Posted by Calixte Pictet | 11 comments
Our GUI is getting old
Image: The Xerox Star desktop, released in 1981, two years before
Apple releases Lisa
Did you ever wonder why your computer seems so much similar to your first box back then in your youth? Did you ever wish some witty invention could re-revolutionize the desktop just like the graphical user interface did back then when Apple released Lisa?
The problem is that our interfaces haven’t changed much since then. The Apple II DeskTop in 1985 is practically
identical to “Aqua” (Mac OS X today). Yes, there have been evolutions beyond the shiny stuff like the trans-lucid menu bar, and cool zooming effects. The easiest to spot true interface addition is the dock. The dock is an iconic peace of gloss that sets Apple’s latest OS appart. But even that is not much. Basically, a dock is a non-extendable panel* that has a cool scaling effect when you mouse over it.
There are differences between current environments (the menubar sits on top of the screen in Mac OS X but is positioned inside the windows in other GUIs) but at first look they are basically the same: they all follow a similar “desktop metaphor”, interpreted as such:
Your whole screen (or practically) is your desktop. You can place objects on it that are called “icons” and that represent files or folders. Folders are directories that open up in “windows”in which you can browse all your files. A window is a square object that you can move around, hide, or play with on your screen. The selected window is in front of the other windows, blocking them (partly or entirely) from view**. All applications run in windows (except for a few full-screen programs like games).
There’s one thing that bugs me in what I just wrote: not all applications run in windows. Full screen applications don’t seem to need to. One very good example coming out of Redmond is the Windows Media Center. WMC has an interface of its own, and is capable of browsing files and folders just as well. Plus it has the advantage ow being able to use the whole screen. If we suppress the need for things like the taskbar, the titlebar, or the menubar (all of which are eliminated in WMC) we can win valuable space***. Others ideas have also come out.
Tabs are getting even more popular in browsers, proving that users generally prefer to have all their pages inside only one window. Google has taken this idea to an extent with Chrome, and Chrome OS might have the first interface to fully suppress both windows and the menubar. Even Microsoft realizes that interfaces are lagging. They have removed the menubar’s drop-down menus in favor of an innovative “ribbon” interface on most Microsoft Office products.
There seem to be a few innovations, so why am I complaining? Well the problem with computers is that they have become so intricately intertwined with people’s lives that people got used to them. So much, actually, that every time something changes they complain. Windows Vista was not that bad (if it came pre-installed and if no bloatware came with it), but people hated it because of a lot of misinformation by the media and anti-Microsoft individuals, and also because it changed their computing experience.
The true and biggest error in Vista is that it came way to late. The whole world had gotten used to XP, and they didn’t want to start doing things differently, even if “different” meant better. Really, Vista’s interface changed very little. It got more beautiful, more useful, and slower. But computers had gotten better too, so that wasn’t a real problem per se****. The little change it had brought, however, was hard to swallow for most users. Vista was an error in many respects, but that error was widely exaggerated.
Complaints like these spark up every time something longstanding is radically changed. These complaints generally die out as the dissidents pick up the changes and get used to them. Sometimes these complaints are based on something real, like those during the release of KDE 4*****, but they are almost always based on misunderstanding and reluctance to see things in a new light. KDE 4 is great, and most (open minded) users agree on that now. Going back to XP from a working Vista installation is anoying to say the least.
The folks at Apple have understood this. They haven’t radically changed the look of their OS since it began, but rather have built on top of it. Some long-standing Mac users are under the impression that the Mac OS look has not changed since they started using computers from Cupertino. The truth is that is has evolved slowly, and never dramatically, to where it is today. In a sense, Apple’s strategy is great. They evolve without the user experiencing confusing changes that (s)he does not understand. The downside is that there is no way to innovate core components of the user interface (UI). Imagine: Steve Jobs decides drop-down menus are out-dated. What to do next? You can’t suddenly decide to remove the menubar that has been at the top of the Macintosh’ screen for decades and replace it with a ribbon menu.
Why have pie-menus (circular-shaped menus) not become more common? Their advantages are considerable as they permit users to repeat similar tasks without the nead to read or even look at the menu. They have already been extensively tested in games. Several add-ons for Mozilla Firefox implement this feature on the browser, but it makes no sense if the pie-menu system is not generalized to the whole interface. Ribbons, again, are becomming more and more common. MS Office’s main Open Source competitor, Open Office, is developing a ribbon interface of it’s own. Conclusion? I’m much more efficient with than without.
Media players like Windows Media Center show that you don’t even need a mouse to have a user friendly and efficient UI. Graphical interfaces could generalize the tab-system implemented on chrome for the whole OS.
We could look at things a new way.
And maybe we would find something better than what we are using today. Our graphical user interfaces are based on the same principles discovered by blind experimentation at Xerox’s PARC labs in the ’70s (Xerox Star, released in 1981, thumbnail) back when the GUI was invented. Now that GUIs have become part of our lives, maybe we could imagine things being completely different. I used to say I would buy the first OS that fully suppressed the old list based menus (by replacing them with pie-menus, ribbon menus, or anything more innovative).
I’m still waiting.
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* An extended panel runs trough the whole width of the screen (like Window’s Start Bar) and a non-extended panel uses only the length it needs to show the objects that it holds.
**There are “always on top” options in some window managers.
***these generally take up 24 pixels of height each. That’s 72 (24×3) times the the width of your screen lost. On my netbook, that’s about one fith of my screen real-estate.
****A bigger problem was the re-emmergence of Apple in the market, through their newly acquired and refurbished OS.
If you are interested in the evolution of desktop environment interfaces, you’ll probably love guidebookgallery.org (from where I shamelessly stole the Apple II screenshot)
The Xerox Star screenshot courtsey of toastytech.com