This new vision for the computer interface suggests different possibilities, but big players such as Microsoft and Apple resist such change
If you were to sit down in front of an original 1984 Macintosh, the tiny black-and-white screen would feel quaint and the icons crude, but the screen would still seem familiar. The basic tools for inter?acting with computers haven't changed in any fundamental way in a quarter-century. Maybe it's time to rethink that.
When it comes to the desktop, computer operating systems, whether Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux, have used the vast increases in computing power, graphics capability, and screen resolution in mostly trivial ways. Translucent windows and icons that offer a glimpse of what's inside are nice, but they hardly affect how we interact with computers. Some of the core metaphors of the design seem badly out of date. Take file folders. I have thousands on my computers, and that's about the only place I use them anymore; there are file drawers in my office I haven't opened in years.
Meanwhile, products not burdened by the PC's legacy have been experimenting with new ways for humans to control them. Apple's (AAPL) iPhone set off a revolution in so-called user interfaces by allowing you to manipulate objects on the screen in nearly all menus by touch. Some iPods will reshuffle the order of songs when you give the device a good shake. Resizing a picture by stretching it with your fingers is vastly more intuitive than using a mouse to point and click.
I've been pondering the present and future of user interfaces since discovering an alternative Windows desktop called BumpTop from Bump Technologies (basic version free, $29 for a premium version with extra features). I don't know that BumpTop is the answer, but it is thought-provoking. Like other efforts over the past three decades, its central idea is a desktop, but it's a lot more like a real desk than anything you are used to.
Folders? More Like Piles of Stuff
BumpTop starts with a 3D view of a cubicle-like desk with vertical walls at the sides and back. Objects??ictures, documents, songs, sticky notes, program icons??an be moved freely around the desktop or stuck up on the walls. BumpTop is a natural for a touchscreen, but it also works satisfactorily with a mouse.
The metaphor of the folder is replaced by a much more natural one: the pile. You can stack desktop objects of different sorts into arbitrary piles or you can automatically group objects, such as photos or Microsoft (MSFT) Word documents, by type. You can fan the items in a pile out across the desktop or cause them to appear in a grid, more like a traditional window for viewing files. And the desktop icons can do more than just sit there. For example, if you "toss" a photo at the Facebook icon, you initiate the process for uploading a picture to your Facebook page.
To see BumpTop in action, just search for the term on YouTube (GOOG). But as you watch, keep in mind that the program is just a shell stuck on top of Windows. So it suffers the great disadvantage of all such add-ons: Once you open any program, you're back in the standard Windows interface, which seems even more blah and boring than it did before. This is one reason both Apple and Microsoft avoid sweeping design changes. Even after the relatively modest moves from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 (1995) and from Mac System 9 to Mac OS X (2001), it took several years to get all the programs upgraded so they could really take advantage of the changes.
This explains why Windows 7 restricts itself to incremental changes in the appearance of Windows. It's a significant improvement over Vista, but in evolutionary and mostly subtle ways. We know less about Apple's plans for the next version of OS X, but the company has said its focus is on under-the-hood changes. I'm afraid it will be a long time before anything as imaginative as BumpTop becomes standard on desktops.