there’s a nugget of truth to the basic idea, I think it’s overall quite wrong, especially as it’s used to advance this argument.

    Look at the history of computers and computing devices. Most if not all of the great surges in non-business computer use have come when computers have been *simplified* – not made more complex.

    Massive adoption of computers at home? Didn’t really happen until the adoption of the GUI – note that it wasn’t DOS systems that grabbed the mass-market, but Windows systems. Mass adoption of smartphones? The iPhone. Tablets have been pushed as a concept for two decades (Go Computing and PenPoint), but didn’t take off in the mass-market until the iPad. MP3 players? Several models, but none really widespread in society until the iPod made them simple, and every attempt to dethrone the iPod with a more-powerful but more complex option has failed. You could probably make the same argument for e-books, that they didn’t take off until the Kindle provided a relatively simple and painless way to buy books and get them on the device.

    I would make the counter-argument that mass-market adoption of technology depends on simplicity, not power at the cost of complexity.

  5. javaholic says:

    …will Apple try something totally different and attempt to wean us off the old fashioned file/folder metaphor of the last century?

    The thing that makes this metaphor still valid is it’s still a logical way of thinking. Wether you’re at home or work, we still put things in a place. Files inside folders. Apple included folders into iOS because it was a highly requested feature. For people that prefer things strewn all over the place that’s fine too. My business partner works this way: oddly her house is immaculate, but at work her files are everywhere – now she spotlights pretty much everything. Me, I prefer structure. Integrating an iOS style way of working into OSX is fine and although its not necessarily a better way of working to me, its Apples way of keeping a synergy and familiarty between OS environments. I’d just like them to keep it ‘optional’.

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