|Apple and the Macintosh|
I have been a user of the Mac since the 128k days when I saw it as a liberation from the UNIX based Honeywell Minicomputers I was using at the time. Little did I realise what the future would bring
Finally, here was a machine I could just turn on, do productive work in a pleasant environment which allowed me to think visually and obtain results impossible from other computers. The addition of a LaserWriter let me produce work of a quality that matched or exceeded that of the large companies I worked with, so important for a small business.
There was a tremendous community feeling surrounding the Mac then because everything was new, with developers and users alike scrambling to find ways to use this wonderful tool. Apple were constantly seeking to improve the usability of their systems and were laying down the foundations for all machines that would have a graphical interface. Many great products were created in that time which have been lost to us - many of them superior to anything we have now - and it has taken until 2006 for application developers to really explore what the new OS can do and utilise it in a creative way. Perhaps with the release of Mac OS 10.5 we will once again see some moves towards a more usable machine.
I feel that much of that early spirit was lost in the years following the introduction of Mac OS X and Apple themselves have largely abandoned genuine innovation and, industrial design apart, have become deeply conservative. It's partly the commodification of the personal computer and the normal tendencies of incumbents to resist change and partly a loss of the pioneering culture at Apple. Perhaps the needs of maintaining a business the size of Apple is best served by being conservative, by not challenging the market too much.
Their last major innovation was the Newton and since then the character of the company has changed. It no longer tries to break the mould or advance the art of computing so that we, as users, can also move forward. The pressures of appeasing the big developers and attracting users away from Microsoft operating systems has forced upon them a degree of conformity and entrenchment. We need them to rethink what computers can be and leave the 20th Century behind.
There are tentative signs that with the forthcoming release of 10.5 (Leopard) they are returning to the kind of thinking that has served us so well in the past.
User Interfaces and interaction design
The importance of the user interface is still greatly undervalued and even those companies, like Apple, who have built a reputation on ease of use are making fundamental errors in their UI for Mac OS X. Usability is often thought to be a matter of opinion but there are good design rules based on human behaviour, some backed by quantitative analysis, that can be used to assess interfaces. Because human beings are so good at adapting, bad design if often tolerated long enough for it to become the accepted way of doing things.
It usually takes someone observing from the outside to see how clumsy a product or system has become but computers are currently being designed by insiders for insiders. New users start with the premise that using a computer will be challenging to use and will more likely blame themselves for poor results than the machine. This is truly a bizarre situation.
The greatest benefits to be gained in our use of machines of every kind is in the area of UI design and yet this is still the most poorly addressed aspect of most products. In cases such as aircraft, cars and industrial plants, bad UI design can cost lives.
In computing, we have had the interface based on icons, windows and menus since 1984 when it was introduced commercially by Apple and very little has happened since. I believe this approach is coming to the end of its useful life in its current form and the empty theatricality of Aqua in Mac OS X only reinforces my view. The underlying OS has developed greatly but the UI laggs behind.
The Newton showed one way that computing could have gone with a simpler interface that does more. We have phenomenal computing performance available to us but computing devices remain as obtuse and impenetrable as ever. This might seem good for computing professionals and just hard luck for the rest of us but in fact the legacy thinking that pervades software design hurts the whole industry and its customers.
Many things need to be rethought: The use of files as the entity for storing information in isolated, fragmented units cannot be the best mechanism for creating the transparent, all embracing view of our data that we would like. With files comes the rigid hierarchies of folders that permit organisation of data in only one way. The dislocation of controlling the screen with a device separated physically away from it and the trend by all computer vendors in eliminating analogue controls with which humans are so comfortable speak of the carelessness of the pervading designs.
These are issues that now fall outside the orthodoxy and, sadly, Apple seems to have become just another vendor of computers mostly indistinguishable in function and usability from their competitors. It's time for them to stop tinkering and start innovating.
It's time for a new force to emerge with ideas fit for the 21st Century instead of rehashes of the 20th.
For those interested in the issues surrounding interface design, I recommend the following:
Jef Raskin is the Father of the Macintosh and has written a lucid and fascinating book entitled "The Humane Interface" and I urge you to read it. Find out more about Jef Raskin and his ideas at <http://cfcl.com/jef/>.
Bruce Tognazzini is another early Macintosh pioneer and now consults on UI matters. He has a very interesting site at <http://www.asktog.com/> where a lot of good ideas on how to improve the user experience and articles describing how usability impacts all aspects of life can be found.
Don Norman is an Apple Fellow and has written extensively on usability engineering and his books "The Invisible Computer" and "The Design of Everyday Things" are basic texts to establish the ground rules for usability. He has a site at <http://www.jnd.org/>. The books go well beyond just computers to investigate all manner of everyday items.
It's interesting that there appears to be no one of their calibre working at Apple any more and the evidence is the poorly thought out and implemented interfaces of Mac OS X, QuickTime Player and Sherlock II. The attitude now is to make it look cool and leave the users to work out the mess for themselves.
Alan Cooper <http://www.cooper.com/content/insights/cooper_books.asp#TIARTA> has written a fascinating book called "The Inmates are Running the Asylum" [ISBN 0-672-31649-8] which is an exquisite exposition of the nature of programming and programmers and how their influence on design has skewed the software creation process to exclude the user. It explores how we can move away from building software before it's designed and concentrating on the goals of a few individuals instead of vainly trying to satisfy everyone. Highly recommended.
John Siracusa writes for the Ars Technica web site <http://www.arstechnica.com/> and has created a set of deeply researched articles about Mac OS X which reveal exactly what is happening inside Apple's new operating system and includes a level-headed and critical analysis of the Aqua interface.
The Interface Hall of Shame <http://digilander.libero.it/chiediloapippo/Engineering/iarchitect/shame.htm> is an interesting catalogue of the horrors that have, and still are being, committed against the user.
Another site called Liquid with views on usability can be found at <http://www.liquid.org/>.
The developer of many early virtual-reality techniques and devices, Jaron Lanier, has written some very interesting articles on the negative effects of Moore's Law on software design and the hopes of artificial intelligence researchers at <http://www.edge.org/>. One may not agree with all that he says but he is challenging the establishment and we need it.
I do agree with him that the rapid increases in computational performance has allowed some grotesque designs to be perpetrated against users. He uses a lovely phrase to describe the brittleness of software that breaks before it bends. He reminds us that software demands perfection in a universe that prefers statistics. Go to the Edge and read more.
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