Bring back the ease of 80s and 90s personal computing

The Macintosh in the 80s, still much easier than many of today’s systems

Reduce to the max. — Smart

Decoupling of the hardware from the OS and of the OS from the applications

Back in time when things were easy: In the 80s, your typical personal computer had one or more floppy drives (removable disks). Typically you had a System disk on which the operating system resided, and one or more application disks (where one or more applications resided). These things were decoupled from each other — the personal computer could be used with many different System disks, and each System disk could be used with many different application disks. The same application disks could also be used with different System disks.


Software minimalism. — Me

Early boot

Back in time when things were easy: No bootloader to configure. Just insert one (or more) bootable floppies, bootable SCSI hard disks (think USB) or other bootable devices. Those could be internal to the computer or externally attached.

Select boot device

Back in time when things were easy: In the case of multiple bootable disks, a simple Chooser let you select from within the operating system which one the computer would boot from the next time it was restarted.

You could easily select the boot volume in the Startup Disk control panel

Store preferences across boot disks

Back in time when things were easy: You made certain settings (e.g., timezone, keyboard language) once and it would work regardless which boot disk you were booting from, because things were stored in a piece of memory on the logic board.

Manageable units

Number of files in the system

Back in time when things were easy: Tens to hundreds of files in a typical system.

Knowing what every part of the system does

Back in time when things were easy: I was able to tell for each single one what it was doing and where to search if something went wrong.

The System Folder consisted of 13 files and directories, each of which was clearly understandable

File manager

The objects are the real thing, not just a view on the thing

Back in time when things were easy: The objects you saw on the screen gave you the impression that they were the actual things, and each object had one and only one on-screen representation in the system. For example, an application had one icon and existed only once on the system. For example, you used the same icon to launch, move, copy, delete, update an application, or to move it into or out of the start menu.

The “start menu” items are modified by just dragging the actual applications into or out of a folder. There are no separate “desktop files” nor “start menu editors”. An application either is in the “Apple Menu Items” folder or it is not

Spatial file manager

Back in time when things were easy: Each window of the file manager kept the arrangement of objects on the screen. Each file was located in exactly one window, which could have different settings than other windows.

Spatial file manager. Each window remembers how the objects in it are displayed, and each object is in one window, and one window only.

Application management

One app = one file (or directory)

Back in time when things were easy: Each application consisted of one file, which contained both the program code and all related resources (icons, menus, graphics). Later “one file” became “one directory” but the basic idea stayed the same — an application could be “managed” by drag-and-drop.

Deleting an application is as simple as moving its icon to the Trash

Being able to run applications from any location

Back in time when things were easy: You could drag-and-drop an application anywhere, and it would still run. Simple as that. There was no assumption in the system that an application had to be in one certain location in the filesystem.

An application is renamed and moved in the file system, and it still “just works”.

Being able to have multiple versions of applications around

Back in time when things were easy: You could have as many versions of applications next to each other as you wanted.

It is no issue whatsoever to have multiple instances of an application around

Offline use

Offline by default

Back in time when things were easy: You got an application on physical media, and could be sure the physical media contained all the application needed to run on systems that matched the system requirements. Even decades later, if you have a compliant system and the application media, you can run the application just like you could back in the day.

QC’d software with few updates

Back in time when things were easy: You could opt into purchasing major (feature) upgrades every 2–3 years, and got minor (quality) updates for free very infrequently (say, 1–2 times a year). You made a conscious decision whether and when to apply upgrades or updates, and to which applications. You usually applied updates only if there was a specific reason (e.g., a feature you wanted or a bug you were running into and needed to be fixed). Systems typically ran on the exact same software configuration for months if not years.

“Personal” computers

No multi-user, no passwords by default

Back in time when things were easy: “personal” computers were built under the assumption that one machine would serve one user, and there were no passwords or other measures that make it cumbersome to use the system for the sake of “security”. The concept of a “user account” did not exist throughout the 80s and 90s for most personal computer systems.



Back in time when things were easy: Using the computer did not produce traces of its usage. If you ran MS-DOS or the Macintosh system from a locked disk, no changes were ever written to the system.



Back in time when things were easy: If you ran MS-DOS or the Macintosh system from a locked disk, no changes were ever written to the system and you could be reasonably sure that the system was not changing itself and would continue to run for decades. It was easy to build a checksum over the disk to audit its integrity.

As little configurability as possible

Less, but better. — Dieter Rams

Back in time when things were easy: Each system of a certain type behaved more or less the same, predictable way. On each installation of Word, the third icon in the toolbar was the same icon for everyone. It was easy to give phone support because two systems looked exactly alike.

Build systems for the long run

Back in time when things were easy: Systems could run unchanged for decades. To this day (2019), I get support requests from Windows XP users. And I still spot the occasional MS-DOS or Windows 2000 boot screen on public kiosk systems.


Yes, I really want a simple, personal computer system again. No accounts, “security”, constant forced updating. A lightweight system in which the user can know and understand (at least at a high level) all components of the system and is in the driver seat. Not some real or virtual “administrator”. Systems that can sustainably run for decades in offline mode. In this article, I have hopefully made clear what I mean by this — not just some “sugar coating” on the interface, but removing (or at least encapsulating) lot of the baggage and complexity that modern systems have piled up, and re-imagining the simplicity end “it just works” elegance of personal computer systems in the 80s and 90s.

Want to do something about it?

Now, Constructive Discontent should eventually lead to action, or else it won’t be that “constructive” after all. Hence the question, can we make a friendly Libre Desktop operating system with focus on simplicity, minimalist elegance, and usability (think Macintosh System 1), without the complexities of Linux distributions?

Can we make a friendly and usable Libre Desktop system? Source



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Author of #AppImage and contributor to hundreds of open source projects. #LinuxUsability, digital privacy, typography, computer history, software conservation