Is the Computer Desktop an Antique?

Soon, Apple and Microsoft will need new metaphors for their operating systems.

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.

Today’s computers are being asked to perform new roles: No longer just a virtual filing cabinet, the modern PC is a music jukebox, home-movie player, and a giant shoe box full of photos. At first glance, the interface ofApple’s latest operating system, OS X, doesn’t seem to have been altered much to reflect this new reality. OS X has been justifiably lauded for its underlying stability and its vibrant stylings, but its tools for storing and manipulating files are hardly revolutionary ones. Someone upgrading to OS X from the 1984 version of Apple’s operating system would know instantly how to organize files into different folders, or how to delete a folder by dragging it to the trash. The real interface innovations in Apple’s software lie not in the operating system proper, but in the applications the company has begun bundling with it (and giving away for free on its Web site): iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and iSync, among others. They’re called iApps for short, and most of them revolve around managing what Apple calls “digital lifestyle” information: MP3s, digital photos, home movies.

Now that Microsoft has largely caught up to the Mac in terms of basic file manipulation tools—thanks to Windows XP’s elegant user interface—the iApps have become a key differentiator for Apple. They are also an implicit acknowledgement that the desktop metaphor has its limits. Apple is moving toward a Swiss-army-knife approach to user interfaces: You need different tools to keep track of different kinds of files. 

Consider the default layout of iPhoto, which shows you a broad mosaic of all your digital photos scaled to fit the size of your screen. If you have more than a couple hundred pictures, this means each image is the size of a thumbtack, but Apple includes a handy zoom tool that lets you instantly zoom in and out to focus on a particular batch of images. It’s much easier to find the photo you’re looking for by scanning iPhoto’s mosaic than it is to pore over document names in a directory overview. (It also happens to look very cool, particularly the zooming effect.)

Now, you could conceivably apply the iPhoto zoom to all your data: Turn on your computer, and you see a list of document titles and tiny icons; zoom in on one section, and a spreadsheet comes into focus or a Web page; zoom all the way in, and the document appears on your screen at normal size, ready to be manipulated. This would be an innovative approach to file management, but also a spectacularly inefficient one because a spreadsheet or a text document reduced to 5 percent of its usual size is indistinguishable from any other spreadsheet or text document. But it works great for photos.

So, by bundling iPhoto with OS X, Apple is basically saying: The desktop metaphor is great for certain types of files, but not for files that happen to be photos. Some types of data need a new kind of interface. But the fascinating possibility right now—and it’s only a possibility—is that Microsoft’s 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 Longhorn’s 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 doesn’t become the exclusive province of a specific application. (To take an example from the iApps, iPhoto is great at organizing your photos, but it’s useless if you’re trying to figure out which snapshot you e-mailed to your mother last week.) Think about searching for text strings in four different contexts: in a Word document, in your inbox, on the Web, and in your hard drive. There are four distinct search tools for those four tasks, each with its own interface, each “belonging” to a different application. But in each case, you’re just searching for text. Why use a Swiss army knife when one blade will do? As Bill Gates put it on Charlie Rose last month, “Right now when you use Windows, the way that you step through your photos, the way you step through your music, the way you step through e-mail or files, they’re all different. You have to learn different user interfaces, different search commands. … The idea of Longhorn is to have one approach, one set of commands that work for everything, including all of those things. And so the number of concepts you have to learn is dramatically less.”

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, there’s something entertaining in the thought of Microsoft becoming a champion of simplified interfaces while Apple’s 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 Mac’s 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. After 20 years of point and click, we’re ready to handle multiple interfaces within a single operating system. Bring on the zoom!