Why computer user interfaces stopped evolving

Why computer user interfaces stopped evolving

Through linkages from Slashdot, I have been reading the Andy Herzfeld's Folklore.org website about the days of Apple when the Mac was developed. Very interesting.

Reading through all that, there is the odd point about computer interfaces really not having developed since, and how we have so much further to go and can so much improve how we can interact with computers. Although there is less blaming of Microsoft for this than usual.

And quite often I read about some researcher ranting about how all of today's user interfaces are so obsolete, and how pitiful it is that things just haven't evolved any further yet. And its finally gotten me worked up enough to write a rant about it.

Fact is, I don't want a new way of interacting with my computer. I'm just happy having my files that live in folders that are arranged in trees, having my email program have emails and separate from my picture archive. Maybe I'm narrow minded, but the present system suits me just fine. There are things that could be done better, but being able to comprehend how the system works is much more important to me. I don't want everything tangled up in some database that the computer manages. I would rather manage my data personally.

And I think that there are enough people out there that feel the same way.

But user interfaces (that people actually used) did evolve a lot in the 80's. So why did it stop, and why won't it happen again? Very simple. People already have computers. People got used to the notion of applications, folders and files. And once you understand that concept, it actually quite good concept, because it corresponds to how the computer actually works inside too. And its simply good enough.

But in the 1980's, people that got computers didn't already know how to use one, so coming up with a user interface that was different from the last one didn't meet with resistance from new users. The GUI was easier to learn, and it was the first thing that most people learned. In the mean time, the crowd that got comfortable with DOS or UNIX before that - most of them STILL do a fair bit of stuff by typing commands at the computer. Why? Because they know it, it works, and its fast. The GUI is easier to learn, but not faster.

And now that everybody who uses a computer understands today's GUIs, and knows about apps, files, menus, folders and such, they aren't motivated to learn some new fangled concept. And the people that don't already know how to use computers - they don't matter as much anymore. They usually don't know computers by choice, and they aren't the ones that go out of their way to adopt new technology.

Of course, there is this 'desktop search' thing - but even that may not be that big. Having something like Google index the files on your PC is probably all that will ever really happen. Because the people that keep a lot of info on their computers already have a system of organizing the information on it, and probably don't want the OS to take it over for them. And the people that don't know how to organize files on a computer probably don't keep that much valuable information on it, so being able to search through it isn't that valuable.

In fact, (an aside), I have only recently come to realize how transient digital information is to many people. They don't have the ability or discipline to back it up, and they don't even know how to find what they have. So saving data digitally isn't 'forever' like it is to people like me. All it takes is some reason for their present system to become inoperable, and all the data is lost. New software can help to organize it, but once the system goes down, the data is still lost. And with all the viruses out there, systems becoming inoperable can happen easily, long before the hardware obsoletes or fails. I'm starting to understand the people that like to make printouts of their emails. Hope I'll never be one of them. And interestingly enough, most of the screenshots from the early Mac days are on folklore.org as either scanned photographs, or scanned printouts. Rather telling, isn't it?

In the mean time, I'm no longer afraid of some future user interface revolution - because I'm quite confident it won't happen. Incremental improvements yes, but only incremental.

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