Since its introduction in 2001, much has been made of Mac OS X's user interface. And while Apple is famous for its minimalist aesthetics, many feel its OS X operating system is a confusing mess that will forever brand the company an also-ran. Apple is the only company to successfully navigate the post-modern lagoon, but it has done so at the expense of its clear aesthetic. Now Apple is facing the same problem with the iPod – piling on features such as photos could spell its doom, experts say.

The original Mac is generally considered more of a cultural artifact than a simple computer. Long before Jonathan Ive made a splash with the iMac, Jerry Manock and Terry Oyama’s hard work paid dividends in the original Macintosh. The problem is, the real Mac experience is in software, notably in the Mac’s operating system.

Iconic or anachronistic?

The original Macintosh was more than just easy to use – it was iconic. Moscow-born new media artist, Lev Manovich noted in a short essay on the aesthetics of the 1980s that "in contrast to the dark, decayed, post-modern vision of Blade Runner, the Graphical User Interface popularized by Macintosh remained true to the modernist values of clarity and functionality".

Systems 1 to 7 feature this archetypal modernist interface: the desktop looking not unlike plans for a future city envisaged by Le Corbusier or a photograph by Aleksandr Rodchenko. The screen is composed entirely of straight lines and rectangular windows. Contained within the windows are the application and document icon rectangles, arranged in a grid. This scientific clarity was replicated at several levels within the OS where every aspect seemed to be constructed from the same basic forms. Dialogue windows were rectangular and featured black sans-serif type while the entire experience was rendered on a white background.

Even opening new windows featured a visual effect that hinted at early modernist art movements obsessed with depicting movement, such as Futurism and Vorticism.

Spartan expressions

Designer and university professor Chris Murphy used the old, spartan Mac interface as inspiration for a web site dedicated to ultra-minimalist music.

When Macworld caught up with him, he explained why: "Originally, I was attracted to Apple gear because of the industrial design – it has what I’d call a soft modernist look. With the operating system, I didn’t necessarily think of it in these terms at the time, but the old Mac OS, with its straight lines and simple black and white look is akin to modernism. More importantly it is close also in theoretical terms – working with the Mac was navigating pure information."

This may sound like something from a William Gibson novel, but as Murphy explains, "modernism is as much about scientific principles as it is about aesthetics. It has a central principle of planning".

Over time, the stark clarity of the modernist aesthetic was diluted with developments such as the addition of colour. Mac OS 8 introduced further tweaks to the interface, borrowing ideas from Microsoft Windows – a strict no-art zone – which spoiled the aesthetic. The dominant experience seemed positive at the time due to technical improvements – better multitasking, better networking and so on – but in artistic terms the interface was murdered. Pseudo three-dimensional bevels and the dominance of grey – neither black nor white, the colour of nothingness and compromise – felt closer to the Windows world of mush than the pure Mac.

With Mac OS X Apple abandoned the classic modernism that defined the experience, but has defined a new aesthetic, albeit a post-modern one: ironic rather than iconic and sampling from several places – including referencing itself and its predecessors.

Evolution of need

Murphy is circumspect: "You have to ask yourself would the old Mac interface be suitable for today’s uses? We have so much information of so many different kinds – text, audio, video, graphics – that the purity of the classic Mac system couldn’t work today".

It seems that just as Le Corbusier’s tower blocks have been criticized for failing to take human needs into consideration, Apple’s iconic Macintosh look-&-feel wasn’t up to the job of helping users navigate a fully digital world.

Frode Hegland of University College London’s Interaction Centre is developing next-generation interfaces through the Liquid Information project. "The proposition that Apple have switched from a modernist to a post-modernist framework is an interesting one. Take the example of the Mac’s one-button mouse. It was used in order to make things obvious – there’s only the one button, so it removed the possibility of mistakes. Of course, the Mac now has three buttons – the mouse button, the Command key and the option key. These days everything can’t be obvious to the user. This is post-modernism. Use has become abstracted from form."

Info freako

The information overload of the Internet is the main driving force behind this. "The original metaphor was great with a few files and folders, but now there is so much information coming at us in different ways, the metaphor breaks down. Our desktops now have far more information on them than any real desk could hold," said Hegland.

The multiplicity of Web-based interfaces is another example of this according to Hegland: "I met Tim Berners-Lee and personally I found him to be quite arrogant but his basic idea is a sound one – his old HTML manuals are correct, but the problem is we haven’t progressed much beyond them," he claims. "Some of the technology behind Flash is interesting but we’re not doing much with it. I love the Web but it’s a shitty toy – a first movie of a train coming into a station."

Some modernist hang-ups do, however, live on in Mac OS X. Apple’s opposition to user-controlled interface tweaking is a case in point – Apple is the architect of the future and the Mac user-interface isn’t about pretty pictures – rather it remains a scientifically tested and planned experience created in order to achieve maximum efficiency. Disobey Jobsian command-aesthetics at your peril.

iPod simplicity captures yesterday's UI

Although the Mac is now too complex for its old interface, the original aesthetic does live on in the much simpler iPod. The tiny display on the digital music player is unsuited to complex graphical interfaces, instead featuring a meta-grid of possibilities, navigated "on rails" by moving back and forward on single lines of data and up and down on data groups – select a node of information and drift across. The iPod’s interface is severe and limiting, but it is amazingly easy to use, requiring no thought whatsoever and if ever there was a mass of pure information, it’s the iPod.

Despite which, it seems that Apple are already investigating the future, softer interface for the post-modern iPod and even the ultimate in post-modern confusion: the no-interface iPod Shuffle.

According to Ian Betteridge, editor of Extreme iPod, increased complexity in the iPod’s interface is inevitable: "Just as the Mac was the ‘the computer for the rest of us’, so the iPod is ‘the music player for the rest of us’ – extremely simple to use, but you can effectively think of iTunes as an extension of the iPod’s interface as it’s how you get music onto the player".