GUI now too complex — Longhorn designer

The classic graphical user interface was well suited to an early Macintosh with 128kB of RAM that ran a few applications and about 50 files, “but it doesn’t scale”, says usability design specialist Don Norman.

With those few tasks the GUI was a boon. “You didn’t have to remember anything, because you could see everything. Now making everything visible doesn’t work. The space gets too crowded.”

As a logical consequence of this, the all-purpose computer should become obsolete, he says.

Norman, who has written several books on usability, was Apple’s design guru for many years and also worked for Hewlett-Packard. He is now advising Microsoft on the forthcoming Longhorn version of Windows, and agrees with its being based on a searchable database and doing away with a static file system view. The document-folder-cabinet hierarchy may be a fair simulation of the way an office works, he says, “but I just want to get my work done”. Wanting to send an email with an attached document and having to look in different folders and maybe start up a word-processing program is an obstruction to the natural way of working. It clearly makes sense to store everything once. Conventional file systems tend to produce duplicate files stored in different places.

Norman thinks highly of many features of Apple design. He cites the functional aspects, to the “pleasant experience” of unwrapping the machine from the box, and “the illuminated logo that tells everyone you’re an Apple user and gives you the feel of belonging to a community”.

Good design succeeds on three levels, he says: the reflective — the impression of the product on the intellect; the behavioural — the way you use it; and the visceral — its appeal to the emotions.

So, the inevitable question is, if Apple got everything so right, why doesn’t it have a major share of the PC market?

“The business story is rather complex and there are some things I can’t say,” he replies. “Apple became arrogant and didn’t treat its customers well. It rewarded creativity, which meant it brought out some brilliant products badly [implemented]. Things about the Apple designs needed fixing, but nobody wanted to fix anything, because that wasn’t creative.

“And one point where Apple really shot itself in the foot was to come up with the message that the Macintosh was ‘The computer for the rest of us’ — not for you dull business people. So Microsoft and the IBM-style PC, not surprisingly, sold very successfully into the business market.”

The world wants compatibility now, he says. It wants to communicate, and this means one brand dominating. “This is not the ‘computer age’ any more; this is the age of very smart chips hooked into a huge worldwide network. Infrastructure is about sharing." This means two or more incompatible ways of doing things is counterproductive.

Apple should get out of general-purpose computing, he says, and concentrate on the multimedia production and entertainment market, where its strengths are.

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