still waiting for the anti-mac


The Magic Cap interface, from the seminal 1996 article The Anti-Mac Interface by Don Gentner and Jakob Nielsen

"The Magic Cap" interface, from the seminal 1996 article "The Anti-Mac Interface" by Don Gentner and Jakob Nielsen

I was drawn back to a 13-year-old article by Don Gentner and Jakob Nielsen this morning, “The Anti-Mac Interface,” and realize that, despite the prescience of its content, operating system designers really haven’t learned much in the last decade or so.

By and large, the metaphorical nature of Windows and the Mac OS is still deeply flawed, being based on ever-more archaic symbolism, and the lack of object-based context continues to constrain the user’s ability to efficiently manage information.

Reading this article on the eve of new versions of both Windows and Mac OS X, one can’t help but be disappointed by what Microsoft and Apple are delivering. The 1996 article closes with these words:

Realistically speaking, such a complete redesign will take some time to appear. Even if the full system were not to appear for several years to come, it is necessary for detailed research to begin now to develop the needed features and to collect usability data on how the Anti-Mac characteristics should be shaped to truly meet users’ needs.

Surprisingly, 13 years has not proven to be long enough. And there seems to be little promise of any significant computing evolution on the horizon.

One thought on “still waiting for the anti-mac

  1. I have a great deal of respect for Jakob Neilsen, so I don’t take shots at his reasoning lightly. The truth is, he presents a lot of valid points in his critique of the desktop metaphor.

    My problem with his thesis is that it’s outdated. Users have already moved past these issues and adopted the metaphor to the point that it really isn’t a metaphor any more. My 8 year old easily navigates file structures in both Windows and OS/X, and has become very observant when it comes to flaws in the technical implementation.

    And without a doubt those flaws are still there. The metaphor can certainly be improved, and the various implementations of that metaphor have a long way to go. The progress seems to be coming, though, and I have faith that it will continue.

    The trouble with Neilsen’s reasoning here is that its pretty much a product of hindsight. The desktop metaphor, whatever its flaws, has become convention. The political challenge of changing that far outweighs the technical challenge.

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