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

“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.