Mac Interface - 1984
   
When you first come across a new operating system, what's the first thing you look for? Chances are, it's the user interface. You immediately hope that what's under the hood is reliable, secure, fast and stable - and quite evidently, there's only one way to test all of these, and that's by using it. But before you are prepared to do that, chances are you want it to look nice. Stable Operating Systems, no matter how fast or stable, are pretty much ignored these days if they don't have a pretty nice UI. As proof, how many of us use a console?

With all the distributions of Linux, the various iterations of Windows and MacOS, it's probably quite clear to you now - your standard is an icon-filled desktop, with some form of bar/dock that allows access to programs and files that you use the most. And if you consider the original Xerox system that both Apple and Microsoft were "inspired by," we certainly have not come very far. Our systems are faster, can handle far more graphic capabilities than before, and yet our interactions with our desktops haven't changed at all. The greatest leaps would have to be the Dos Manager to early Windows versions to then Windoes 95. The Mac OS has stayed roughly the same in concept, except eventually adding a dock. And Linux has always been somewhere between the two - sometimes with innovations on the bar/dock notion, but still in the form of a bar/dock.

As for me, I'm tired of seeing squarish icons on a wallpaper, with a bar spanning one or more of the screen sides. Have we honestly come up with nothing new?

A large part of the reason why the look has not changed is because of how we view the operating systems. They contain programs which we must work within - in Windows, these are contained programs - like working within a blackboard, placed on a table top. In the Mac/Linux world, items are individually contained - like mini blackboards scattered across the surface of your table. Icons are little push buttons that cause these blackboards to appear on our table top. The mouse is like the tip of our finger, moving around and selecting items. Basically, the operating system's user interface is modelled like a real world setup.

Obviously, it's easier to design in the world we know. It's all the more graspable and intuitive - yet, we've still cornered ourselves by restricting our image to a single image.

As an example, consider the mouse. You intuitively place your hand on it - move it up when you want the cursor to move up, move it left when you want it go lef, etc. Pretty intuitive, right?

But what if you've never interacted with a computer in your entire life, and immediately associated the mouse with another similarly shaped object in your mind? When I first taught my grampa to use a computer, I was pretty taken aback when I saw him using the mouse - something he was using for the first time ever. He started moving it as though it were a car. Pushing it forward to move up, then rotating the mouse as though it were making a left hand turn, and then moving it forward again.

I invite you - if you haven't already done so - to try this out for yourself. What you'll find, if you can manage the mental switch, is that you immediately get a different impression. You sense that the mouse isn't working properly. Here you have the mouse, driving forward, making a left turn, and continuing forward, and all the time it just moves up.

If you get an unsettling feeling when you do this, I ask you - what does this really mean? To me, it means that our mental image of operating systems can change. Right now, the desktop of computer precisely represents a physical desktop. Icons represent buttons. And yet despite this, it's still possible, when using the mouse in a different manner, to feel like the interface should function differently.

What if the "desktop" was a series of roads, on which we'd have to drive the mouse to the icon - a "house" - we wanted to open up. What would the interface look like then? Maybe it would be less efficient - or maybe not. Maybe switching the representation would open new doors of possibilities we hadn't considered before.

As another example - what if our orininal operating system user interface was not a series of buttons on a table top. What if we considered them as books in a shelf - organized in a manner of our choosing. In other words - long vertical bars spanning the screen, instead of small square icons. Why do we need icons? Each vertical bar could represent a different category - Programs, Pictures, Games, etc. Within each "book", the files and programs would be indexed rather than layed out as buttons.



It may not look the greatest - but I threw this together in 15 minutes. Imagine if I had a team of actual designers working with me.

So let's say you want to open up Photoshop? Go to the P tab much like you would in the Yellow Pages, and there you have it. Or, completely differently - we could break out of the entire "window" concept and just have things contained in a single box - like a sliding desk...



Maybe these ideas aren't original, maybe they're not even all that nice looking, and maybe they aren't better than what we've got. The point though is they are different. And if we're not experimenting with different, we're always going to have the same look - no matter what is under the hood. In other words - how would you feel about your Porsche if it looked like a Ford Focus, but with all the Porsche innards?
Comments

Sorrel

Sorrel

I like that you ended with the word "innards" and a question.
If there wasn't some constancy users would get confused:
People don't like change.
Personally, I like your bookshelf idea, mostly because, like John Legend, I'm "bookish."
Your bookshelf idea would also better work with Fitts law which would make it a much more user friendly interface... not that I know anything about computers... just ergonomics.
Way to think outside the window.
REPLIES: alishahnovin

alishahnovin

ALISHAHNOVIN

Replying to Sorrel:
That's true that people don't like change... but they eventually accept change when they find they're getting bored with the same thing. And I think lately, operating systems have become boring to people. That's why Mac/Windows/Linux are all trying to punch up the same layout - adding glows, fades, transparency, and all sorts of flashy things - ie, a lot of bells and whistles. Functionality hasn't changed though (not much, at least - though there are some nice new features to enhance usability and speed) and that's why if you were to see PC, which runs Windows Vista and has the power to run Vista in all it's glory, you would think I'm running Windows 95. I don't have a fancy wallpaper even, nor do I use the advanced start menu that lists documents and programs together. Maybe I'm resisting the change of the bells and whistles (mostly the whistles), but I'd be more than willing to adopt an altogether new system if I found it to be better than the existing one.

Alamir

Alamir

I've always wanted an OS system that acts like a tree. Right now going through files feels pretty linear. But with a tree format you can actually scale a bunch of files efficiently. The only problem with the tree format is that if you have too many folders then you end up with two many branches.

Sorrel

Sorrel

I hate whistles. Bells are okay. I saw your tree format Al, and it is ergonomically challenged. Pretty though. I'd adopt it anyway just for a change.

Jackson

Jackson

I think the idea of a road and houses is neat - but all your offerings have something in common (and Alamir's tree): They are things we have out here in the physical world.

You almost break free of immitation with the idea you pitch about a box:

"Or, completely differently - we could break out of the entire "window" concept and just have things contained in a single box - like a sliding desk"

Except that even here, you liken it to a sliding desk. There is no criticism of you in here - I don't have any better suggestions myself (and yours are really cool). What I wonder is this - is it possible to create a completely novel OS, with no real-world referents? Innards?



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