The past and future of the WIMP interfaces

February 12, 2007

Hand icon

Continuing on this general theme of “what is old is new again” (or maybe “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”)…I thought I’d link up a couple of my favourite articles about the traditional WIMP (windows, icons, menus, pointer) interface.

First up: The Xerox Star: A Retrospective. This article was written in 1989 by engineers, formerly of Xerox PARC, who worked on the Xerox Star. The article is basically them standing up and saying, “Um, all those wonderful features of the Mac — windows, icons, mouse, direct manipulation, the desktop metaphor — yeah, we invented them 10 years ago. Just so you know.” It’s a really interesting read, for a couple reasons. First, it’s amazing to see how little things have changed in the 25 years since the Star was released. But also, it’s cool to see the reasoning behind all of those interface techniques. And you realize that a lot of those reasons just aren’t valid anymore, so maybe it’s time to rethink the WIMP interface.

Which is what The Anti-Mac Interface is all about. Written by Don Gentner and Jakob Nielsen in ‘96, it’s an exploration of what might result if you rejected everything that the Mac interface is built upon (which is why it’s useful to read the Xerox Star paper first):

Physicists and mathematicians often stretch their imaginations by considering what the world would be like if some of their basic assumptions and principles were violated. … This has led to new concepts such as non-Euclidean geometry, positrons, antimatter, and antigravity. At the least, violating basic assumptions is a useful mental exercise, but a surprising number of the resulting concepts have provided useful descriptions of the real world.

Both papers are well worth a read.