Annotated transcription of the lecture “Origins of the Apple human interface”

Recently, the Computer History Museum has uploaded on its YouTube channel a lecture called Origins of the Apple human interface, delivered by Larry Tesler and Chris Espinosa. The lecture was held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, on October 28, 1997.

Being extremely interested in the subject myself, and seeing how apparently little thought is being given today to the subject, I wanted to quote a few selected excerpts from the talk, just to show what kind of hard work creating a user interface was back in the day when the Apple Lisa was being developed. It turns out that isolating this or that bit was futile, as the whole talk is made up of such cohesive, engrossing discourse. So I chose to transcribe it almost entirely, and add a few personal remarks here and there. You can read the full annotated transcription on my main website.


Great apps still available for PowerPC Macs (Part 4)

Links and information — the February 2018 update

According to WordPress’ analytics, my little Great apps still available for PowerPC Macs series of articles is one of the most viewed here on System Folder. I have realised, however, that some of the links and information provided in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 are old and in bad need of an update. So here we are.

First thing first: browsing the Web

I’ll reiterate what I wrote in Part 1: If you want to browse the Web on a PowerPC Mac with a modern, secure browser that’s still in active development, then your choice shall be TenFourFox. It runs best on G4 and G5 machines, but it’s also available for G3 processors. If you don’t like TenFourFox’s app icon, I created an alternative one you can download (see TenFourFox custom icon). If you’re running Mac OS 8.6/9, then you should use Classilla, from the same developer, Cameron Kaiser. Classilla works great also under Mac OS X 10.1.5 to 10.3.9 in the Classic Environment.

Another couple of favourites are Camino and Stainless.

I wrote about Camino in The second-best browser for PPC Macs, saying that it’s still a fine choice if your Mac isn’t powerful enough to run the excellent TenFourFox smoothly:

Camino’s development ceased in 2012. Other alternatives, such as an older version of Opera, or the last version of Safari you can run under Panther or Tiger, are simply too old to be useful. Opera 10.63, the last version you can run under Tiger, was released in 2010. Camino is newer, and it also appears to be less resource-hungry.

Check that article for the relevant download and links.

As for Stainless, see below, at the end of the next section.

Updated information for the apps mentioned in Part 1

(Whenever you see “Original information and links are still valid”, go back to Part 1 to retrieve them.)

AppZapper: Get the 1.8 version (compatible with Mac OS X 10.4 and 10.5) at this direct link.

Acorn: Original information and links are still valid.

Bean: Original information and links are still valid.

Audion: All versions of Audion are now available in its directory at The Panic File Museum.

Dropbox: Dropped support for PowerPC Macs running Tiger and Leopard a while back. If you’re using Leopard on a PPC Mac, check this link. I take no responsibility if things go wrong or don’t work. This link was suggested to me some time ago, and I’m just passing it along. My recommendation is to try Box instead — see this article.

Linotype FontExplorer X 1.2.3: Original information and links are still valid.

Mailsmith: Original information and links are still valid.

Notational Velocity: Original information and links are still valid.

Skim: The new link to the project’s homepage is this one, though the old one still redirects correctly. (Note: the last Tiger-compatible version is 1.2.7, which you can download here).

Xee and The Unarchiver: These and other apps by Dag Ågren have been acquired by MacPaw.

  • The new Xee website only allows you to download the latest Xee 3 version, which doesn’t work on PowerPC Macs. Here’s a direct link for the older Xee 2.2.
  • The new website for The Unarchiver is The latest version of the utility supports Mac OS X 10.7 Lion and newer. If you click where the page says “For earlier versions click here”, you’ll be able to download version 3.11.1, a Universal Binary that should work under Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger and 10.5 Leopard (and 10.6 Snow Leopard, for those who use early Intel Macs).

Find Any File: Original information and links are still valid.

iStumbler: Previous versions of the app (dating as far back as to support Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar) are available at the Changelog page.

Disco: Original information and links are still valid.

f.lux: Older versions of this great utility aren’t available anymore, apparently. Here are two direct links to the PPC versions (thanks, MacUpdate!)

  • f.lux 15.0 (Mac OS X 10.5 or later, Intel32/PPC32, please disable updates)
  • f.lux 11.0 (Mac OS X 10.4 or later, Intel32/PPC32)

Stainless browser: There’s something strange going on with the Stainless homepage. It still gives information about the project, but the Downloads page has a series of links that do not work. The original developer stopped developing it circa 2013, and the last official release was 0.8. The current website talks about updated versions (1.0 through 1.1.5), and that a mobile app for iOS and Android is available, but no links are provided, and a search in the iOS App Store shows that there’s no mobile browser with that name. I suspect the domain has been purchased by other parties and, well, it just smell fishy to me. You can still explore the old, genuine site, and download Stainless 0.8 through Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine. Here’s the link. (Remember, Stainless requires Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard).


Updated information for the apps mentioned in Part 2

(Whenever you see “Original information and links are still valid”, go back to Part 2 to retrieve them.)

Ulysses: In my previous article, I wrote: “The only version that is completely unlocked and doesn’t require a licence is Ulysses 1.6, for Mac OS X 10.4 and above.” It’s not available anymore. The oldest version currently provided on the Ulysses website is 2.2.2, which doesn’t work on PowerPC Macs.

CloudApp: You can’t download version 1.0.3 (the last to support PowerPC Macs) from CloudApp’s website anymore. I’ve made it available here. It should still work, although of course it’ll have a more bare-bones set of features than the current 4.x version.

Transmit and other Panic apps: Original information and links are still valid.

NetNewsWire: Version 3 (which works with PowerPC Macs) is not available anymore on the official NetNewsWire website. Here are some useful links:


Updated information for the apps mentioned in Part 3

(Whenever you see “Original information and links are still valid”, go back to Part 3 to retrieve them.)

Butler: Original information and links are still valid.

LaunchBar: Original information and links are still valid.

Quicksilver: Original information and links are still valid.

NotLight: Here’s a slightly more accurate link (you still have to scroll down a bit). Check out other apps by Matt Neuburg, like SyncMe, which you may find useful.

Some additions

[Updated 26 February 2018]

iScroll2: The app website tells pretty much everything you need to know: “iScroll2 is a modified trackpad driver that adds two-finger scrolling capabilities to supported pre-2005 PowerBooks and iBooks on OS X 10.3 and up. Supported models include most aluminum PowerBooks introduced from 2003 to 2004 as well as most G4 iBooks.” I have it on my 12- and 17-inch PowerBook G4 and it’s really great.

Docker: Technically, this app isn’t available anymore, since the original website has gone (domain not renewed, then purchased by someone else). But I wanted to add this app anyway because it’s perhaps the best tool I’ve used to customise my Dock. The old Blocksoft website can still be accessed via Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine, and from there it’s still possible to download version 1.6.7, which I believe to be the latest. Check out this quick review at OS X Daily, for a bit more information. Docker is a Universal Binary and should work under Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard to 10.7 Lion.

Aqua Extreme: Speaking of customisation, I really love this little utility by Max Rudberg (you may remember him, among other things, for developing Obsidian Menu Bar, a hack that gave us a black menu bar in OS X before Yosemite). Here’s the original description of what Aqua Extreme does:

Mac OS X introduced a new GUI called Aqua. The initial Aqua interface had quite a different look from the Aqua we know today. Buttons had a more distinct 3D-appearance, with stronger gloss and heavier shadows. The 10.2 installment of OS X brought a more refined style with a flatter, more crisp button appearance. Almost every element had been refined, except for the scrollbars and progressbars which was overlooked. What’s puzzling is that it has been continuously overlooked ever since. I first introduced my own refined scrollbars and progressbars for 10.2. I had a falling out and did not update them for Leopard. But now that Snow Leopard is here, still using the 10.0 style elements, I thought it was time to do something about it. This installer will replace the large and small versions of both the scrollbars and progressbars with ones that better match the appearance of the rest of the interface. They look flatter and more crisp and work with both the Blue and the Graphite appearance settings. If you decide you want to revert to the original Aqua style, please run the separate Restore Aqua installer.

You can download Aqua Extreme for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard (and OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard) using the links at the bottom of the Obsidian Menu Bar homepage (see link above). If you like it, you can send Max a donation.

OmniDiskSweeper: A really nice utility from The Omni Group that’s been around for a long time. Their description: “OmniDiskSweeper is really great at what it does: showing you the files on your drive, in descending order by size, and letting you decide what to do with them. Delete away, but exercise caution: OmniDiskSweeper does not perform any safety checks before deleting files!”

It appears that version 1.7.2, the last to support Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger and 10.5 Leopard, isn’t available anymore from their site. Once again, the WayBack Machine is your friend. You can view the older OmniDiskSweeper page and download version 1.7.2 of the app. (You’ll be redirected a couple of times, be patient.)

Pacifist: Another terrific utility that’s been around for a long time. From the website homepage: “Pacifist is a shareware application that opens Mac OS X .pkg package files, .dmg disk images, and .zip, .tar, .tar.gz, .tar.bz2, and .xar archives and allows you to extract individual files and folders out of them. This is useful, for instance, if an application which is installed by the operating system becomes damaged and needs to be reinstalled without the hassle of reinstalling all of Mac OS X, or if you want to inspect a downloaded package to see what it will install before installing it. Pacifist is also able to verify existing installations and find missing or altered files, and Pacifist can also examine the kernel extensions installed in your system to let you see what installer installed them, and whether the installer was made by Apple or a third-party.” You can download older versions of Pacifist (that go back to Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar) from this page.

DragThing: Another venerable Mac utility, a sort of smart Dock on steroids (but read more on the About page). The developer, James Thomson, still offers older versions for PowerPC Macs from the Download page. (Support goes as far back as Mac OS 7.5.5!)

Please note that, if you install DragThing and you want to purchase a licence from within the application, you will be directed to proceed through the old Kagi payment system, and since Kagi is no more, nothing will happen. I asked James directly via email and he confirmed that, if you purchase a licence for version 5 (the latest at the time of writing) by following the Buy Now link on the website, everything will be fine. James also told me that:

Currently we don’t have a mechanism to purchase older [version] 2 and 4 serial numbers in place right now, but if anybody bought the current version I’d be happy to send them an older number.

Default Folder X: You can download version 4.5.12 for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard (and 10.6 Snow Leopard, it works under Rosetta), and version 4.3.10 for Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger from the FAQ page (scroll down until you reach the “What version of Default Folder X do I need?” question in the Default Folder X Compatibility section.)

JollysFastVNC by Patrick Stein. It’s a very nice “secure ARD and VNC client. Its aim is to be the best and most secure VNC client on the Mac.” Its home page is here. Older versions of the app are available at the bottom of the page. Check also other apps by Patrick, particularly ScreenRecycler, which lets you use an older computer as an additional display for your Mac. JollysFastVNC is not free. You can activate a trial licence, that will let you use the app for a couple of days, but you are encouraged to purchase a licence, which costs €26.95.

Snapz Pro X: If you’re a long-time Mac user, this software application doesn’t need an introduction, but in case you don’t know what it does, here’s the description from the developer’s website: “Snapz Pro X allows you to effortlessly record anything on your screen (Except DRM-protected content), saving it as a QuickTime® movie or screenshot that can be e-mailed, put up on the web, or passed around however you want.”

Ambrosia Software still makes available to download legacy version 2.3.3 for Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, 10.5 Leopard, and 10.6 Snow Leopard from this page.

• Here are a couple of Torrent clients:

  • Transmission: older versions for Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, 10.4 Tiger, and 10.5 Leopard, are available at this page.
  • µTorrent: the older stable version (1.6.5) with PPC support is available at this page. I’m not sure it works under Tiger. I was able to use it under Leopard, but after installing it on my G4 Cube running Tiger, the app would quit on launch.

xScope: This great utility consists of “A powerful set of tools that are ideal for measuring, inspecting & testing on-screen graphics and layouts.” The Iconfactory still provides links to download previous versions of xScope from this Support page. You’ll have to be running Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard at the very least and, of course, you’ll still have to purchase a licence since it isn’t freeware.

DiskWarrior: This essential disk repair and data recovery utility by Alsoft still supports PowerPC Macs running at least Mac OS X 10.5.8. Make sure you check the Requirements page on Alsoft’s website for the details. Alsoft still offers version 2.1 for pre-OS X PowerPC Macs. There is no direct download, though; you’ll have to contact the company’s Tech Support.

• This is a useful resource maintained by Matej Horvat, if you want to check it out: Last versions of applications for Mac OS X on PowerPC.


Looking for more?

Check out this list of recommended interesting websites for users of vintage Macs. You’ll find several links to software archives for PowerPC Macs and even pre-OS X machines.

If you have trouble with any of the links to download the apps I’ve mentioned, let me know. I’ll provide a link to a copy I keep in my archives. Thanks!

A nice UI detail in NEXTSTEP’s Webster app

Nextstep webster

It’s that time of the year when I get drawn to the NeXT platform once again. Unfortunately I do not own any NeXT hardware, so I have to resort to software emulation to explore and interact with the NEXTSTEP operating system.

After starting the NEXTSTEP 3.3 virtual machine in Fusion, I was checking some unrelated information, when I remembered that NEXTSTEP had its own built-in Webster dictionary. When I opened the application, I noticed a nifty UI detail. You can tell the application to search for a term in the Dictionary, in the Thesaurus, or have both results in the same window. You can see at a glance where you’re searching, because the icon in the Dictionary and Thesaurus button will appear as an open or closed dictionary accordingly. So, in the image above, you can tell at once you’re just seeing results in the Webster Dictionary. To search the Thesaurus, you click on the Thesaurus button, and it’ll change to an open book icon. Vice versa, if you only want to see results from the Thesaurus and not the Dictionary, you click on the Dictionary button and it will ‘close’. It’s a very subtle, very clever UI detail that’s perfectly intuitive because it depicts exactly the action you’re carrying out — ‘opening’ the book you want to consult, and ‘closing’ the book you’re not interested in.

It’s interesting to note that in Mac OS X’s Dictionary app, you can’t have a concurrent view of the results from both the Dictionary and the Thesaurus, unless you open the app’s Preferences, deselect all the resources you don’t want to display except the Dictionary and Thesaurus, and select All in the sources toolbar after entering the search term in the main window. (Or you can choose File > New Window from the menu and have two app windows, one for the Dictionary, one for the Thesaurus, but it’s more cumbersome because you have to type the same search term in both windows.)

Probably the first appearance of brushed metal in the Mac’s interface

A few days back, I read with interest an article by Stephen Hackett called The Brushed Metal Diaries: An Introduction, a Trojan Horse and a History of Abuse. While many people believe that brushed metal appeared in the Macintosh’s interface with Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, Hackett tracks its arrival back to 1999 and QuickTime 4.0:

1999 was a very interesting time to be an Apple fan. The Five Flavors were the machines of choice for many, and the Newton had been dead for little over a year. Mac OS 8.6 has just shipped, with OS 9 still several months away.

In these days, Apple released Brushed Metal in to the world. While eventually the UI would take over just about everything, its beginnings were quite humble: QuickTime 4.0.

It’s true, brushed metal started to replace the ‘platinum theme’ as the chrome of an application with QuickTime 4.0, but that got the long-time Mac user in me thinking. Somehow I wasn’t completely sure that was the first time I had seen brushed metal elements in a Mac application. As you can easily see by the awfully slow pace at which I’m keeping this site updated, lately I haven’t had much time to spend with my vintage Macs. Yesterday I finally found a moment to investigate a hunch I had, and I was right: brushed metal appeared in a Mac application as early as System 7.5.x (1994-1996), in Apple CD Audio Player’s UI:

AudioCD Player MacOS753 1 2

This image in particular is taken from this page at and it shows the Apple CD Audio Player application as it appears under System 7.5.3. (I verified by booting my Quadra 950 running that same System version, but this was an easier way to obtain a very similar screenshot). As you can see, the application UI emulates the interface of a CD player, and while the ‘Normal’, ‘Shuffle’, ‘Prog’ and ‘→’ buttons are simply faux-metal, the group of buttons on the right (Stop, Play, Eject, and so on) all present a more brushed-metal look. Apple CD Audio Player was also probably the first Mac system application to support customised skins.

What was old is new again

I have really enjoyed Steven Frank’s insights in the wake of the iPad introduction. If you haven’t read his article, I encourage you to do so, especially if you think you haven’t exactly had a ‘gotcha’ moment when you first saw the iPad.

For the scope of this blog, I’ll extrapolate one interesting bit:

New World devices are easy to learn and highly usable because they do not expose the filesystem to users and they are “data islands”. We are no longer working with “files” but we are still working with data blobs that it would be valuable to be able to exchange with each other. Perhaps the network wins here. Perhaps flash drives that we never see the contents of. The Newton was, to my knowledge, the first generally available device where you could just say “put this app and all data I’ve created with it on this removable card” without ever once seeing a file or a folder. Its sizable Achilles’ Heel was that only other Newtons understood the data format.

Document- (or data-) centric systems like the Newton OS and the Lisa Office System have always been a half-forgotten minority. The application-centric model of Windows, Mac OS, and other major operating systems is what has reigned so far, without question; with it, the usual desktop metaphor, with exposed files and folder hierarchy. Now things may change, and if the touch platform model — with its filesystem that’s kept invisible to the user’s eye — proves to be successful and more usable (and why shouldn’t it?), perhaps we’ll see more devices behaving like the good old Newton in the 1993-1998 years.

The Newton OS behaviour so aptly pointed out by Frank is one of the characteristics I enjoy more, along with handwriting recognition, and both these elements are, in my opinion, what still makes the Newton environment stand out, even if Newton OS is less than perfect and is not aging so well from a strictly technical point of view.

Those who are accustomed to their beloved files and folder hierarchy might think that hiding such structure from the user is just insane. They may feel a bit lost: Where are my files? Where did the application store that document I just created? And where is the Save command? Believe me, it’s more intuitive than you think. What I’ve always found ironic is that in the Newton the office/desktop metaphor might not be as obvious as in a Mac or Windows PC or Linux box, but it turns out to be a more organised ‘office’ than the one these other systems offer.

Objects in the Newton OS can reside in the internal memory or in an external linear flash card. Each place is like an office ‘room’ (or a storage closet if you like). In each office room, objects are divided into categories: they can be Applications, Extensions, Help elements, Setup elements, and Storage (soups). When you open the Extras drawer (note the office nomenclature here as well), you always have an overview of all the contents thanks to a pull-down menu which lets you easily browse them, no matter where they are. A similar kind of organisation is kept by each application. There are some default folder names and they, too, hint at some sort of office-like file management: Business, Personal, Miscellaneous; or you just can leave the document unfiled (there’s a None (Unfiled) folder), which is a bit like leaving it on the ‘desktop’.

This kind of filing system may suggest some vagueness and its categories may look too broad. Of course when filing a document you can choose to create a new folder and name it as you please, but I never find myself being too specific as I would be on a Mac, where I have hundreds of folders and the more detailed and specific a folder name is, the more quickly I’ll find my stuff when looking for it.

On the Newton each application contains its data and you just tap the Overview button to look at a list of them. The same folder labels I mentioned before can be used inside each application for consistency. But even if you leave dozens of documents unfiled, you tap Overview and they’re there. The list view shows if they have been stored internally or on some external card: you can file them under the same folder label (e.g. “Personal”) but at the same time you can specify, for example, that three of them be filed in the internal store, and two of them on a card. When the card is inserted and you look at your documents in the Personal folder, you’ll see everything. On a Mac, you would navigate to the external volume root directory, then to a folder named “Personal” and then inside that folder. Layers that get in the way.

When you see the Newton filing system in action, it is so intuitive and feels so ‘human’ it hurts. You really don’t have to worry where you stuff is all the time. With the Newton, you know it’s there. And on the Newton there is no Save command because every document you create is persistently stored in memory. This emphasises the creation of stuff, not its constant maintenance. You start a document in the Notes app and what you write there is always ‘saved’. You can even forget to name it, each new document has its creation date set as default name. You can even forget to file it: it’ll remain available in an Unfiled folder. You can switch off the Newton at any time and when you turn it back on, everything is exactly where you left it. Even when batteries die. With this method I find myself truly focused on my work. Two weeks ago I lost nearly half of a translation work because I was working in an unsaved “Untitled Document” on my Mac, there was an unexpected crash, and after a forced reboot the document was gone. If only had I remembered to save it.

In the end I’ll be more than happy if thanks to the touch platform (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad) we’ll get to a point where devices will behave as Steven Frank predicts — more like the Newton than an Old World device. In my opinion, hiding the filesystem from the user, shifting the filing paradigm so that the user gets more focused on what he/she creates rather than being obsessed with saving, organisation and file management, can only be beneficial to the user without any real loss of control over the content.

It seems that the Newton keeps getting younger, eh?

Communication with the user: some examples from the Lisa

In the past days I’ve been tinkering with the beautiful LisaEm, probably the best Apple Lisa emulator around (I’ve already mentioned it in this blog, by the way). After installing the various tools of the Lisa Office System (LisaWrite, LisaDraw, LisaGraph, LisaCalc, LisaList, LisaProject, LisaTerminal), I started exploring them, using the emulated Lisa 2 as if it were a real computer, and taking notes about the interaction with the operating system and the user experience.

I won’t be talking in depth about the history of the Lisa, because it’s not the point of this post. The Macintosh and the Lisa user interfaces had a lot of similarities, but were also quite different, especially regarding the communication with the user. I have used early versions of the Macintosh OS, as early as System 2 if I recall correctly, and I’ve been using regularly every Mac OS version from System 6 to the current OS X Snow Leopard. By using the emulated Lisa for a couple of days, the first thing that struck me has been how thoughtful and literally user-friendly the Lisa Office System interface is. I daresay it’s even more user-friendly than the famous Macintosh GUI.

Let’s take a small visual tour. (Note: the images are a bit shrunk and you’ll have to click on them to see a better reproduction of the screenshots).

This is how the Lisa Desktop looks with the seven main applications (called Tools in Lisa’s parlance) of its office suite. Note the Empty Folders folder. In the Lisa operating system, there wasn’t a command to create a new folder: you just double-clicked on the Empty folders folder and a fresh, empty folder (named Empty Folders 11/14 — that is, today’s date is appended to the name) was created. This is not surprising, since the whole Lisa system is document-oriented, not application-oriented like basically every other OS around, then and now.

In Lisa’s specific desktop metaphor you would have a new folder by going where all the empty folders are and picking one, pretty much like a real office environment. The same would happen upon creating a new document using any of the seven aforementioned main applications. To create a new text document you don’t open the application LisaWrite (as you would do in any application-oriented system). If you do, Lisa would react this way:


“LisaWrite stationery?” you might ask. Yes, in every Lisa office Tool folder, along with a subfolder with a sample document and the Tool icon itself, there’s also an icon named [Tool name] Paper, in this case LisaWrite Paper. This is the stationery mentioned by the previous message. It works like the Empty Folders example we saw above. To create a new LisaWrite document, you double-click on the LisaWrite Paper icon and voilà, a blank text document appears in the folder, with the standard name convention LisaWrite Paper [today’s date].


Of course you can rename it as you see fit, and double-clicking it you’ll actually open the LisaWrite application. It may seem a little convoluted to our application-oriented habits, but I find its logic compelling and consistent. It’s a behaviour that was perceived as more natural by the people who designed the Lisa UI. In the real world, when you begin a new document, such as a personal letter, you don’t expect the pen or the typewriter to create the writing space, the template, for you. You take a piece of paper (and it might very well be a piece of dedicated stationery: a sheet with the company logo for a work-related document, or special high-quality letter paper for personal correspondence, etc.) and then you use the other tools to actually write that document.

With the Lisa, it’s the same. You want to create a spreadsheet? You tear off the specific template for it, which is a LisaCalc Paper, and you’ll be offered all the necessary tools to create and manage that spreadsheet inside the LisaCalc tool environment. You want to start doodling? Tear off a LisaDraw Paper. And so on.

Back to user communication. In my brief experience with the emulated Lisa, I noticed how the Lisa operating system presented better-worded warnings and error messages which were less obscure and potentially more useful than other systems, Mac OS included. Here’s an example. The LisaWrite application and its files came on two diskettes. To copy the contents of the diskettes in the Lisa’s ProFile hard disk, I inserted the LisaWrite 1 diskette, selected the icons and just dragged them on the empty LisaWrite folder I had prepared before. Coming from a long-time experience with the Macintosh user interface, that seemed the most intuitive thing to do. I didn’t know that on the Lisa you have to duplicate (D) the selected icons and move the blinking duplicates Lisa creates, instead of the original files. I also did not know that the American Dictionary included with LisaWrite was actually split between the two floppies (since it was too big to fit on one), and that I couldn’t just copy the first part along with the other files.

How would the classic Mac OS — or even the modern Mac OS X — deal with such a situation? Probably by displaying something like Error: Cannot copy American Dictionary in (target folder) or American Dictionary could not be copied in (target folder) and offering the [Stop] and [Continue] buttons, without giving much insight to the user regarding what just happened. Often the user would also like to know why a certain attempted operation has failed. Lisa helpfully reacted this way:


That dialog box is surely verbose for today’s standards, but it gives real information, and a useful, direct reference to the user’s manual so that we can understand what happened. You have to consider that such design for dialog boxes and error warnings was conceived in an era when users actually took notice of such warnings. From thence, it’s been a road downhill, also thanks to more brief, confusing and unhelpful error messages. Remember the coded error messages of the classic Mac OS? Sorry, a system error has occurred. (Error -11) Not useful at all. Not trust-inspiring, either.

Back to the American Dictionary impasse, I didn’t have the Lisa Office System manual at hand, but in the Lisa FAQ section of the LisaEm website, I found the answer:

[…] Note that you cannot mix and match normal files with files that are split across several floppies (such as the American Dictionary on the LisaWrite floppy.) Instead, you’ll have to first duplicate the normal files manually, and later transfer the split files. When copying a split file, the Lisa will eject the floppy and ask you for the next floppy to retrieve the next piece of that file. […]

Following the instructions, all went well and the Lisa kept me posted on the current state of operations:


It’s worth noting that the Lisa could automatically split large files and archive them on many 400K diskettes, and reconstruct them later when needed. It didn’t need additional tools or utilities like StuffIt or UnRAR. Thus, backing up the data in the hard disk on a series of floppy diskettes was very easy: you just dragged the hard drive icon on an empty floppy icon and the Desktop Manager would ask you for another disk, and then another, until it reached a full backup.

Another interesting aspect of the Lisa Office System is that it copy-protected applications and documents by giving them unique serial numbers that would tie them to a specific Lisa unit. So, when copying the various Office Tools from the diskettes to the ProFile hard disk, I received this warning:


Again, notice how well-written and informative this warning is. It is very clear about what’s going to happen, so that the user can make an informed decision.

Another example: I was manipulating an example list in the LisaList tool, and made changes in the formatting, order and font used in the list. Suddenly the screen went blank, as if the application had crashed or something. But soon the Lisa informed me about what was happening with another exhaustive dialog box:


I love that expression, “[The tool] is having technical difficulties”: it is clearly an example of an era when the personal computer was starting to spread among regular, non-tech users, and this warning sounds sort of reassuring, as if to say: there is a technical problem, I won’t confuse you with the details right now, but I can attempt to solve it, and here’s a reference in the User Manual that may help you understand what’s going on.

I’ve also encountered a couple of funny warnings. The first one occurred when I attempted to set the date correctly in the Clock desk accessory. The time was displayed OK, but the date was set to November 12, 1987. So I clicked on the date and entered 11/12/09, but alas, I discovered that…


So the Lisa was not Y2K compliant, and the date range limited to 1981-1995 (why not 1999, by the way?).

The second warning that made me smile was when I fired up the Calculator for the first time:


But in the end this is just another example of how the communication with the user was taken very seriously by the people who designed the Lisa GUI. The Calculator could have been launched in the default mode without telling anything to the user, but this warning tries to be informative and friendly anyway. It’s not strictly necessary, but it’s a nice touch.

These are just a few examples and by no means exhaustive, but I think they’re enough to give you an idea. In my interaction with the emulated Lisa I found many other nice touches in the dialog boxes and, generally, in the language used by the Lisa’s interface. (I like, for example, the choice of terms used for certain menus and commands: Housekeeping may make you smile as a name for a menu in the main desktop environment, but it’s more clear and effective than the generic Special menu you’ll find later in the Macintosh Finder. And the command to rearrange icons and snap them to the grid was a more colloquial Straighten up Icons than a neutral Arrange icons). This is an interface which showed, or attempted to show, some true respect for the user dealing with it. Today’s graphical user interfaces might be slicker and more intuitive, but I think they leave a lot to be desired as regards to notifications, warnings, and error messages. Too often the user is left guessing what caused a problem. Moreover, too often the user is left guessing what the warning means in the first place.