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Forks in the Path of GUI Evolution

Lukas Mathis at ignore the code on Oberon:

Steven Frank’s essay on the current state of the desktop UI reminded me of Oberon, a delightfully insane system I used back when I was studying computer science at ETH Zürich. The first thing you have to understand about Oberon is that it evolved entirely outside of the normal genealogy of user interfaces.

Most of the GUI paradigms nailed down by the Apple Lisa and Macintosh teams in the early ’80s are still with us today, for better or worse. Having been exposed to these paradigms from a young age (I had a Macintosh SE/30 at home when I was 3) it can be hard to think ‘outside the square’ of current GUI practice. When you consider the difficulty that Microsoft had in changing the UI for Microsoft Office 2007, and the resulting user backlash, it’s easy to see why things haven’t changed that much in the past 25 years. Having a large user base is both a curse and a blessing - any major changes to GUI paradigms means that at least some of your users will be pissed off.

In many ways, it’s easy to be jealous of those designing the new UI paradigms - the engineers designing the iPhone, the Palm Pre and Android. With what amounts to a ‘blank slate’, the designers of these platforms have been able to start from scratch to design platforms that make sense today, in 2009.

We shouldn’t view the extra legacy-support challenges of pushing UI boundaries on desktop computing platforms as being intractable. Rather, we should see them as a challenge of our ingenuity. And sometimes, the best sources of inspiration in an industry that is only 30 years old come from the very beginning of that short history.