Lion’s Plan: Set the Stage — Don’t Burn it Down

| Hidden Dimensions

“Change is inevitable - except from a vending machine.” — Robert C. Gallagher

Apple has a vision for the way we’ll interact with Macs in the future. It appears first in Lion. But we can’t get there unless we learn to think differently, to become magicians with our hands so to speak. How will Apple do it?

The history of personal computing shows us that as technology evolves, the way in which we interact with a computer evolves. It’s inevitable. The best ideas of any era are implemented in software, but they’re shackled by the constraints of the current hardware. There comes a time when a major advance in hardare calls out for a change in our UI. It’s that simple.

For example, in the early days of our interaction with computers, the best we could do was to much holes in a tape or a “Hollerith card.” The machines would read the positions of the hole and convert them to commands.

Hollerith Card

Punch card (1960s)

Later we had interactive CRT terminals, and we could actually type commands on the screen, typically in a UNIX shell command environment or a DOS command. This was considered a giant step forward. For example, this command which you can still use on your Mac, rotates an image 90 degrees.

UNIX command line

UNIX Shell (1970s)

In the early 1980s, Apple took us away from the command line with a mouse, desktop metaphor, and pulldown menus. We started with the Lisa, then the Mac in 1984, and this metaphor has continued for 27 years.

Menu command

Pulldown Menu (1980s)

The problem with the pulldown menu is that you have to remember where the command is, then go to the right app and the right menu, and with fine motor skills, select the correct menu item. It all depends on remembering the location of that menu items.

The introduction of the iPad has brought us to a new era of actually touching what we interact with. It’s more instinctive. For example, if I want to rotate an image, the most natural instinct is to reach out and touch it and drag it 90 degrees. We can do that with modern GPUs.

Gesture and touch

Gesture and Touch (21st century)

The power we have in our graphics processors suggests that we now start to interact with our computers with gestures rather than artificial commands. (I suppose striking keys on a keyboard can be considered a gesture as well.)

What that all means is that the 27 year old legacy items of the Mac, the mouse and the pulldown menus, are doomed to be relics of the past — the so-called WIMP interface. Dan Bricklin said it best in his TMO interview with Dave Hamilton, referring to the iPad. These new devices are magical because we are now magicians with our sleight of hand.

Not All at Once Please

Apple is in the process of moving us to the Post-PC era. What this means is that, starting with Lion, there will be increased emphasis on manipulating our Mac with the track pad on a MacBook or the Magic Trackpad on a desktop. But before the transition can start, pieces have to be put into place. For example, Lauchpad, which is optional in Lion, allows us to (almost) reach out and touch an application rather than navigate through a file system, look for it in /Applications, and then double click it with a mouse. (As the default, without aids that have been developed along the way.)

One of the old ways of doing things, managing a file system with a WIMP interface, gets in the way of making this transition. It isn’t that Apple is trying to dumb us down. There will always be, I believe, a facility to dig in, under the hood, and manipulate the Mac in expert ways. For example, the Terminal app remains in Lion in that standard location: /Applications/Utilities. For those people who need to work on the command line, it’s still there. I heard from the Cocoatech people who are working on an update of Path Finder for Lion. Many of us will continue to use it. Developers have unique needs regarding the manipulation of files, so that facility can’t be rashly eliminated. Lion sets the stage; it doesn’t burn it down.

What’s important to remember is that Apple has a grand vision for the future, but they need to implement that vision by offering new users a better way that will entice and delight them. Apple looks at how the vast majority of its users operate their Macs with the feedback mechanism in Snow Leopard. The vision for the future will be the most visible marketing for most of the users as seen on Apple’s web pages and in TV ads. But those of us who want to go out and buy a mouse, pull down some menus, and live on the command line will always, I believe, be able to configure our Macs, sometimes with the help of 3rd party apps, in ways we desire.

Dealing with Change

We expert users of the Mac have our own collection of magic tricks. We write some Applescript or Perl code. We make changes to the OS in the Bash shell. We use Path Finder instead of Apple’s aging Finder. It will be hard to change some of our habits. Apple will help in the process by offering us better ways of working, and before we know it, the mice will end up in a drawer. Apple will, some day soon I suspect, no longer offer a mouse with desktop Macs. After all, 75 percent of Apple’s customers are buying MacBooks and perhaps don’t even need a mouse. Soon, a few younger users may not know what a mouse is or, at least, consider it a silly relic of the past.

If you’re Apple, you’re thinking about making a list of the impediments to moving us all forward. One has to be the mouse. Another is pull down menus. Another is upfront, direct manipulation of the file system. And that means that the classic Finder has to become deprecated. For some excellent perspective on our use of the Finder, see ted Landau’s “Lion Without the Finder.

I see myself moving to a new way of using the Mac. With Lion and my Magic Trackpad, I see myself using more and more gestures. I see myself more directly manipulating objects on my iPad and future Macs. As I do that, I’ll be more productive and efficient. That’s magic in itself.

Apple can move us forward into the future, the Post-PC era, without depriving us of our former skills. But for the vast majority of average, non-expert users, Apple has a vision for a more intimate, direct interaction with our creations. Apple will inspire us and seduce us. To achieve the desired change, however, old technologies that crate barriers need to be deprecated and new building blocks need to be put into place: gestures, Launchpad, Mission Control and full screen focus.

The WIMP interface is on the way out as the default mode. Soon, as Dan Bricklin says, we’ll all be magicians, exercising sleight of hand. It’s just that some people will continue to use some old tricks that many new users will never need. Once again, we move forward, but each in his or her own way, each at his or her own pace of change.

I’m excited about the future and Apple’s vision. You should be too.

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10 Comments Leave Your Own


Great article John, once again you turn a lot of murky fears into a sensible observations.  The alarms being raised about Apple pushing to eliminate direct file access to the Mac even has gotten me concerned, but the Mac will always be needed as the development environment for the iApps and developers just plain have a different set of needs than average Joe consumers.  And as you point out, the Terminal is still there for those power users that need it.

I’ve always thought that it would be great if Apple could come up with a modern-day “Simple Finder” like we had on System 7.  By bringing some of the better UI discoveries of iOS to OS X I think Apple will have accomplished the same feat in a most unexpected way.


For example, if I want to rotate an image, the most natural instinct is to reach out and touch it and drag it 90 degrees.

Ah, yes, but what if you want to rotate it 93 degrees?

One of the things that drives me crazy in many Apple apps is the abundance of sliders without a numerical input method for fine control.  I waste a lot of time sliding back and forth, just missing the number I’m shooting for.


Is Path Finder that good ?

Maybe the venerable Finder is old, but I can still do what I need to do…

(Started out on a friend’s 512ke (Pre multifinder))

Gareth Harris

I am ready for speech.
Hopefully soon a kid will look at a keyboard and ask: “What’s that?”

When I go into a museum I see all my tools. I guess I belong there too.  But I don’t want to hear the word EBCDIC again or ever see another little-endian core dump. I have programmed with a soldering iron on stepping relays and python. Python is better. When it comes to work, I want the computer to do more and more and me to do less and less. We obviously have a long way to go. But look how far we have come. I am reminded of the old apple ads of twenty years ago.

Remember Knowledge Navigator?

Scott B in DC

One of the problems of going without a finder is accepting the Apple method for organizing things. I’m not sure anyone is ready for that. I have a way of organizing my documents where I know where to find everything without searching. I used to debug 0C4 and 0C7 dumps on green bar paper after typing my programs on punch cards. I know the feeling!! Later, I was debugging embedded systems using protocol and logic analyzers assisted by an oscilloscope in order to watch interrupt lines. While some of the modern innovations are neat, I do miss the days when we really had to be inventive to solve problems.


One of Apple’s greatest strengths today is the fact that iOS and OS X have significantly different UIs. The iPad succeeded where a decade of large slates failed because it has an OS designed for the device. Putting a desktop OS on a tablet just doesn’t work well.

I think Apple knows that, but I still worry that they’re going to make my Mac too much like an iPad. I hope John is right.

I have a MacBook Pro at work, but I always use a mouse rather than the trackpad. I use iOS every day, but it doesn’t make me want to touch my Mac display or move to a trackpad input.

Like Scott I have my own way of organizing files and can quickly locate almost any file I use once in a while. Even more, I interact with subversion repositories that impose a file structure on me. Apple can’t go messing with that.


I don’t understand this notion of storing files using a non-hierarchical system.  So when storing all my documents, I can’t explicitly separate work documents from personal documents from tax-related documents, etc.?  What is the alternative being proposed?  Tags?  Metadata?  Color coding?  So instead of an explicit hierarchy that is visually represented by a folder based file system, I just have to keep the structure of the hierarchy in my head?

Somebody explain to me how you abandon a visually representable hierarchical file system and not lose track of the different types and subtypes of files and documents you own.

I always thought that the hierarchical file system came to the fore because it best reflected how organized, systematic minds operated.  You know, the type of mind that I always thought was what we wanted to develop because it would make us more productive and efficient?  Or is that out of fashion already?

I thought that the biggest benefit that computers brought to civilization was that it forced people to be more systematic, logical thinkers thus quickening the pace at which civilization advanced or evolved.  To write an algorithm that solves a problem, you have to first understand the problem, break it down to its logical constituent parts, analyse and understand those, and from there devise a systematic, step-by-step solution that is so ‘simple’ that an unthinking machine can implement it.  Even if one didn’t write code, using a computer still demanded a getting one’s thoughts and one’s life more logically and systematically organized.

Are we now saying that computers should accommodate a dumbed-down life?  I hope not because the end result of that (though I trust people will reverse course in time to prevent such an outcome) is the situation portrayed in Wall-E where people are helpless, hapless and hopeless.


@aardman - Yes, computers work well for organized systematic minds. But not all minds are like that, and that’s a good thing. After all, that’s why the Mac became popular with artists. You don’t have to have that kind of organized systematic mind to use it. you just use it.

But I don’t think your personality type will be underrepresented in the way of things moving forward. I believe that Meta-data will save the day. Meta-data that you supply and data that is gleaned from the contents of your documents. You want taxes? Natural language search will take care of that. You want to organized? Organizers will help with similar metaphors as files and folders.

Remember, those files that you systematically (dare I say anal-retentively? smile ) move about in your file hierarchy are not actually side by side on your spinning disk (or side by side bits on an SSD), indeed, the dick driver may not even store the contents of one document contiguously (doesn’t that really bug you? Don’t tell me, you use a disk defrag program don’t you?).

I’m sure that logical thinkers like you (and yes, me) will be able to be very productive in the new paradigms, but more artistic, right-brained folks will be able to be creative without struggling with the need to be an “organized, systematic mind” just to operate the computer.

Far from “dumbing down”, the new computing may free the user to think holistically, to be able to see the forest and not have to worry about all the individual trees. That requires more computing power, not less.


I believe many systems, consoles and desktops are already moving to and beyond the whole “touch” interface entirely. With developments from Sony’s Playstation, Microsoft’s XBOX and others in the works; we are seeing true gesture control.

I can’t help but flashing to visions of the movie Minority Report were 3D like images are moved with hand gestures.
The XBOX in general seems to have a firm grasp on gesture controls. The Kinetic add-on they offer is quite polished for a relatively new piece of tech.

I can see the development from Apple’s iPad into a “Touch” Airbook on into a “Touch” Macbook. However, I am with the previous poster in that, I do not really “crave” an iPad experience on my Macbook. I like the solid feel of a keyboard and the control I feel by using my senses to create content. I think that we may become to unattached to skills such as writing and typing if we continue to “simplify” the user interface on any of our devices.

Of course, all that said there are plenty of situations where gesture control or touch panels would make prefect sense. Disabled individuals are a prime example of this and I encourage this in every way. That lazy moment where I do not want to get up or locate the Remote for the TV would be another example, but not a critical one.

Apple is definitely the leader in the field at the moment and I am excited to see what they come up with none the less. Rollable OLED?


John Martellaro

furbies: Yes, Cocoatech’s Path Finder is that good.

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