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The Old Desktop Metaphor
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 70]

The desktop visual metaphor has been with us for many years. The attempts to oust it follow one another with less success than expected.

Do you remember when computers worked with MS DOS and everything that you wanted them to do had to be entered in the command line? Then came Apple with its failed Lisa system and introduced the windows and desktop metaphor, based on the works of, among others, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center on user interfaces. 

For those interested in the history of this development, it’s worth taking a look at Dadiv K. Every article in MacKiDo.

I still have the 1977 Scientific American issue* where Alan C. Kay explained the application of concepts like object orientation and windows to personal microinformatics, four years before the appearance of the IBM PC and MS-DOS.

Thanks to Apple Macintosh the windows and desktop metaphor quickly showed its ability to reduce the learning curve that until then had meant having to memorize the many commands needed to communicate efficiently with the computer.

Later on Windows took possession of the market, although it took some time (and some lawsuits) to reach the level marked by Apple’s computers.

And here we still are, anchored to this desktop metaphor, that was able to revolutionise in its day the way we humans interact with computers, but which is increasingly being criticised from different media.

Basically, the desktop is a way to disguise the hierarchical file system based on files and directories that you can find in UNIX or MS-DOS with an iconography that vaguely resembles the way we work in the office, with documents, folders and filing cabinets. 

A way of working that the PC itself is helping to make obsolete. On the other hand, in the good old days of MS-DOS the amount of files and directories that you could manage was very limited. Today the files that you can find in my personal folder amount to 8,767, spread over 556 sub-folders. You can imagine that, from time to time, I spend a few moments trying to find those damned old files…

One of the people that considers that this metaphor has to disappear is David Gelernter, professor of the Yale University and chief scientist of Mirror Worlds Technologies that, under the name of ScopeWare commercialises an information management system based on so called LifeStreams technology.

ScopeWare is based on the idea that our sense of time is a powerful organising principle. In fact most of the important documents are among the most recent ones. The metaphor that ScopeWare uses is closer to that of the diary than to the desktop one.

ScopeWare presents, in principle, the documents ordered chronologically. Besides selecting the type of sorting, you can also select the way in which we can see the documents. Among those types you have: Grid, List, Stream and Thumbnails (see the attached images).

ScopeWareStream.gif (100881 bytes) ScopeWareGrid.gif (131787 bytes)
Streams presentation style at ScopeWare. It shows the documents ordered chronologically, from newest to oldest, as a stream. 

When hovering the mouse over a document it shows additional information on it (right). Clicking on the document it is opened.

(Click on the image to enlarge it)

Grid presentation style. Each document is depicted by a small rectangle containing basic information about it. 

When hovering the mouse over a document it shows additional information on it (right). Clicking on the document it is opened.

(Click on the image to enlarge it)

ScopeWareList.gif (67445 bytes) ScopeWareThumb.gif (128196 bytes)
List presentation style. Each document is depicted by a small rectangle along with quite a deal of information about it. 

 Clicking on the document it is opened.

(Click on the image to enlarge it)

Thumbnails presentation style . Each document is depicted by a shrinked image of its actual appearance. 

When hovering the mouse over a  document it shows additional information on it (right). Clicking on the document it is opened.

(Click on the image to enlarge it)

In all of them the documents are presented as rectangles containing some elementary information. Clicking on them you open the actual document. Hovering the mouse over them you get a zoomed up version of it. It’s commendable to take a look and play with the on-line demo at ScopeWare’s web site. 

As it happens with ScopeWare, we can find many attempts to escape from the consolidated metaphor. We have already spoken about some of them and we’ll speak about others in the future. In the meantime there’s an interesting article by Claire Tristram for Technology Rreview about this topic. Its title is “The next Computer Interface” and it maintains that the desktop metaphor has become so familiar after all these years that it will be very difficult to find another able to substitute it. A lot has been learned already, so the learning curve of an eventual substitute has to be really flat or its advantages really great in order to switch to it easily.

Probably some years ahead we will use multimodal systems in order to communicate with computers (or should I say, with the Net) and then today’s discussion will perhaps seem naive to us.


In any case: Merry Christmas and the best of wishes for the New Year 2002.


* Microelectronics and the Personal Computer. Scientific American 237, no. 3 (1977)(Sep.): 230-244.

Links of this issue:

http://www.mackido.com/Innovation/Desktop.html  
http://www.mirrorworlds.com/  
http://www.acm.org/sigchi/chi96/proceedings/videos/Fertig/etf.htm  
http://www.scopeware.com  
http://www.technologyreview.com/magazine/dec01/tristram.asp  
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