The Classic Macintosh GUI and its Evolution With the Internet

In the early 1980s, expert computer users worked (struggled) with their PCs and workstations on the command line. Back then, Steve Jobs instinctively knew that in order for ordinary people to use a computer at home and school, a revolutionary graphical user interface would be required. But now, 30 years later, vastly more powerful computers connected on the Internet have dramatically changed how we can interact with them and each other. How has the classic Mac GUI both stood up and also changed with the times?


This question and many more have been addressed in a brilliant essay by Adam Baker, previously with Google, Marketcircle, BlackBerry and Apple. The low-key title "The Post-Mac Interface" belies the amazing depth of thought and research that went into this brilliant work.

The Macintosh GUI in 1984. (From the Baker article.)

Exhibiting considerable insight, experience and research, Mr. Baker humbly takes us through the evolution of the best thinking about how humans should interact with a computer. One of the major points of reference is a 1996 article by Don Gentner and Jakob Nielsen entitled, "The Anti-Mac Interface."

The Anti-Mac Evolution

By 1996, the public Internet was emerging. Gentner and Nielsen pondered how powerful, connected computers would come to affect how we interact with them. Some of the classic elements of the 1984 Macintosh GUI withstood the test of time while others had to be revised and expanded.

It's been 20 years now since that Anti-Mac treatise. In that time, we've not only seen the vast proliferation of the Internet, but now the technology is woven into our lives in a very personal (and tactile) way with the advent of products like the iPhone.

Driving the very personal, manipulatable Internet is the question about the development of expertise with computers. Average users haven't become more knowledgeable of how computers, of any size, operate nor do they need to be. For example, ask any modern iPhone users how it works, and you'll get a very blank look. But the same person will exhibit great expertise in connecting with a friend, shopping for a gift, finding the closest Italian restaurant or following directions to the closest light rail station.

Macintosh GUI in 2015. Image credit: Apple.

The Post-Mac Era

Adam Baker takes us beyond the "Anti-Mac" thinking of the nascent Internet in 1996 and casts a long and thoughtful eye on the 20 years since, coining the term "Post-Mac" era. He argues that some of the original ideas about the GUI have come full circle while others have evolved in subtle ways in our Mac lives.

For example, we started with direct manipulation of objects in the 1984 desktop. For a time, we thought A.I. would allow us to delegate everything. Now, the richness of the Internet and very visual feedback, combined with the tradition of aesthetic integrity, allow us to bank, search, shop, monitor, and socialize with ease. The Post-Mac era has further developed certain principles shown here.

The evolution of Mac & GUI thinking.

This treatise by the author is extraordinary in its scope, research and analysis. (I smiled when I saw a references to Star Trek's Lt. Commander Data.) Even as it lays a technical foundation for the man-machine interaction, it provides profound insights into how we've evolved since 1984 in subtle ways. It also informs us of the challenges the modern OS and app designer faces with the Internet in full bloom.

This encyclopedic essay is must reading for the modern computer user. Apple customers will never look at their Mac or iPhone the same way again.