The GUI Gripe (Milestone 1)

I think for this first milestone I am going to gripe about GUI’s and inconsistent interfaces in the current crop of popular operating systems.

Although the desktop was a suitable metaphor for a generation of people who were unprepared to deal with a mouse controlled pointer and even a graphical user interface, I believe that it has outlasted its usefulness. Today’s computer users understand the use and control of a mouse and keyboard to a degree that they no longer need to rely on it, and for those new users who have not experienced it, they could well be better off without experiencing it. Today’s computers are filled with more files and programs than the desktop can handle. Windows has its start menu- though with Windows XP they have made it more complex in an attempt to simplify it- and Mac now has its “Dock” which is adequate until you have more than a few programs to launch from it. Even those concepts are tacked on and have no real world analog to the “desktop.” I guess what I’m saying is that the “Desktop” metaphor in the modern GUI is so abstracted as to be useless.

One thing that I am interested in is the current work in database driven file systems and what it means for managing the huge amount of data that resides on people’s computers. In this, I think Apple is really at the forefront. Apple did something completely amazing with the introduction of iTunes, and though I grant you that it may well have been done before, I have never seen it done as gracefully or in an application as popular as iTunes. What they’ve done is destroy the notion of files entirely. The modern computer has no more use for “files” than a filing cabinet does for playing CDs. Yes there are text documents on computers, but they also house people’s music, photo and video collections. What iTunes (and iPhoto, as well as the new Apple Spotlight search tool to a degree) has done is allow the user an interface to look at their music as songs, albums artists etc- in other words, those things that actually mean something to a music listener. It removes the need to organize the music and it removes the need to dig deeply into your hard drive (through an archaic file structure that itself should be replaced- why is the hard drive “C:”????) You simply rip your album or copy the files into itunes and at that point the files have dissolved and are replaced (metaphorically) with songs in your jukebox, which you are free to organize and play in a way that not only you can equate to your non-digital understanding of music, but can allow you to listen to music in ways previously impossible with non-computer equipment- 20 week, no repeat, randomly generated playlist of music that features the words “dance” in them, anyone? Hmm…perhaps not, but you could if you wanted, and pretty easily at that.

Spotlight is basically a search tool built on top of the Mac operating system that allows the user to look for their data based on what’s in it instead of what it’s called. It indexes every word of every file- excluding those you wish- on your computer and eliminates the need for you to organize your data through “folder” upon “folder” of confusing code names and improperly titled documents. With the spotlight tool you can create “Smart Folders” that automagically have all of the information you want in them, based on a few simple keywords that make up a database query- all with an interface that requires you only know how to use a search engine. Suddenly instead of searching your computer for lost data, you can create a smart folder of all your .docs or all of your .pdfs or anything else. All your Digital Governance papers. No searching. What a world!

This is truly form follows function. These are programs and operating systems designed to let the user do work by organizing their information in an intuitive transparent way.

One other quick note- “Clicking Around” really is a great way to figure out how a program works. Anyone who’s used a computer for a significant amount of time knows that despite some similarities, there are a lot of programs that just don’t follow a common paradigm. I never thought about it but “Clicking Around” is exactly what I do when I start using a new program. Ideally, a computer will teach you how to use it without coercing you- by making its interface reflect its use- but that is of course not always the case.

I wanted to write a little bit about “Fair Use” tonight, but it’s going to have to wait. Peace.

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