Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The end of the desktop metaphor

Over the weekend I came across a couple of interesting articles that lead to an intriguing possible future. The first was that Apple sold more iOS devices (156 million) in 2011 than it sold Macs (122 million) in 28 years of their existence. Note that 2011 was the most successful year in the Macs entire history. So the basic point here is that very many more people are using iOS than are using OS X. Here's graph from Mashable that visualises this.

Apple Mac GUI
   So, the next article which resonates was in Gizmodo, which makes the point that the user experience of using iOS apps is very different to using programs on OS X. Basically, iOS doesn't use the desktop metaphor, which Xerox PARC first developed and Apple made popular with the Macintosh in 1984. You may not have thought about the desktop metaphor but it still reigns supreme on Macs, Windows and Linux. Think of a desk on which you have pieces of paper and reports you're working on along with some tools like a calculator, diary and calendar. As you move from one task to another the focus of attention switches from say a report to the calculator to the calendar. All are in sight but you only work in one at any given moment - this is the desktop metaphor. With iOS we give up managing where the files we are working on physically reside and allow the app to manage that itself, just as most of us gave up thinking about where our music is filed and allow iTunes to handle that.
   For the personal user I think this is an advantage, it will certainly help my mother. However, I am skeptical that it will work for the professional user handling, for example, dozens of similar documents but for different accounts or the programmer working on different projects. Being able to partition life into "Project B" and "Client X" is a tidy and natural process, which the desktop metaphor with its filing system accommodates well, hence its longevity.