π

The Desktop Metaphor: Once Awesome, Now Hindrance

Show Sidebar

In ancient computer history up until the seventies, those massive and expensive machines were operated by highly educated people. The "interface" consisted of many switches, small lamps, punch cards, printers, and later-on also keyboards. It was a complicated thing to do.

From Being Elite to Public Use

With the introduction of the desktop metaphor and graphical user interfaces in the 1970s, normal people started to be able to operate the complex thing called computer. This was a clever trick to re-use the real-world knowledge of people. The computer screen now showed a familiar environment with a writing desk that holds things like a paper folder, drawers lead to stored stuff, it offered the possibility of spacial arrangements of documents, and so forth. No doubt that the desktop metaphor was a big leap in the development of a human-operatable computer interface for the masses.

The user interface of Xerox Star 8010 showing an early desktop

If you want to read more about UI and PIM history, I recommend you to read chapter two and three of my PhD thesis.

Self-Limitations

Meanwhile, the world has evolved. People are using the world wide web where there is no reference to any physical system any more. Users of shopping web pages are no longer irritated on the fact that the very same digital camera might appear on different pages: digital cameras, hot sale stuff, office equipment, outdoor tools, and so forth.

Here comes the downside of the desktop metaphor that still dominates nowadays operating system interfaces in general and file system features in particular. In the real world, every thing is available only on one single spot. My wallet is either on my desk, in my drawer, in the car or in my pocket. Unfortunately, it can't be on each of those spots in parallel.

Still sticking to the desktop metaphor now resembles an unnecessary limitation. One single file can be accessed only on one spot in my file system hierarchy. The file is either on my Desktop folder, it's in my home directory, or in any other directory. (Note that "folder" is more or less a synonym for "directory" and vice versa for the sake of this discussion.)

Alternatives

In my opinion, we need to get rid of the desktop metaphor. The powerful computer sitting on my desk currently does not offer as advanced interface possibilities than any web page on the Internet. What a shame.

The basic idea should be that the representation of information is only defined by the context of the retrieval process and not the context or a location when storing it.

Tagging in combination with advanced retrieval methods such as TagTrees is one example of many. Fast desktop search with high usability is another one. Provide and use as many retrieval options as possible. The journey has just begun. In my opinion, we are still in the stone-age of IT. There is more to come.

As a user, be open and flexible. Remember to adapt your retrieval method according to your current requirement/context. We need a totally different education system with respect to bit literacy. The current school/education system addresses wrong topics with wrong methods and wrong tools.

This notion is the subject of many things discussed in information architecture and Personal Information Management (PIM).


Related articles that link to this one:

Comment via email or via Disqus comments below: