Why Apple is Apple (again)

Posted On 05/02/2010

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Last week, in my first ever post, I praised Apple for doing such a good job on the Lisa’s interface that little has changed in almost three decades. Now, after seeing demos and reading impressions of the iPad, I see how backwards I got it, and how one person’s praise can be another’s condemnation.

I said, “Most impressive is how little has changed.” I meant that as praise, but some people at Apple, certainly guided by Steven P Jobs, saw that as a black mark. I can picture Mr. Jobs dominating a board room filled with Apple’s four-star Brass — Phil Schiller, Tim Cook, John Ive, Mark Papermaster, etc. — and telling them the same thing, but as a rebuke.

“Here we are, three decades after we defined the way fucking everybody uses a computer today, and what’s changed? Sure they’re faster and have better colour, memory, and connectivity. But that’s evolutionary. We’re not about evolutions, we’re about revolutions.

“Does anyone remember how we totally knocked their socks off with the Lisa and then the Macintosh? Does anybody want to feel that way again? If the answer is, ‘No,’ then get the fuck out now and don’t come back.”

Actually, I prefer to think t went more like this…

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

No matter. The point is that rather than taking pride in the fact that Apple’s user interface has remained largely unchanged, and seeing it as a product of good design, Apple decided to launch the next “Computer for the rest of us.” And, just like the people who were happy with the status quo in 1983 and 1984, there are those who see this as just another toy, and don’t understand that this Martin Luther nailing another nailing another set of theses on the cathedral door.

Yellow crunch the tricycle

Imagine this scenario: You have a text file on your computer’s hard drive, you can see the filename on the screen, and you want to read the contents of the file. What do you do? Oh, one more thing: It’s 1983.

Today anyone’s mother can tell you to “double-click the icon” to open it. But in 1983 that would have been utter gibberish. Click is a sound, not a verb. Double is an adjective, not an adverb. What does an icon have to do with anything? That sentence would have made as much sense as saying, “Yellow crunch the tricycle.”

This the kind of crap that enters my brain when I read articles like this. It’s a review of the Lisa from Byte magazine in 1983. It uses a lot of ink telling us stuff we already know 27 years later. How to scroll a window, how to access menus, how to select and format text.

By holding down the mouse button when the cursor points just to the left of the first letter and letting it up when the cursor points just past the last letter, I can select an area of text that the Lisa then puts in reverse video.

It’s a fascinating article. I loved reading in excruciating detail how the author was impressed by new concepts that we now take for granted and expect in every program. I recalled my own joy whenever I chanced to play with the Lisa at the store where my dad worked. That joy persisted for the first few years we had a Macintosh.

Most impressive is how little has changed. The Lisa introduced a completely new user interface to the world that was unlike anything we had ever seen — even Gene Roddenberry didn’t see this coming. Nobody even though about how we used computers or referred to a user interface until some time later. Yet in their very first try Apple got it so right that almost nothing has changed since. Overlapping windows, scroll bars, menus, selecting text in a word processor and shapes in a drawing program are all virtually unchanged.

It’s like the wheel. Someone tried round, and nobody’s improved on it.

So the next time someone dumps on Apple or ask, “What have they done for me?” tell them, “Everything you’ve ever done on a computer, and everything you ever will.”