[EAS]Computer Desktop Interfaces

pjk peter.kindlmann at yale.edu
Tue Jan 16 18:18:29 EST 2001

Mail*Link® SMTP               Computer Desktop Interfaces


Monday, January 15, 2001

Modern Operating System, Interface Are Ripe for Change

By Gary Chapman

Copyright 2001, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved

One safe technology prediction for this year is that we'll see new 
operating systems and new user interfaces on personal computers. Mac 
OS X (referred to as "10"), Microsoft's code-named "Whistler" update 
to Windows and Eazel Corp.'s new user interface for Linux are all 
expected to debut in 2001.

Many people are eagerly awaiting these products, and some analysts 
are hoping they'll deliver a much-needed jolt to the personal 
computer industry. But other experts think that the modern PC 
operating system is stuck in a rut, and that a breakthrough in PC 
interface design will come from some unknown firm.

Still, there is no doubt that one of the most amazing technological 
phenomena of the last 20 years has been the universal adoption of the 
desktop graphical user interface, or GUI, pronounced "gooey" by 
technical developers. Almost anywhere in the world, you will find a 
PC using some variation of this interface. Most computer users have 
never used anything else. Although there remain some hard-core 
adherents of the old text-based, command-line interface, the majority 
of computer users rely on what software designers call the WIMP 
factor -- windows, icons, menus and a pointing device, usually a 

The desktop user interface is about 25 years old and was developed 
principally at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. Apple Computer's 
Steve Jobs toured the Xerox PARC labs and shortly after, many of 
Xerox's innovations showed up in the Apple Lisa and then the 
Macintosh. After a few shaky starts, Microsoft eventually absorbed 
the desktop concept into Windows. Now the basic elements of the 
desktop user interface are so familiar that they seem as permanent 
and stable as the automobile's dashboard-steering wheel combination 
of the automobile.

But some computer scientists and experts think that this desktop 
system is living long past its usefulness, and because all three 
major PC operating systems will be overhauled this year, we may have 
an ideal opportunity to make a leap as significant as the Mac 
interface was in 1984.

Indeed, the new, colorful and striking interface for Mac OS X is 
different enough from the "classic" Mac system to require some 
adjustment and training. Microsoft's Whistler promises some new 
interface tweaks and Eazel's Nautilus desktop software will provide 
an entirely new look to Linux.

Jef Raskin was the original project leader of the Macintosh 
development effort at Apple, and he recently told me that he's "very 
disappointed" because computer companies, and even the open-source 
crowd, are getting hidebound and reactionary. "People are finally 
beginning to realize that this interface that was developed back in 
the '70s and '80s isn't really hacking it," Raskin said, but there's 
"no revolutionary fervor anymore."

"Mac OS X is sort of window dressing. Its changes are not very 
interesting, and it's certainly not a new direction that people 
should be looking for," Raskin said. He said the work of Eazel, a 
company that includes some of his former colleagues from Apple, "is 
the same old thing again."

There's been a rising tide of criticism among technical innovators 
about the shortcomings of the desktop design for PC interfaces. As 
Raskin says in his book, "The Humane Interface" (Addison-Wesley, 
2000), the desktop concept was developed when computers were used 
almost exclusively for business -- hence the attempt to simulate a 
work desk. It was also a time when computer memory was scarce, 
screens were small, processors were slow and files were few in number 
and all local, or stored on the computer being used. Yale University 
computer scientist David Gelernter, another desktop system critic, 
said, "We need an interface designed to cope with what people do with 
computers now, instead of what they did with computers in 1977."

Raskin also points out that the desktop user design is weighted 
toward the "learning phase" of computer use. It's a simulation of a 
desk-like work space, with folders, file cabinets, a trash can, etc., 
in order to "cue" new users about the computer's functions.

But once people learn this simulated environment, the learning cues 
actually impede efficient use of the computer. PCs show little of 
what could be an "automatic phase" of computer use, Raskin said. 
Users spend too much time organizing files, looking for files, 
creating folders, deleting files, emptying the trash, etc. -- all 
functions left over from noncomputerized office work that persist on 
computers. Many of these tasks could be, and should be, automated, 
Raskin said.

Gelernter agrees, saying, "New user interfaces will get rid of 
directories and the file clerk model of computing."

Moreover, we now use computers much differently from what the 
original desktop designers envisioned, such as for entertainment, 
audio and video, spoken commands, and, of course, cruising the 
Internet. Individual users commonly have thousands of files on their 
computers and access to billions more on the Internet. Their "view" 
through the flat screen window, however, is still typically the 
single document or file on the screen, a metaphor appropriate to a 
single printed page, and not to the myriad ways we use this global 
universe of networked, multimedia information now readily at hand.

Raskin has experimented with spatial user designs that he compares to 
flying an airplane over a landscape, a "plane" that can dive down 
into greater and greater detail, or ascend into abstraction, with 
clicks of the mouse. Gelernter and his company, Mirror Worlds 
(http://www.mirrorworlds.com), have explored a chronological scheme, 
using the metaphor of a diary or a "lifestream."

Gelernter also said, "It's clear that the user interface will move to 
depth, instead of the two-dimensional plane we have today. The 
interface will become a deep, 3-D landscape, unrelated to the paper 
world." Mirror Worlds is set to announce a new software product with 
a new concept for personal computing this month.

Raskin said, "The world is ripe for a change. People are very annoyed 
with computers. The Macintosh used to be insanely great; now it's 
insanely complicated." Gelernter added that when things change and we 
ditch the desktop, "It's not going to come from any of the 
established companies -- it will be from a company you've never heard 

Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the 
University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at 
gary.chapman at mail.utexas.edu.


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