An Abstract Argument

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion has finally arrived, bringing with it some of the most significant changes in the Mac user interface since OS X debuted a decade ago. Predictably the response from a large segment of the tech punditocracy has been fear, loathing and nerd rage.

Ever since Steve Jobs gave a brief preview of Lion at a special event in October 2010 there have been pundits claiming that the new interface features represented the “iOSification” of the Mac. Harry Marks does a good job of addressing that claim on his blog so I will refrain from getting into that debate here. I do, though, want to address a point that I feel is getting missed by those bemoaning the changes in Lion.

The Map Is Not The Country

There is one extremely important fact that is universally ignored when people discuss how we should interact with computers. In fact, our ability to ignore this fact is the very reason why computers are useable by people in general. The fact is, unless you are a member of an extremely small group of people, you have never “directly” interacted with your computer. The very purpose of an operating system is to provide an interface that allows the raw mathematics and quantum mechanics that drive a computer to be accessed by a human being. A consequence of this fact is at all computer interfaces are abstractions of the real processes involved.

It amuses me when technology pundits draw a line in the sand and proclaim some arbitrary level of abstraction to be “reality” and every different form of abstraction is either a hack or a toy interface. Tell me, is this abstraction

dlines@Sol-Invictus: /Applications \$ ls -la
total 16
drwxrwxr-x+ 133 root admin 4522 Jul 24 12:28 .
drwxr-xr-x@ 35 root wheel 1258 Jul 21 20:13 ..
-rw-rw-r-- 1 root admin 6148 Jul 21 20:36 .DS\_Store
-rw-r--r-- 1 root wheel 0 Jun 13 11:46 .localized
drwxr-xr-x 4 dlines dlines 136 Jul 21 21:26
drwxr-xr-x+ 3 root wheel 102 Jun 16 17:34 Address

really any more real than this one?


Or this one?


All three of these are merely different ways of depicting a set of files. But the abstraction doesn’t end there. What is a file? Is it some sort of real entity? No, it is just another abstract way of describing a set of ones and zeros. The truth is that computing involves abstractions at all levels. There are certainly valid reasons for preferring one representation or level of abstraction to another, but “reality” isn’t one of them.

The Computer Fades Away

There is a phrase that is often used when people describe the first time they use an iPad. “The computer fades away.” What people mean by that is, when using the iPad, the entire experience is focused on the task or content at hand.

For example, I’m currently writing this post in the iPad app Writing Kit. I’m typing directly on the screen, there are no other windows around the content, there are no windows at all. In effect, my iPad has become my writing tool.

Contrast this with the experience on the Mac. On the Mac I would be typing on a separate keyboard, watching the text appear in a BBEdit window strewn among all the other crap on my screen.

Another, possibly even better example is browsing the web on the iPad. When using Safari on the iPad, not only does the rest of the OS fade away, but even the browser interface itself for the most part disappears. With the exception of the toolbar at the top of the screen, when browsing the web the iPad effectively *becomes* the web page.

What do this have to do with Lion you ask. Simply this: I believe that, from the very inception of the Macintosh, Apple has followed two related trajectories. First, to increasingly abstract away the “computer.” Second, to remove levels of abstraction between the user and the content. Let’s look at some examples of the new interface features in Lion and how they fit in with this narrative.


Launchpad is a new feature in Lion that provides a fullscreen application launcher to the operating system. There really isn’t anything complicated about using Launchpad. One invokes it, locates the application, clicks the icon and away we go. What makes Launchpad different from the previous system is that Launchpad’s organization is completely divorced from how applications are organized in the Finder.

While Launchpad does initially represent folders within the Applications folder, folders created within Launchpad are “virtual.” Therefore one could conceivably create a “Writing” folder that contained Pages, BBEdit and Microsoft even though applications are not grouped in the Finder. This allows one to abstract the function of the application from other organizational concerns — grouping the Microsoft Office applications together for instance.

This represents an example of the first trajectory. By adding a layer of abstraction Apple increases the conceptual distance between the user and the mechanics of the computer.

Natural Scrolling

An example of the second trajectory, removing layers of abstraction between the user and the content, is the introduction of “natural scrolling.” If you listen to some of the howling from the blaghosphere you might get the impression that Lion now uses some sort of Bizzaro World scrolling system where down is up and left is cheese. The truth is somewhat less insidious than that.

With “natural scrolling” enabled (it is by default) and when using a multi-touch enabled pointing device such as a Magic Mouse, Magic Trackpad or built-in trackpad the scrolling direction is “reversed” from the previous norm. For example, to scroll “down” in a document you move your finger(s) upwards on the Magic Mouse or trackpad.

Many have dismissed this behavior as merely aping the behavior in iOS. I disagree with that assessment. It’s important to look at the other modes of scrolling content in Lion to understand that what Apple is really doing here, both with Lion and iOS is making the behavior better correspond to the metaphor being employed.

Previous to Lion Apple used two related interface metaphors to describe how scrolling content works depending on the interface device being used. Put briefly they are:

With Lion Apple has introduced a new metaphor to the desktop borrowed from iOS. In the new metaphor, the viewport is a fixed window. Content is manipulated within this viewport by direct manipulation via a multi-touch device. To reinforce this metaphor Apple has removed the scroll bar and made the scroll-thumb invisible by default. The result of this new metaphor is to remove a layer of abstraction between the user and manipulating content.

A brief aside on “doing it wrong”

I’ve seen several people, once they have converted to the new scroll, make statements to the effect that we’ve been scrolling the wrong way all along. I disagree with that notion. I think that each interface metaphor that Apple has employed, and still employs, makes perfect sense in context. When I use the down arrow key to move the cursor past the bottom of the viewport I expect the next lower line of content to be revealed — anything else would be weird. Similarly, as Tesler comments on in the link above, the mouse-based scrolling behavior was based on solid research. What was “wrong” as Tesler also aludes to was extending the mouse metaphor to the scroll wheel.

Embracing the New, Maintaining the Old

Intelligent people can have different opinions about the changes in Lion. Some are bound to hate them. Some might think that they were implemented badly. Some, like me, may embrace them. One of the great things about OS X is that it does have multiple levels of abstraction and interface paradigms. In the course of writing this piece I used interfaces ranging from the command line, to the “classic” Finder, to the new iOSified stuff in Lion. Those that hate the new interface elements in Lion can, for the most part, configure it to behave as previous versions did.

Admittedly, almost all the above is merely my speculation. Perhaps Apple really does pull interface ideas out of their asses. Maybe this is all a draconian plot to rob us of our scrolling freedoms. Somehow, though, I don’t think so. I really think that Apple is working towards a goal of empowering the average user by removing the computer from the experience and bringing them closer to their content while leaving the tools in place for the nerds to do their thing. If that’s not the experience you’re looking for, well there’s always Linux.