What comes after the Desktop metaphor?

Steven Frank, at his stevenf.com blog, has been thinking about what could possible replace the desktop metaphor that XEROX and Apple helped to pioneer.

Besides the desktop paradigm, Frank describes the pros and cons of other computing models – like the Newton’s soup-based data model and the iPhone’s multi-touch platform.

The Newton’s model had benefits, Frank says, but crumbled under the weight of OS-to-OS translations:

The Newton’s object store was an engineering marvel that fell apart as soon as you needed to exchange data with the outside world. You couldn’t just take a text file and send it over to your Newton because the Newton didn’t understand the concept of “file”. Your text first had to go through a conversion (via Newton Connection Utility) into an object format that some Newton application (in this case, probably Notes) could handle. Then you’d have the reverse problem going the other way.

Because desktop apps and Newton apps would never offer exactly the same feature set, inevitably these conversions result in loss of some information. Nitty-gritty things like precise formatting, metadata, and so on are the first things out the window when you need to convert data between two formats. It leaves you with a “lowest common denominator” form of information exchange that’s more frustrating than just being able to send files around. But in order to “just send files around”, you’d have to jettison all your radical (and useful) innovations and go back to square one: the good old hierarchical file system.

It’s a heckuva read, even if Frank offers no clear solution to what will come (web apps? Spotlight?) after the desktop metaphor has outlived its usefulness.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball has mentioned this before, but what I like about the Newton OS is that everything is automatically saved for you. When you scribble out a new note, you never have to press a “save” button. The only action you take with a note, after you’ve finished it, is to move it into some sort of organizational file system. But that’s optional. If you don’t want to move it, you don’t have to; you can shut off your Newton and the note stays right where you left it.

It’s like the Notes app on the iPhone, or the Stickies app on the Mac. Everything is automatically saved to some arcane folder deep in the Mac Library system.

What do you think? What’s the best possible platform to inherit the desktop’s dominance in computing?


  1. Thinking about what will constitute our post-WIMP interfaces is interesting. There are presently two options for where the computing market will go.

    The first option is that we will see the “ten-foot UI” become common on desktop PCs. What we mean by “ten-foot” is the sort of interface seen on Front Row and the Apple TV – something you could easily operate from ten feet away from the screen. It’s not an unlikely option, though it will take considerable development in order to get it clean enough and advanced enough to be working fully. This is the personal computing of the future.

    The second option is that when you turn your computer on, you will see a Google (or similar) page, and a bar of tabs at the top. Again, it’s not unlikely, but it would take development work to make sure that we could get our devices like cameras and printers and disks working well with this new interface idea. This is the interpersonal computing of the future, in the sense that NeXT deployed in their marketing of the 1990’s.

    It remains to be seen which one will triumph, but the way the Web is headed now, it looks like interpersonal computing will win out. There is a third option, or course, which is that we will develop a new metaphor. If this happens, it will most likely be a small company which develops it, which would then be bought out by a large company like Apple, Google or (gasp!) Microsoft.

  2. Good thoughts, David – thanks for sharing. Part of me feels like we’re seeing elements from a new paradigm forming already (like your tabs comment), but then part of me thinks we’ve got it all wrong. The next UI will be totally different and unpredictable. We’re stuck with what we have now, so we extrapolate from that.

    It’s like trying to imagine a bluebird forming out of a Tyrannosaurus.

  3. What came before GUI’s and the desktop metaphor? The command line. We used a keyboard to communicate with our computers, but just because we’d invented the mouse, we didn’t stop using the keyboard. And just because we’ve replaced the desktop with something else, doesn’t mean we have to stop using the mouse.

    And just because a new metaphor comes along, doesn’t mean the desktop will die out. People still use the command line – part of Apple’s reason for switching to a UNIX-based OS for Mac OS X is that the GUI-only interface was holding software developers back. Apple even made a command line interface for their software development package for MacOS Classic.

    If you’ve never read “In the beginning was the Command-Line,” by Neal Stephenson, I’d suggest giving it a read. It was written at more or less exactly the wrong time; Be, Inc. went bust, OS X came out and Windows 2000 dawned just a year later. But many of the points he makes are still valid and reflect perfectly how we interact with what, as Douglas Adams says, is basically a modelling device. In the beginning, we modelled mathematics, and had computers do neat sums for us that helped us do things like crack ciphers. Then, we realised that we could make these numbers stand for the letters of the alphabet, and made it into a typewriter. Finally, we thought of making these numbers stand for pictures, or at least tiny dots which could be used to make up pictures.

    Once we had that, we needed a way to interact with these pictures on the screen in a way that a keyboard could never do. So the mouse came along, alongside the trackball and other kinds of interesting technologies to help us use the computer.

    (Ooh. I’m veering all over the place. I am going somewhere with this, though, so keep with me…)

    So Apple and Xerox worked together and gave us the desktop and menus. And then Microsoft came along and copied all of their ideas.

    We’ve tried improving on the ideas they came up with to help us interact before, but only ended up with gorilla arm (http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/G/gorilla-arm.html). Most humans can’t think years ahead and be perfectly accurate. The Lisa’s way of creating a new document, for example, (by “tearing off” a piece of stationary from a window) never caught on, and the Macintosh simplified it by making that into a menu. Nowadays, that might not seem so ridiculous, because in a touchscreen environment it would be seen as intuitive and normal to do such a thing, but in fact it is completely counter-intuitive – as Frank says, try asking someone who’s never seen an iPhone to zoom in on a web page. It /seems/ intuitive, but it’s not. And this is part of the reason that Apple manages to sell so many products – it can use its adverts as an instruction manual. You could pick up an iPhone and start using it based off what you saw in one of their ads. And it’s the same with the original Macintosh.

    Well, I hope these thoughts have been interesting. And if you’d like to read the Stephenson essay, it’s online here:


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