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Toppling the Desktop

The Mac’s new OS X erodes the familiar user interface metaphor as Web browsers and the command line assert their influence.
November 1, 2000

Reports of the death of the personal computer have been greatly exaggerated. The beige box, keyboard and mouse are still serving most computer users well, while advanced interfaces such as voice recognition and virtual reality are not yet a part of ordinary computing. The trusty “windows” metaphor is going strong too. Yet one familiar PC metaphor-the desktop-may be on its way to history’s virtual dumpster.

A spectacular overthrow of the desktop will soon be seen on the computer that popularized the graphical user interface in the first place: the Macintosh. Its OS X operating system, with its new Aqua interface, is now slated to appear early in 2001 (two years behind schedule). Given the pioneering role of the Macintosh in computer usability, Mac OS X could be setting the standard for interfaces in the early part of this century.

When you first boot up Aqua, it doesn’t look like a radical change. Still prominent are the overlapping windows that have been around for 15 years. The sea change that Aqua brings is to the desktop metaphor, which brought us the representation of documents and folders with iconic images that can be dragged across a virtual “surface.” In Aqua, you still have a trash can, which is what Einstein was said to consider the one essential piece of office furniture. But Aqua’s desktop is not very desklike. There is no metaphorical surface on which to move around virtual file folders. And since many computer users now deal with computer directories far more often than they handle manila file folders, a new metaphorical system is sensible.

Aqua’s transparent windows provide a new “skin” for the Macintosh. But what’s most notably new in Aqua is a row of icons signifying running applications and open documents, called the Dock, that appears at the bottom of the screen. The Dock doesn’t represent the desk or any other part of the office, and it doesn’t even particularly resemble the waterfront protrusion its name evokes. The Dock incorporates the most useful things about menus and iconic representation without taking metaphorical baggage from the precomputing office along on the journey. The Dock borrows some from the Taskbar and Tray, elements that appear at the bottom of the Microsoft Windows interface, but its larger icons provide detailed status information, and it is a more visual element than the text-rich Taskbar.

Aqua is not without quirks. Some aspects of the interface seem crafted to wow the passing viewer rather than to enhance usability. Point at an icon in the Dock, for instance, and it grows in size, the other icons shifting to the side to make room. A nice thought, as it’s then easier to see what this larger icon represents. Unfortunately, even the slightest mouse motion causes the icons to shift sea-sickeningly around. This is a slippery Dock.

While the desktop is out, the windowing aspects of the interface are little changed. Aqua is, in fact, a soft, squeezy windowing system trying to forget the blocky display of the Alto-the pathbreaking graphical computer built during the 1970s at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Will the particular look of the Aqua be on the majority of desktop PCs in another three years? Given the influence of previous Mac hardware and software, the answer is probably yes. In any case, the way tomorrow’s computer interaction works and feels will resemble OS X much more than it will the latest incarnation of Microsoft Windows.

A (Gasp!) Mac Command Line?

One influence on today’s common computer interfaces has come not from the sort of windowing environments that lead up to Aqua, but from the Web browser-the software that, for many users, has come to define computer interaction. The Web has metaphors of its own (often mixed, as when users are required to “scroll” down a “page”). The Web page seldom imitates the desktop, though, using metaphors more closely related to the book-as when a site offers a table of contents or provides a site-specific search engine that functions something like an index. And despite the prevalence of mouse-clicking, use of the Web still depends rather heavily on good old-fashioned typing. You won’t get very far online before you need to key in a URL or search terms.

It is perhaps this realization-that pointing and clicking has its limits-that led the designers of OS X to take what to many will be a surprising step. The command line, never before seen on a Macintosh in the 16-year history of the machine, is provided as an alternative interface. The “Terminal” application allows access to the Unix underbelly of the new operating system. As fans of DOS and Unix will attest, the command line is often superior to graphical manipulation-particularly when the same task is to be carried out on many files, as with “rename every file ending in .htm’ to end in .html’.” As ordinary people routinely develop their own Web sites, it makes sense that these increasingly expert users will want recourse to the command line, even if they aren’t Unix gurus.

Perhaps the next big step in the everyday computer interface will be in the direction of more language-based interaction, achieving much of the power of the arcane Unix command line with most of the simplicity of simple Web queries. Windowing interfaces such as Aqua, and even a few carved-up bits of the desktop metaphor, will continue to be essential. Some of their shortcomings might be squished aside, though, by continuing to borrow from and build upon some of the better aspects of Web-based and command-line interaction.

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