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Tristam, Claire. 2001. “The Next Computer Interface”, Technology Review, Published by MIT.www.technologyreview.com/printer_friendly_article.aspx?id=12703December 2001The Next Computer InterfaceThe desktop metaphor was a brilliant innovation-30 years ago. Now it's an unmanageable mess,and the search is on for a better way to handle information.By Claire Tristram"The desktop is dead," declares David Gelernter. Gelernter is referring to the "desktopmetaphor"-the term frequently used for the hierarchical system of files, folders and icons that weuse to manage information stored on our home or office computers. At the annual gathering oftechnophiles at TechXNY/PC Expo 2001 in New York last June, he told the rapt crowd attendinghis keynote speech that the desktop metaphor is nothing more than virtual Tupperware. "Ourelectronic documents are scattered by the thousands in all sorts of little containers all over theplace," he said. "The more information and the more computers in our lives, the more of anuisance this system becomes."For the past decade or so Gelernter has been campaigning for a new metaphor to overthrow thedesktop-first in research he carried out at Yale University, where he is a professor of computerscience, and now as chief scientist of his new company, Mirror Worlds Technologies, withoffices in New Haven, CT, and New York City. In March, Mirror Worlds announced a novelmetaphor called Scopeware, software that automatically arranges your computer files inchronological order and displays them on your monitor with the most recent files featuredprominently in the foreground. Scopeware is far more sweeping than a simple rearrangement oficons, however: in effect, it transfers the role of file clerk from you to the computer, seamlesslyordering documents of all sorts into convenient, time-stamped files.If you have ever forgotten what you named a file or which folder you put it in, you probably willagree that it's time for a change. The desktop metaphor is decades old, arising from early-1970swork at Xerox's fabled Palo Alto Research Center, and was never intended to address today'scomputing needs. Indeed, the product that brought the metaphor to mass-market attention wasApple Computer's 1984 Macintosh; it had no built-in hard drive, and its floppy disks each storedonly 400 kilobytes of information. Today we're using the same metaphor to manage the countlessfiles on our ever more capacious hard drives, as well as to access the virtually limitlessinformation on the Web. The result? Big, messy hierarchies of folders. Favorites lists where younever find anything again. Pull-down menus too long to make sense of.In other words, the desktop metaphor puts the onus on our brains to juggle this expandingcollection of files, folders and lists. Yet "our neurons do not fire faster, our memory doesn'tincrease in capacity and we do not learn to think faster as time progresses," notes Bill Buxton,
chief scientist of Alias/Wavefront, a leading maker of graphic-design tools. Buxton argues thatwithout better tools to exploit the immense processing power of today's computers, that power isnot much good to us.That's why many researchers-at universities and startups like Gelernter's Mirror Worlds as wellas giants like Microsoft and IBM-are searching for alternatives. They're examining metaphorstaken from other media, such as books or diaries or film; 3-D schemes that use our sense ofspatial orientation to create the illusion of depth on-screen, so that documents look closer orfarther away depending on their importance to us; alternatives that borrow from video games thenotion of having an intelligent guide, or avatar, to help us find what we're looking for; or eventheories that radically change the notion of what a "computer" is, so that we no longer think ofdevices as computers at all and are therefore open to new ways of interacting with them."The desktop metaphor made assumptions about how we use computers that just aren't trueanymore," asserts Don Norman, cofounder of the Nielsen Norman Group, famed critic ofcomputer design and author of The Design of Everyday Things. "It's time to throw away the oldmodel."Learning EsperantoIt will take a Herculean effort to overthrow the desktop metaphor-many observers believe it willprove impossible-chiefly because the three-decade-old interface, popularized by the Mac andquickly made nearly ubiquitous by Microsoft's Windows, has become integral to our very notionof personal computing. "A couple of years ago we did a study on how to introduce newcomputing models," says Dan Russell, research director in the field of human-computerinteraction at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA. "We wanted to find peoplewho didn't understand the function of file folders, how to open files, how to delete files. Wecouldn't find anyone. That makes it hard to change people's expectations of how computersshould behave."With this in mind, looking over the landscape of alternatives, one comes away wondering if thedesktop metaphor has become a part of basic cultural literacy, like language itself, and thatgetting people to try any of the suggested improvements is like getting them to learn aninternational language like Esperanto-a good idea in theory, but for most people not worth thetrouble.Even its biggest critics today acknowledge that the desktop metaphor was an extraordinarybreakthrough that tapped into the way people actually work and think, a vast improvement overtyping in text commands alongside a blinking cursor. Still, people like Gelernter remainundaunted in their belief that its moment has passed. "It was a brilliant idea at the time," he says."But it's explicitly tied to the way we managed information in the 1940s, with filing cabinetsfilled with separate folders of information. Even 10 years ago the notion of putting stuff in filesand sticking certain files in folders and others on your desktop was already broken down andfailing."
Gelernter's alternative, Scopeware, is the outcome of a decade of research and development atYale. Scopeware replaces the desktop metaphor with what Gelernter calls a "narrativeinformation system," or what you might call the diary metaphor, where every type of file-an e-mail message, a word processing document, a digital image-is stored chronologically, in whatappears on-screen to be a tiling stack of file cards.Search for the term "demo" on the Mirror Worlds Web site, for example, and you get a stack ofsix virtual file cards, dated back to February 9, 1998. In the upper right-hand corner of each cardyou see an icon indicating the type of file-in this case, four files in Adobe Acrobat, one inMicrosoft Word and one in Microsoft's Internet Explorer that was taken from a Web page. Oneach card you see the title of the file, plus a small box previewing what's inside. Moving yourmouse's pointer over one of the cards brings up a summary of the document and a larger picture,so you can see if it's what you want; a double click opens the file itself. Search for "Gelernter"and you get about 70 such cards, chronologically arranged, with older documents receding intothe background. You know immediately how to navigate. Scopeware works.The diary metaphor has some clear advantages over the desktop metaphor. It is based on thenotion that what we have created, modified or even looked at most recently is probably still mostimportant to us. And, Scopeware's inventor maintains, our sense of time is a strong organizingprinciple that can help us locate a file simply because we remember when we used it last. Ratherthan requiring you to manually rifle through buckets of information stored on your hard drive orinside an application like e-mail, Scopeware sorts information automatically, streaming it intopredetermined categories.But kill the desktop? While Gelernter has deeply criticized the desktop metaphor in his booksand in a manifesto about the future of digital technology calledThe Second Coming, it's ouryears of familiarity with that Xerox PARC design-the point and click, the icons and the menus-that make Scopeware so intuitive. Those of us who were 15 or older when we used our firstmouse still remember how difficult it was, initially, to equate the horizontal movement of ourmousing hand with the movement of the cursor on-screen. Now it's natural. And Scopeware, if itsucceeds, will do so because it makes use of what we already have. The company has positionedthe product as a business software tool that helps companies organize and share information,rather than as a replacement for Windows; it works through a browser rather than as an operatingsystem. "We aren't taking on Windows at all," Gelernter says. "That would be suicidal."That's the quandary that researchers in the field of human-computer interaction have longstruggled with: make something look too different on-screen, however good it is, and you willfail. "About ten years ago I realized that I wasn't able to say, Okay, turn off your machine,because tomorrow I'm going to bring you a brave new world,'" says Ramana Rao, a founder ofInxight Software, a Santa Clara, CA-based startup funded by Xerox that is also exploring andmarketing new user interfaces. "I needed to accept that there are hundreds of millions of PCs outthere, and figure out where within that structure I could insert the thin edge of a wedge of a newway of doing things, where I could show you something incrementally better, then start poundingon the wedge until the old face drops away."