Origins of the Mac human interface, and starting macOS coding

If there’s one video you watch this weekend, or in the coming week, make it this talk given by the late Larry Tesler and Chris Espinosa at the Computer History Museum in 1997.

I am extremely grateful to Riccardo Mori for pointing out that he has provided a full transcript of these talks here. Even if you’ve watched the video, it’s a superb resource as he has added some of the screenshots and valuable comments of his own.

We all think we know how the Mac human interface came about: it was basically copied from work being undertaken at Xerox’s PARC on its Star computer, embedded into Apple’s small renegade Macintosh project, and unleashed on the first purchasers in January 1984. It’s an attractive legend, and completely untrue.

This video, which lasts just under two hours, features two of those who were most involved in the development of what we now take for granted in modern human interfaces. Larry Tesler demonstrates how so many of the fundamental features were developed in 1980-82 for the Apple Lisa rather than the Macintosh. These include cut, copy and paste, a single menu bar at the top of the display rather than in individual windows, the original single-button mouse, key modifiers for mouse actions, and standard keyboard shortcuts such as Command-X.

All these were major departures from the Smalltalk-based interface which was developed at PARC, and most remain standard in modern macOS.

There are some fascinating insights which I wish had been expanded upon. Even in 1980, Larry Tesler and others at Apple had the vision of an Apple desktop publishing system, which soon became the biggest selling-point for early Macs. He and others also placed emphasis on the importance of how long it took a new user to unbox a Lisa and get it up and running: ten minutes was their goal, something which gradually grew to an hour with the Classic Mac.

Perhaps the most challenging remarks in the whole video concern user testing of the predecessor of the Finder’s iconic interface: Apple discovered that users performed almost identically on that and a more traditional interface similar to Finder’s List views. But users all preferred icons to lines of text, and that’s how we ended up with the Finder.

If you’re interested in using some of your time to learn about macOS programming, I have some other recommendations for you. Jeff Johnson has recently compiled a list of the best resources for learning Objective-C and Apple’s AppKit class libraries. If you’d rather learn Swift, then I wholeheartedly recommend Apple’s free Swift Playgrounds for macOS or iPadOS, from the App Store, coupled with its student manuals which are free from Books, topped off with the AppKit documents listed by Jeff Johnson.