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The operating systems of the future might even make computers easier for your parents.

When I think about interface design, I think about my parents. My father is an engineer. One of my earliest memories is of him taking apart a remote-controlled Radio Shack tank, turning the controller into an ISA expansion card, and then writing a Basic program that ran the tank from a command line.

It was a historic day when he finally acknowledged that the graphical user interface (GUI) might actually be useful for something—yet he still can’t type. He’s currently in the process of trying to wire his home so MP3 music will play and the lights will fade in and out as people go from room to room, just to see if he can. This is a guy who is not only obsessed with doing things, but also understanding how they happen.

When my mom sits down at a computer, she isn’t interested in how it works, but rather what she can do with it. She wants a button on her screen that says “make an envelope.” Wading through a menu bar and two windows doesn’t make sense to her. She has a “task-centric” approach to computers; she doesn’t want to know how icons work, she just wants to get her stuff done.

A single universal interface will probably never satisfy both types of users. The command-line will always be around for the truly hardcore, and the modern GUI seems to have evolved nearly as far as it can for professional users. However, a new task-centric paradigm may be necessary for the multitudes who aren’t technically inclined.

Microsoft took a stab at this a few years ago with Microsoft Bob, which replaced the computer desktop with an ugly, poorly animated living room. Users could click on a sheet of paper to launch a word processor, or click on a telephone to load a modem. Animated helpers (which eventually evolved into the hated MS Office Talking Paperclip) walked the user around the “home.” Modern books on interface design point to Bob as an example of what not to do.

Now Microsoft is taking another stab at it with a project called “Whistler,” which is basically Windows 2000 with a new interface. The desktop, which on most computers is a photo or pattern covered with a random mess of icons, is replaced with a “Start Page” of links to the user’s applications, Internet shortcuts and recent documents. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is—it’s just like a web home page.

Whistler might work. The only successful, innovative interface to surface since 1984’s Macintosh GUI is the world wide web. Once you’ve explained hyperlinks, the address bar, and the forward and back buttons, people tend to figure out the rest on their own.

The Start Page also makes me a little nervous, though. For one thing, a task-oriented interface couldn’t possibly list everything the computer is capable of doing. As a result, newbies might only use the tasks listed on the screen, never digging deeper into the machine and expanding their own capabilities. Also, if the computer interface becomes more like a web page, it could inherit some of the flaws of web pages—the last thing anyone wants to see on their desktop is someone else’s ad banner.

Finally, computers with Whistler will ship with vendor-defined Start Pages. Users will be able to create their own Start Pages, but most will probably use the ones their computers ship with. This is bad. It’s one thing to trust your computer’s interface to a company like Microsoft, which can spend millions of dollars on interface professionals to make something usable. It’s another thing altogether to trust interface design to companies like Compaq and Hewlett Packard, which appear completely incapable of selling computers that are more than ugly beige boxes.

While Neptune is inspired by the world wide web, Apple’s new Mac OS X seems to be inspired by the other big interface trend, skins. Skins are images, usually drawn by hobbyists, thrown on top of programs to give them a different look. Most skins make computers look like expensive stereo systems.

And you’ve gotta hand it to Apple: OS X looks stylish. The cartoonish icons of the older iterations of OS X have been replaced with airy, photographic pictures. Everything is anti-aliased, too—there are no blocky pixels to be seen anywhere.

Unfortunately, OS X doesn’t do much to make computers easier to use. It fixes the “computers are butt ugly” problem and the “OS 7/8/9 is a rickety hunk of garbage” problem, but most observers agree that OS X is going in the wrong direction for usability.

The buttons are inconsistent, and many of the objects are translucent. When several translucent objects are stacked on top of each other, it turns into an illegible mess. OS X features a “dock” at the bottom of the screen, with icons representing the various documents and applications that the user has at his disposal, and it’s a terrific idea. However, the dock takes up nearly the entire lower quarter of the screen!

Since it doesn’t look like either Microsoft or Apple is ready to start shipping separate operating systems for my mother and my father (yet), the success of both operating systems hinges on their ability to be customized to individual users. In Whistler, power users will be able to strip the Start Page from Windows 2001, and return to the familiar Windows 95 interface.

Nobody’s quite sure how customizable OS X will be, however. Most of the users posting on Macintosh discussion forums go along the lines of, “This new feature is interesting. I wonder if you can turn it off.” My gut feeling is that OS X will be nearly as big a hit as the company-saving iMac, but won’t make computers any easier to use for my mom.

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Eric Jacobsen

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