Most of us are familiar by now with the term “GUI”–graphical user interface. Pointing, clicking, et cetera. But that’s actually a bit of a mistake. What we’re actually all thinking of is something called the WIMP paradigm: “windows, icons, menus, pointer.” It’s what Xerox PARC invented in 1973 for its Alto computer, Steve Jobs stole/improved in 1984 for the Macintosh, and Microsoft flat-out ripped off for Windows. And after more than 25 years as the dominant way of interacting with computers, it’s dying. Not with a bang, but a whimper: It’s slowly but surely being replaced by more ubiquitous, non-WIMP graphical user interfaces like the touch screens on our smartphones and tablets.
Electro band Errors hired an artist named Rachel Maclean to create this video, and while I doubt she intended it as an epitaph for a certain style of interface design, I couldn’t help but read it that way. The video’s hallucinogenic melange of long-in-the-tooth UI conventions is some kind of cracked-out masterpiece–from the opening moments of a blue-skinned nerd-avatar with spinning Mac “beachballs” for eyes, to the final scene showing that same avatar’s head being punctured by an apocalyptic hail of pixelated pointer arrows.
In between, embedded in Maclean’s performance-art-meets-Blingee aesthetic, is a menagerie of classic interface elements headed for the deadpool. Spinning beachballs (to indicate that the system is “hanging”): ever seen those on an iPad? Me neither. How about the black-and-white ticking clock icon, which tells you to wait while your slow-ass beige box crunches through some routine calculation? Already extinct. The cartoonlike hand that indicates you’ve rolled your mouse-pointer over a hyperlink is not long for this world. (“Rollover” is meaningless on a touch screen.) Desktop aliases? File hierarchies are so last century. Even basic WIMP conventions like folders, menu bars, and windows look hoary, creaky, and silly in Maclean’s half-sarcastic, half-affectionate visual elegy.
All of these UI elements once felt as gleaming and futuristic as iPad homescreens do now. But that was three decades ago. Think of it this way: Three decades before the Mac, Fortran was the new hotness. It’s incredible that we’ve been circling around in WIMP-land for as long as we have. I’m a big believer in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude toward interface design, but after watching Errors’s video, it’s clear: This stuff is headed for the history books. And Maclean has given it one hell of a send off.