Friday, June 01, 2007

OT:The future of the man-machine interface

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were interviewed over at the Wallstreet Journals Digital conference. Up on a stage together, they had some interesting comments. You can see it here:

One of the more amusing points in the interview was the discussion of the Apple "I'm a Mac" commercials. You could tell that Jobs was slightly embarrased about it. To be honest, I never felt that directly bashing a competitor was a good idea. Just market your products and let them stand on their own merits. Sun's habbit of bashing Microsoft never did them any good and always made them look bad.

However, I am not a marketeer... It just always seemed petty to me. Be that as it may, it has nothing to do with the point I want to make here. And that point has to do with the man-machine interface. Before I get to the crux of this, I think a little background is in order.

From the dawn of interactive computing until the mid 1980s, a text based, command line interface was the defacto standard method for a person to interact with a computer. For about 25 years, this was the way that people interacted with computers. You typed commands in to the machine at a prompt.

This was the method that I used as well. My first "real" computer being an Apple ][. It ran DOS 3.3 and CP/M. Both command based UIs. I made a decent living writing software for this machine. Then IBM came out with the IBM PC running IBM DOS 1.1 which used the same command structure that CP/M used. I was instantly at home on the machine and I sold my Apple ][ and bought an IBM and started writing software for it.

In 1983, Apple came out with the Lisa and the dawn of the Graphical User Interface was upon us. I was at Comdex in 1983 and spent some time with the Lisa and thought that it was a really good idea and that it was worth nowhere near what they wanted for the machine.

Then the Mac came along. Black and white display. 128K of RAM. Over $2K for the machine. They were getting closer to a reasonable pricepoint. But the machine was crippled and it would not be until the Mac II running system 7 came along that I would dip my toe back into the Apple world. But I digress...

The initial torch would be carried forward by the Macintosh and the GUI would become the defacto standard in 10 years with the advent of Microsoft's Windows 95.

Before the GUI, Bill Gates had stated that he would never give his mother a computer because DOS was too hard to use and learn. After Windows 95 came out he mentioned that this was finally an OS that his mom could use. I think that speaks volumes about the issues that the command line represented over the GUI paradigm.

About this time I started to wonder where the next great UI paradigm was at. From Apple and Microsoft, all I was seeing was evolutionary steps that refined the original paradigm. The Mac and Windows represented a REVOLUTION in terms of the man machine interface.

In the interview referenced at the beginning of this article, the question of where the next great revolution would come from was posed to our two heros. Gates responded that it was going to be 3D. But I think the answer is this: Any great revolution in UI design is FAR off in the future. I think that the GUI for all of it's faults and it's benifits is here to stay for the foreseeable future. The GUI resolved a number of problems that were persistant in the character based command line UI. We don't need to re-resolve those issues any more.

Enjoy the evolution.

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