My Turn

The OS X Interface

Nov. 27, 2000 - John Christie

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

I don't know for certain that Mac OS X will be a great computing interface, but I do know several things about it and have used it in the DP4 stage. I have also used both of its progenitors, NeXTstep and Mac OS. This article shares my belief of what the Mac OS X interface is meant to be. It is opinion.

I have now read the umpteenth article lamenting the demise of the Mac OS and proclaiming Aqua a poor follow on. As "traditional" Macintosh utilities like the Control Strip and the Apple Menu disappear, there is much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. I am sick of it. I hope to spread a little rationality here and a little understanding of what OS X is.

Firstly, I would like to start with some perspective. Let us not start with Mac OS 9 as the comparison for Mac OS X. Why? Because Mac OS 9 was not designed for consumers, it was designed for Macintosh aficionados and Windows users. It just so happened that at its core it was the Mac OS, which was designed for consumers, that has allowed it to keep its lead in ease of use. The proper comparison for Mac OS X is System 6. (If you have a pre-1992 Mac, you can download a copy of System 6.0.8 from this page.)

I select System 6 as a discussion point because it is easier to argue that it was based almost entirely on the original Macintosh vision and design, as opposed to OS 9 which was designed subsequent to the disbanding of much of Apple's human interface research groups. Also, System 6 was probably the most widely used of the original Macintosh OS versions and likely the best known. Therefore, I can touch on common experience better by referring to it. Finally, for the most part System 6 differs little from the original Macintosh interface, while OS 9 is very different.

Many of you reading this may never have heard of, or actually used, System 6. It was a version of the Mac OS way back in the days before it was called "Mac OS." It was designed almost exclusively to make a computer easier for new customers to use. Macintosh interface design was still in active development and programmers actually still communicated with real human factors engineers about the best way to add features. Furthermore, for the most part Apple even followed their own guidelines.

If you have the opportunity in the near future, take a copy of System 6 for a spin on an SE/30. It is a delightful OS, but you will note that many of the features of the interface of the modern Mac OS are not there - pop up folders, window shade, control strip, and other widgets were not available. Even the Apple menu did not provide the same functionality that it provides today. You might find this lack of features at first restrictive and perhaps feel somewhat claustrophobic. But if you are a new computer user perhaps you won't (you definitely won't).

Have you ever tried to teach an adult who has never used a computer how to use one? You quickly discover that, whether it is Windows or the much beloved Mac OS, it just isn't easy. I can set up a Windows or Macintosh machine to be easy for a limited number of tasks. I just put a couple of aliases on the Desktop and set the default file folder to a single one ("Documents" on the Mac). Then the new user can perform email tasks, surf the web, write the occasional note, or deal with a few pictures. But if they attempt to venture beyond that, they run into complexity, significant complexity.

In the current Mac OS, there are at least four separate ways I can think of to make a program easily accessible. New computer users don't like this flexibility, because it generates uncertainty about what they "should" do. This is especially true when new programs require them to use a way that they typically don't by installing components into the Control Strip or Apple Menu.

In the current Mac OS, when your computer crashes, freezes, or whatever, there are several simple repairs you must memorize how to do. They require things like understanding the extensions folder to a certain degree. This is a level of complexity that new users find difficult to learn, if not frightening.

In the current Mac OS, connecting to the internet can require the manipulation of three poorly designed control panels, not to mention installing lots of software.

In the current Mac OS, exploration is inhibited by system instability. The Mac OS's ease of use was originally designed to be discovered by exploration.

The interface in the current Mac OS is inconsistent because of haphazard and piecemeal development. Because of changes to the interface, selecting a non-PostScript printer in the current Mac OS is like entering a completely different world.

Further inhibiting exploration in the current Mac OS, much of the functionality is not easily discovered through exploration. For example, popup folders would almost never be accidentally discovered by a new user. It is important that, as you explore, it is easy to discover the features. Burrowing might be discovered, but not easily, and not without some trepidation about what that magnifying glass actually does.

The Desktop can quickly become very cluttered in the modern Mac OS.

Modern Macs operate too quickly for many interface features to serve their intended function correctly (like zoom rects).

Multiple Users is a fine stop gap measure in OS 9, but it really is not a true answer to handling the needs of multiple users of a single computer. The Mac OS design is clearly not for multiple users.

Multitasking in the current Mac OS is mediocre at best. You can learn to live with it, and it will function OK on a fast machine, but many times it is frustrating. Feeling you have to hurry through menus so that the download in the background doesn't fail is not good. Not understanding this and finding out that the download in the background has timed out unexpectedly is even more frustrating.

These are just some of the problems with the current Mac OS in terms of interface (yes, multitasking can be discussed purely in terms of interface). In spite of all of these problems, Mac OS 9 is the easiest to use and most elegant operating system available to consumers today. I believe that one of the primary goals of Aqua is to fix these interface problems. It is supposed to be easy to use for someone who has never used a computer. It is not supposed to be an ideal setup for the "power" Mac or Windows user out of the box.

Mac OS X will be virtually crash proof. This will encourage user exploration, which will foster learning of the interface. Aqua has one unified way to present the most commonly accessed documents. Aqua, with its true multiuser capability, has a default location for documents specific to each user, making saving and opening documents easier. Aqua has very detailed icons which, after using a NeXT for some time, are clearly superior for new users (if somewhat slowing for experienced ones). Aqua uses a single window interface by default. With no windows to manage, there is less interface clutter. Mac OS X has a more unified and streamlined internet setup interface.

A little more perspective is in order now. When the Macintosh came out it was thought to be a useless interface by many "experts". The use of the screen for all those pictures and the waste of processor speed drawing to the screen when a "text mode" could render the names of the files instantly were just the beginning. The GUI only approach didn't allow one to futz with the innards. The lack of WordPerfect for word processing was considered a serious drawback. The same is true of Lotus 1-2-3. It had no expansion slots (and later "incompatible" ones). It didn't come with a BASIC programming language in the box.

The Mac was criticized and condemned every which way. Some of the most vocal (the most vocal) opponents were Apple II users. Does that sound familiar? Who are the most vocal opponents of OS X? Mac pundits. The PC press seems overall impressed by the operating system. I have read no scathingly negative reviews of the beta from the PC press. These have only come from the Mac press.

One might question if Apple should go with a simpler and less powerful GUI interface for their new OS. I believe they should. Users have to get up to speed with the new concepts, and much of the untapped consumer market is not waiting for a P4 with Windows 2001. They don't know it, but they are really waiting for something more like the re-release of the SE/30 for $699.

Power users will have little to worry about. There are already downloadable replacement widgets for almost every missing feature of the current Mac OS. It will be customizable. Don't let the fact that OS extensions are unavailable scare you. There is an even simpler method of modifying the OS, and it is easier to fix and makes the machine more stable (faceless background apps, just like the current desktop printing and controls strip).

That's all for now

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