Motion: The Next Evolution of the User Interface?

Most people seem to like the little animations that are present in the Mac OS X interface. Most people also seem to think them to be of little practical value.

I beg to differ. Not with the first notion, but with the second.

I have come to the conclusion that Apple is slowly, though perhaps unknowingly, developing the next evolution of the User Interface for Personal Computers. (The first big one, or several ones, was of course the original Mac Graphical User Interface, which did away with typing a lot of weird code.)

Actually I have no grounds for the "unknowingly" part, other than the fact that this will be a revolution indeed, and that hardly anybody seems to recognize it, so it seems very likely that even the Apple programmers behind it are not really cognizant of how important this could turn out to be.

If you are unfamiliar with the new Mac OS X (Prounounced Ten), now in public beta testing, and have not read much about it, here are a couple of examples of what I mean: The most famous is the fact that windows and documents, when they they are minimized or maximized, meaning they go to or from their nesting place in the "dock" at the bottom of the screen, do so in a neat flowing way, like a ghost in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Not only does it look good, but you get a clear idea what is happening to the window, and where it will be when you need it.

Another example, which came into being with the public beta, is the fact that when you launch an application by clicking on its large, nice icon in the dock, the icon starts bouncing up and down in a funny, slow-motion way while the app is launching, showing you that something is happening.

A third example has been around since Mac OS X Developersi Preview 3, but has not been talked about much: when you log into the computer, if you write your password wrong, the login window does not show you a dialogue box with an error message. So what does it do? It shakes its head! To be precise about it, the whole window shakes back and forth a couple of times, very rapidly, like an impatient small child refusing to eat his peas.

I just had to try this a few times, it made me laugh.

But healthy as laughter is, surely that is not the purpose of an operating system? Outside of Windose 3.1, no, but there is more to it than that. The point is that even without any words telling me what was happening, I had absolutely no doubt what was going on! I just knew, instinctively. And even without the benefit of extensive tests, I am willing to bet my racer-mouse that almost all computer users, new or old, will have no trouble either.

Words are problematic. To give but one example, this very day I was reading the (sadly last) Metcalfe Report from Infoworld, and it talked about a new concept: Anticiparallelism. "Antiparallelism", I asked. "Why would anybody be against parallelism?" But I misunderstood. It is not "Antiparallelism", it is "Anticiparallelism", which means that the computer uses idle processor power to anticipate what you might need done next. Long story, but my point here is just that words are often misunderstood. Actions speak louder.

And Apple has introduced some actions in OS X which speak loud and clear. They are neat, good looking, funny, and they are understood at gut level by anybody likely to use a computer.

Now, the big danger here is that programmers who do not understand the basic concepts of "understanding" and "communication" will start introducing cute animations into the user interface which have little meaning, are distracting, and possibly even confusing. Actually, this happening is a virtual certainty, but if Apple keeps a bulldog-like hold on this bone of contention, and does it really right, I believe we have a revolution on our hands.

Again.

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