Befitting its fearsome name, Apple’s new Lion operating system doesn’t shy away from challenges. App organization has been radically reinvented and the workspace redesigned. But one change resonates with the force of history: Windows no longer sport the right-hand navigational element with the tablike “elevator” indicating one’s place within a document. In other words, Apple has killed the scroll bar.
In Lion, instead of clicking your mouse or trackpad and dragging that old tab, you are supposed to let your fingers do the scrolling, using a two-finger swipe to move through the document. It’s iOS on the desktop. (When scrolling this new way, the bar makes a fleeting cameo appearance, though without the familiar arrows.)
The scroll bar’s disappearance is symbolic of a larger shift: replacement of the mouse-driven conventions of the 1970s graphical user interface with the multitouch navigational techniques of iOS. Apple obviously isn’t the only hardware manufacturer incorporating multigesture controls into touchscreen devices, but it has been the most aggressive by far in pushing that interface into the broader world.
When it comes to navigation, touch is the new king of the jungle. The scroll bar is collateral damage in this movement.
An associated shift is a change in the direction the text moves when you swipe. Mac-oids are calling this reverse scrolling. Formerly, when you flicked your fingers down the trackpad, the text rose, propelling you forward in the document. This matched the behavior of the elevator on the scroll bar. Now the same downward swipe pulls the text down, too, as if you were dragging the actual document. This models the movements you make in iOS. Apple calls it natural scrolling, suggesting that with Lion we’ve finally managed to do things the way God (or Steve) intended. (Users can revert to the old style by deselecting a button labeled Natural Scrolling.)
The scroll bar’s demise comes after a storied history. It was first implemented at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center as part of the Smalltalk operating environment that was installed on the lab’s bitmapped computer systems. “I first saw it there around 1975,” says Larry Tesler, then a PARC researcher. “There were no arrows—just a bar with an elevator. You clicked above or below it to move a chunk of text.”
Tesler demo’d it during Apple’s famous 1979 visit to PARC; Steve Jobs wondered why it didn’t scroll continuously. (Legend has it that a PARC employee hacked a fix before Jobs left the building.)
Tesler was soon at Apple, where in 1980 he helped design software for the groundbreaking Lisa computer, the company’s first effort to rethink PARC’s interface, including the scroll bar. Apple continued tinkering until, in 1984, the first Macintosh introduced the world to the scroll bar as we know it. With the Mac, and then Windows, the awkward and frustrating process of moving through a document by repeatedly pounding an arrow key was gone, replaced by an elegant and intuitive means of navigation. The process opened our brains to the idea that the information inside our computers could be accessed directly. In a sense, the scroll bar perfectly embodied GUI computing.
It was a model that ruled for more than 30 years. But then came something even more natural—multitouch gestures. Apple was willing to transform its operating system to implement them. And so the scroll bar got eaten by a Lion.