MSN Article Examines Desktop Metaphors, Offers Positive Look At Apple

An interesting article by Steven Johnson has been published at MSNis Slate magazine that looks at the future of GUI metaphors. The piece is titled "Is the Computer Desktop an Antique?," and focuses on the role of the desktop metaphor, the slow ways in which it is changing, with particular emphasis to Mac OS X, iPhoto, and Microsoftis next generation OS, code-named Longhorn.

Twenty years ago, the PC world began a slow but inexorable consolidation around the desktop metaphor—with its files and folders and recycling bins—that now graces practically every computer screen on the planet. The desktop metaphor has served us well, particularly during a period of mass adoption when consolidating around one overarching visual metaphor helped new computer users adapt to life in front of the screen. But that unified approach is starting to fragment. Ironically, the company that has put forward the greatest challenge to the one-metaphor-fits-all model is the company that first popularized the desktop metaphor nearly two decades ago: Apple.

The article goes on to say that while the Mac OS X interface (Aqua) is a mildly evolutionary change from the original Mac OS interface, that Apple has introduced new user-interface concepts in its iApps. Mr. Johnson says that Apple is effectively acknowledging that a one-size-fits-all approach to content management doesnit work , and that this is that first challenge to which he referred above. He then contrasts that with rumors about Microsoftis Longhorn:

But the fascinating possibility right now—and itis only a possibility—is that Microsoftis next major upgrade to Windows, code-named Longhorn, will move in the exact opposite direction. For some time now, rumor sites have been speculating about Longhornis integrated database, designed to tie all your different types of data together under a unified interface.

The ultimate goal is to prevent you from having to learn entire new programs to interact with your mail messages, your contacts, and your home movies—to ensure that each data type doesnit become the exclusive province of a specific application. (To take an example from the iApps, iPhoto is great at organizing your photos, but itis useless if youire trying to figure out which snapshot you e-mailed to your mother last week.)


If interface uniformity does turn out to be a key component of Longhorn, the irony will not be lost on longtime observers of the Windows vs. Macintosh debate. If nothing else, thereis something entertaining in the thought of Microsoft becoming a champion of simplified interfaces while Appleis interfaces become more complex. The early success of the Mac interface was built on the twin foundations of simplicity and consistency. While DOS programs were a complex stew of hard-to-remember commands and idiosyncratic designs, Mac software usually sported a familiar look and feel.

But Apple may be on to something. Interface consistency was a wise strategy for the early years of PC adoption, but the Macis new Swiss-army-knife approach makes sense now that using desktop interfaces is as second-nature as reading to a whole generation of computer users.

Thereis a lot more in the full article, and we recommend it as a good read.