Monday, November 30, 2009

The Non-Evolution of Computer Interfaces

If you look at the original iPod's user interface compared to the interface of the iPhone and iPod touch, there's a huge jump in complexity. It's true that the iPhone is very much a different device that does so many more things and also happens to play music- but even the music interface on the iPhone is much more complex than the first or fifth iPod was. The iPod's user interface didn't really increase in complexity until the big jump from the iPod to the iPhone and iPod touch.

Seeing this, it's interesting to look at the non-evolution of the computer user interface from 1984 to now. The overall layout is very much the same now as is it was then:

The first computer with a graphical user interface was a huge deal at that time, but was complex then and is still complex now. The first iPod user interface was incredibly simple and the iPhone user interface is more complex, but it's pretty easy for a beginner to pick up and start using either one. They're intuitive. It's not so easy to teach someone who's never used a computer before to use one (more on this later). Operating a computer properly would take three hands- two on the keyboard and one on the mouse. The menu bar with drop-down menus hidden behind semi-descriptive words like "File" and "Edit" isn't exactly beginner-friendly and in my opinion is pretty clunky. There are a lot of improvements that a talented interface designer redesigning the computer interface could make to make it simpler and more intuitive, yet the interface of today remains much the same as 25 years ago. Back to teaching a beginner to use a computer- wait, first you need to find someone who doesn't know how to use a computer- that's the hard part. And that's a big reason why things have remained the same for so long- people gritted their teeth and learned how to use this kind of interface because there was no alternative available. It was fight through the trouble of learning it for the first time or don't use one at all. More than 1.5 billion people chose the first option. This might seem silly to people who have been using computers for a long time now, but it's painful to try and teach someone who has never had any interaction with a computer before. As more and more people learned this type of interface, it becomes entrenched and becomes very hard to change as more and more people learn to use a computer with that interface. 

Another important reason for the non-evolution of the computer interface is that Microsoft used this interface in Windows and they've dominated the OS market for so long. I don't believe that they really thought that the possibility of making a change to increase the usability and overall design of the user interface was a viable change to make. If they did, it would be really hard to change the interface on millions of Windows users. Apple after Steve Jobs returned in 1997 has probably thought about the clunkiness of the computer user interface-there's probably a protoype of a redesigned iPhone-like Mac OS (under a black cloth, of course) at Steve Jobs' house. However, there was no way after Steve Jobs returned that they could have redesigned the Mac OS interface because Apple was trying to stay alive and Apple users and customers weren't beginners looking for a simple and intuitive way to operate a computer- they were switchers- Microsoft users who were already familiar with the drop-down menu bars and buttons, and Apple would have to keep their interface as similar to that as possible, otherwise the barrier to switching to Mac would have been even higher. It's funny the way things work- even after Windows copied the Mac interface, Mac OS still had to "copy" the Windows interface to draw switchers.

It's no secret that multi-touch will make its way to the computer. The iPhone has the most beautiful input method around- the screen is the input device, instead of having a screen and then separate input devices like the keyboard and mouse. The screen can change and adjust to fit exactly what you are doing. When this spills over into computers, they will be much easier to use and beginner-friendly, but will also enable a better experience for the rest of computer users. The interface won't just be a case of eliminating the mouse and keyboard and then tapping File with your finger, then tapping Save and bringing up an onscreen keyboard at the appropriate times, the whole interface will be redesigned (I think).

It seems just about certain that at some point Apple will come out with a tablet-like device, which is the exact in-between device between the iPhone and the Mac. This interface will likely be a lot like the iPhone- and from there Macs could turn into tablets- with touch-oriented intuitive user interfaces.

There would be a few significant hurdles to redoing Mac OS- even though it would be easier to use for beginners, Apple isn't really worried about getting beginners to come to their platform. It would have to be able to do some really complex things. The iPhone has shown that you can do that with a touch interface- it would be more usable all-around and could do those complex things just as well, and hopefully much better than you can now.

Apple may have already proved this with the iPhone, but they will need to get developers to develop for this new interface. They'll need enough developers not making fart noise apps to develop apps for future Macs (and Microsoft and Adobe to redesign their key applications for it as well). It will be interesting to see what Apple will do about app approval for the tablet and future devices.

Apple would have to be able to get people to take the plunge and actually start using this new interface- which would be much easier now that there are so many people out there using Apple products. Twelve years after Steve Jobs returned, there are over 220 million iPods sold and over 20 million iPhones sold. That means that there are a ton of people who have had contact with Apple products. Those iPod and iPhone users have also been buying Macs. It's possible that at this point there could be enough momentum to allow Apple to make the change to the interface while it is gaining users like crazy.

Of course, this is all just conjecture (and maybe a little bit of dreaming) on my part, so I guess we'll just have to see how it pans out- but a new wave of computing might be upon us.

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