Jef Raskin, creator of the Macintosh project at Apple, says the windows-based interface is passé.
February 14, 2001 12:33 PM   Subscribe

Jef Raskin, creator of the Macintosh project at Apple, says the windows-based interface is passé. "In my current interface designs, everything you need is laid out for you. You just zoom in, and as soon as you can read the text or see the graphic details, you can work on them. Then there's no need for windows, which you are forever opening, closing, moving or fooling with."
posted by tranquileye (33 comments total)
I agree that this has been somewhat obvious for a while. When this whole current paradigm was designed, it was conceived of handling a few windows and a few dozen files, maybe. Now with thousands and thousands, it doesn't work quite as well, and people almost need a map to find things. Well, what if it did work more like a map, or like being inside a map, where your surroundings would give you context as to where you are and objects would generally stay in their places, even if new objects were added in between or inside them? Then it could exist non-hierarchically and you could set as many or as few "home points" as you wanted, instead of having one root directory. As long as there was some sort of visual clue as to how much is inside things, it could work okay I think. Any thoughts?
posted by donkeymon at 1:02 PM on February 14, 2001

That sounds sort of like the Brain which was kinda popular a year or so ago. All I can say is give me anything that isn't a windowed/desktop interface.
posted by benbrown at 1:05 PM on February 14, 2001

The Brain was kind of neat, but every time I played with it I always ended up shortcutting every node to every other node. As soon as their were more than around 20 nodes, it became a big tangled mess, but I hated not being able to get to everything within 2-clicks.

Of course, I deal with that frustration every day with Windows, but I'm used to experiencing frustration with Windows, so it just seems normal.

The interview was way too short, too. It was just starting to get interesting when it was suddenly done. Boo, hiss.

The Brain was (is, I guess, it isn't dead yet) a step in the right direction though.
posted by cCranium at 1:12 PM on February 14, 2001

Any "The Brain" links for those of us who haven't seen the UI you're talking about?
posted by harmful at 1:17 PM on February 14, 2001

You know, my reaction to stories like this is "*HANDWAVE*".

It really is. No one ever manages to get anything out of these guys except platitudes... except the Eazel guys, and my memory of looking into that was that it broke a bunch of very useful MacHIG rules with no special justification -- rules that would make it difficult for me to learn, and worse, to teach.
posted by baylink at 1:30 PM on February 14, 2001

posted by xiffix at 1:31 PM on February 14, 2001

thebrain reminds me of 'Tempest'
posted by Sean Meade at 2:06 PM on February 14, 2001

The brain dot com went patent on everyone's arse. I think the vagueness of the patent extended to

Anyway - some research I read about had a zoomable desktop. You zoomed out two metres, then in to the searchable dictionary on the top right - then out and back in to the word processor in the middle. There were windows, but they were more places where the interface for some component was rather than something you would resize or drag about. They didn't overlap - and they were placed on an infinate desktop. All your files were icons and placed on your desktop - and it was all about zooming in and out. In a similar way to modern file mangers such as Nautalis (I'm an awful speller, I am) - the icon shows the contents of the file. If you have a text document the icon is of the first few words. A zoomable interface however would allow you to zoom into the icon and edit it as an icon taking up your full screen (an interface appears when you edit it - I guess). The icon of a picture is that picture. The icon of a PDF file is the document, etc, etc.

No idea if that's what he means by a zoomable interface though - sounds nice although I thought zooming would get a bit boring. You would probably need a 3D mouse (something on your wrist to transmit X/Y/Z to the OS) to instantly move through the depth rather than pressing forward/backward - like running towards something in the distance in a game of Unreal - fucking boring, really.

posted by holloway at 2:08 PM on February 14, 2001

Basically, the guy's argument boils down to, "Everything else sucks, even the stuff I worked on myself, but this brand new thing (that, oops, I won't show you) is gonna be killer..."

I'm sorry, but it all read like he was trolling for VC money.

posted by aurelian at 2:35 PM on February 14, 2001

Raskin's book does include examples (illustrations) of the "zooming" interface, and you can get a pretty good feel for how it would work. It's well worth a read. The guy knows his stuff. In addition to the Mac, he designed a little office appliance called the Canon Cat, which was itself a refinement of an Apple II-based system he created called SwyftCard. The Cat is one of the undeservedly obscure treasures of the computer industry and its UI is a true work of genius, IMHO.
posted by kindall at 3:43 PM on February 14, 2001

My feeble mind can't comprehend a system that would be better/more efficient than the WIMP interface without huge leaps in technology. I'm apparently one of those people who has to be shown. I guess that's why I live in Missouri.

WIMP works pretty well for me, considering. The only improvement I can conceive of is a speech-driven interface where I can say what I want in vague terms and have the computer figure out (correctly... every time) what I want.

Example: "Hey, queue me up a good mix of raucous music, and pull up a workspace for the new app I'm working on. Oh, and record that new show that's coming on tonight... don't know its name, but it's got that blond chick in it... on NBC maybe?"

And it does what I want. Now, that would make me productive.
posted by daveadams at 4:06 PM on February 14, 2001

Is this a step closer to the kind of digital universes that are described by author's like William Gibson ( Neuromancer )and Neil Stephenson ( Snow Crash )?
posted by Zool at 4:45 PM on February 14, 2001

Voice interfaces will never catch on. Can you imagine a cubicle farm where everyone is talking to their computer? Worse yet, how about being overheard by your Significant Other while requesting some pr0n?

I don't think Raskin's ideas are really in the Snow Crash vein, either; there doesn't really seem to be much of virtual reality in the ZoomWorld.
posted by kindall at 5:24 PM on February 14, 2001

Jef's comments follow on work that has been done with "zooming user interfaces" for some time now.

I find ZUIs intriguing because they help prevent the break in flow caused by discrete windows on a desktop. Their very nature ensures context.

As to the technology necessary, it's available now. Jazz is a ZUI environment built in Java.
posted by peterme at 5:55 PM on February 14, 2001

Voice interfaces will never catch on. Can you imagine a cubicle farm where everyone is talking to their computer?

This is what I thought when they first equipped everyone where I work with speakers. I thought: this is going to end in disaster but people accommodate each other -- particularly by keeping the things down.

My problem with voice input is that I don't think I'd ever get use to it. I don't want to say the WIMP is the best there'll ever be but if there's something on the way, it hasn't made its appearance yet.
posted by leo at 6:00 PM on February 14, 2001

Would combining the zoom gui into a virtual reality landscape not provide you with the above mentioned possibilities?
posted by Zool at 7:24 PM on February 14, 2001

What about the tools? What about doing something? This sounds like so much BS to me. Generic tools at the OS level are a non-starter. When I edit text for the web that isn't really just text at all - it's text as data. When I edit the same text to be printed, it's a whole other thing with wildly different issues to deal with.

Myself, I rely on both visual and hierarchical cues to tell the difference between these, both in terms of the OS organization and representation AND the environment in which I work on the files. I don't want a text-as-data document in some fancy font - I want it small and monospaced.

That's where all these concept descriptions fall flat for me - every time. They don't anticipate people actually DOING anything - just navigating file structures blankly. Boring - and probably the least of the problems.
posted by mikel at 8:31 PM on February 14, 2001

I think that modeling it too directly on physical reality would be a mistake. On the other hand, breaking too completely with generic Euclidian physics would also confuse the hell out of people. If it feels like walking around in a big screwy dungeon I don't think it is going to work. But how much is your Desktop now like a real desktop? Just enough to make the connection obvious, and not a bit more. Perhaps some sort of fractal scaling algorithm is in order here, so that objects can relate to others near them while also relating conceptually to everything else on any level.
posted by donkeymon at 8:47 PM on February 14, 2001

I read Jeff's book and he comes off like he is always right. The zooming OS is fine for certain things, but it all comes down to the style of how one uses a computer. Jeff would prefer to limit you to his style.

There is still a lot of stuff that you can take from his book. It is good for streamlining an interface and to incorporate the idea of data protection as a major point.
posted by john at 9:58 PM on February 14, 2001

I say bah-humbug to all of it and suggest we all go back to using comand prompts like we did in the old days with DOS and Unix. Fuck the mouse.
posted by Loudmax at 10:27 PM on February 14, 2001

I find ZUIs intriguing because they help prevent the break in flow caused by discrete windows on a
desktop. Their very nature ensures context.

That's Not A Feature, That's A Bug.

Context is *good*; this is very like the Windows "the desktop has no edge"/"The whole world is part of your computer".

That shit's impossible to train people on.
posted by baylink at 9:45 AM on February 15, 2001

Voice interfaces will never catch on. Can you imagine a cubicle farm where everyone is talking to their computer?

Yeah, that's the downside I forgot to mention. But if I'm in my private office (which everyone should have anyway) or at home, I should be able to voice-control my computer in a completely intuitive way. Besides, before computers would be able to implement my envisioned VUI, we will probably have good-enough, cheap-enough sound-cancelling technology for local spaces that it won't be a problem. In any case, cube farms already have to deal with conversations on the phone and in person, etc, etc. All the actual textual input should still be via keyboard. I'm not proposing to replace the keyboard with voice, I'm proposing to replace the direct command, organization, and contextual control aspects of computer interfaces with voice commands.
posted by daveadams at 11:47 AM on February 15, 2001

Using natural language to control a computer is like using a piano keyboard to drive a car. A good interface should suggest the limits and abilities of the system it controls, so that the user is not surprised by the reaction to their commands.

Natural languages are, by nature, ambiguous, imprecise, and rooted in a shared body of cultural experience. As such they are an extremely bad way to control machines which are precise, well-defined, deterministic, and (generally speaking) context free.

One mark of a good interface is that eliminates surprise: you always know what is going to happen when you push the red button. This would be impossible with a voice interface, as you'd never be exactly sure how the machine would interpret your commands.

posted by Mars Saxman at 12:42 PM on February 15, 2001


Valid points, but they can all be worked on and in fact I will be working on them :) A voice interface has the task of learning how it's user communicates and asking for verification when in doubt. Several 3D modeling packages have incorporated voice and have gotten a 22% increase in work speed. It can be done. Maybe in a year or two I can show you my killer ap.
posted by john at 1:07 PM on February 15, 2001

What I really want is eye-tracking, so when I issue a command with my keyboard it affects the object I'm looking at. Many's the time I've whacked Command-W to close a window and the one I was looking at (and wanted to close) wasn't actually the frontmost.
posted by kindall at 1:35 PM on February 15, 2001

I want Windows to have a good X-mouse implementation. If I want a window brought to the front, I'll click on the window.

After that, I want eye-tracking too.

If you hook everyone in the office up with a head-mounted microphone you can get around the problem of voice noise in a shared space. Toss in some voice over IP and some headphones and you've got a pretty good system.

I'd love to have voice macro building abilities, so I could say "Call Jen at work" while I'm typing away at something and she's right there. I've actually wanted a Plantronics (too lazy to link) set for a while, so I could setup some kind of Voice-communication thingamajig during the day. Having my computer listen to me would just be an added bonus.
posted by cCranium at 2:47 PM on February 15, 2001

cCranium, the latest version of TweakUI (available from MS as an unsupported tool, I can find the link if you're interested email me or post) does Xmouse "correctly." You can define delay time and autoraise or no. At least, I think that's "correct." I find it incredibly annoying to have to have your mouse pointer in the window you want to use, but that's just me... There does need to be some better way of pointing out which window is active... maybe a slight blur, not making it unreadable, but obvious that it's not in "focus"? I suppose a good implementation of that would require higher-than-72dpi resolution.
posted by daveadams at 8:35 PM on February 15, 2001

I want a screen-in-tablet deal like this only touch-sensitive, so I can drag objects around directly. And finger paint. I want my interface to be caressable.

I would hate a full voice interface, but I'd love a very limited one for things like dialog boxes, so I could OK or cancel actions without moving my mouse. And voice text entry might be OK.

But I really think the breakthroughs here are going to come from new interface hardware, not new HCI paradigms on boring old mouse'n'monitor setups. For example, Bruce Sterling describes a way-cool fabric computer/interface in "Holy Fire." I wanted to mention it and thought I'd check google for links to it. And what did I find? This. :(
posted by rodii at 8:44 PM on February 15, 2001

Maybe someone outta the almost 4k MeFi folks has some details on what MS is planning with the 'universal canvas' thing they talk about occasionally. The more-or-less parallel lines of the new Luna interface for Windows XP, the webby next version of Office (XP), and the whole DigitalDashboard/Sharepoint "content management server" thing all converge there.
Me, I make my living out of taking Microsoft technologies and making cool new things that my company's established client base might find useful, so I'm always looking for clues...
Anyone got some info?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:16 AM on February 16, 2001

daveadams: I can dig up tweakui reasonably painlessly. I'd given up on their X-window implementation long ago.

Half the reason to use it is to see co-workers wonder what the hell's going on when they try to use it. I'm a bastard like that. :-)

The first windowing environment I ever used was X, and I still think that mouse tracking for the active window is a Good Thing, though I realize that I'm in the minority. I'll have to look into it again, thanks.

I want my interface to be caressable.

Speaking of which, has anyone used that new Logitech texture mouse? Is it anything good? I need a new (preferably optical) mouse at work, and if it's a good toy I may go for it.

stavros: Um, what's that cool new thing? I've seen login pages before, I don't know how your clients find it useful.

<smarmy-assed grin>
posted by cCranium at 7:49 AM on February 16, 2001

Something I wrote on ZUI
posted by holloway at 5:44 PM on February 17, 2001

cC: well, it's something that was created to allow Solution 6 clients to access productivity and line-of-business applications securely over the Internet, in a true thin-client, ASP model. Y'know?

posted by rodii at 8:01 PM on February 19, 2001

oer, thems is nifty things. I was mostly just being an ass though. :-)

Update on TweakUI, while I'm typing here again. I like the new X-mouse implementation, it's almost perfect, except for a couple of Microsoft Applications that don't use it properly. VB and Visio in particular raise to the top of the screen on activation, but I think it's because they're both a smidge on the old side.

Also, it makes flipping from a web browser to something that looks productive quick and easy. :-)
posted by cCranium at 5:27 AM on February 20, 2001

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