Mac OS 3: User Center Design Exemplar

I nearly lost all my data a couple of weeks ago. Actually, I was in no danger at all of losing my data but the terribad UI of Apple’s Time Machine and Time Capsule made me think I did! Apple’s backup solution is like a good looking school yard bully with a hidden inferiority complex.

I used to back up everything manually and it was messy. To be fair Apple seemed to conserve all that backup mess with the Time Capsule wireless base station/terabyte network drive and its slick Time Machine backup application. It just seemed to work: No settings, no maintenance, no hunting for the disk with the 3rd season of Buffy on it.

On the rare occasion when I did need a missing or deleted file Time Machine made it easy, and entertaining, to find (nothing like zooming back in time to give lulz).

One evening last week my MacBook Pro died and upon restart got stuck at the kernel panic screen. I took it Tek Serve in NYC (where they are a million time smarter than Apple’s Genius Bar) and learned that a fresh re-install of Mac OS X was the solution.

To make a long story short, when I connected my revived MacBook Pro to Time Capsule it restored a backup from 4 months ago! That’s a generation in Internet years! Also it took over 12 hours! I was aghast!

With grim determination I started the whole process over and tried to get support from Apple. But nothing helped until I just gave up and accessed Time Machine to confirm it was operational. And lo and behold: There was my data from the previous week. Right up to 30 minutes before the kernel panic attack!


Just before I joined Apple I got some coaching from Bruce Tognizzni (I was designing a set of never-to-be-released apps for Letraset back in 1991). Tog explained that good user centered design doesn’t just hide complexity–it enables the user to navigate it. Time Machine and Time Capsule are bad user centered design according to this definition since they are pretty faces and not much more.

I can’t think of any better example of user centered design than the original Mac OS (version 3) and apps like MacPaint and MacWrite. And since you can’t run it anymore (but you can see screen shots at the Vintage Mac Museum) I decided to bring the Mac OS 3 back to life in flash. Embedded above is version 0.1 of the Mac OS 3 Flash Sim. It don’t do much but I promise to whittle away at it as time permits. I’ll post the source code shortly as well. Right now you can selected the trash can and pull down the apple menu.

It’s funny but the constrained yet expressive capabilities of the original Mac OS are much more like the user experience of the iPhone and iPod Touch then the current Mac OS X. There is something to be said for the power of limitations.


  1. The Mac OS 3 UX Simulator has it’s own page now! Yey! The most recent version will always hang out there!

  2. Hi John,

    Good writings! Good design is difficult, and I totally agree that less is more.

    One of the things that impresses a lot is the Google homepage. After 10-years it is still the same. That is good design and also realizing why the customer comes to their site. Remeber what happend to eXcite, Lycos, Infoseek, etc after a few years. They all tried to be portals to everything but search. The true genius of Google is of course not their search engine but their ad engine 🙂 That is the one that is bringing all the cash. Another company that has done a great job in design is Adobe, their current design for the adobe reader program is really nice in its simplicity.


  3. That’s a great point Dan. I bet you could measure the quality of a UI design based on its stability over time.

    I have mixed feelings about Adobe. The first few versions of Photoshop and Illustrator were so intuitive! Simplicity, “the art of maximizing the amount of work not done”, was lost along the way to CS4.

    Thanks for your comment!

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