Au Revoir, Desktop - There's a New Computing Metaphor in the Making

Au Revoir, Desktop - There's a New Computing Metaphor in the Making

For a few decades, the prevailing metaphors for personal computers have all been rooted in turn-of-the-century office culture: People have files dragged around on a desktop, stored in folders, that are easy to sort in a directory that opens out like a visual file cabinet. Their primary method of entering information into the computer is via a keyboard layout invented in the 1860s. Even computer-specific innovations like the mouse are almost AARP-ready -- Douglas Englebart prototyped the mouse in 1964 and it was patented in 1970.

The metaphor used to make a lot of sense: It wasn't that long ago that computers were used for strictly work-related purposes. Even as ARPAnet fostered the earliest iteration of Internet culture, it was still accessible to people mostly through their work.

And when the personal computer came out, it was earnestly marketed as a device to help adults get a handle on their business and give children a leg up on the skills of tomorrow. Computers were associated with work, work was understood to happen during specific hours and at specific places, the end*.

Now the metaphor doesn't make sense. Computers have busted out of the office; their utility has expanded. We use them for everything from making quarterly projection spreadsheets to doing the holiday shopping. We've stopped filing things in folders and chucked everything in one archive, then figured search will unearth what we need.

We carry our computers all in our pockets and purses. We poke them and swipe across them. We spend all day touching different machines, talking to them, expecting to begin a task on one device and continue it on another. 

A metaphor that relied on invoking a confined and purposeful space doesn't hold up. 

Lenovo's got this: when I played with the Yoga 900 last October, what was most striking was their baseline assumption that the computer was going to move from room to room depending on the context in which it was used. Sure, you can do that with laptops, but Lenovo's Yoga model basically said, "Yeah, we can fetch information but we're really more into using this machine for video, games and social interaction."

And now we see how Microsoft and Apple are moving toward a new model of computing, one which is startlingly tactile. Yesterday's Surface Studio demo emphasized how users can move the giant screen around, touch it, draw on it, or use the Surface Dial to amplify the tasks their software could do. Today's MacBook Pro demo showed how the Touch Bar will let users streamline certain chores in their software (like email) and unearth specific features that are otherwise buried in a menu's submenu's submenu.

But the most startling thing -- and one which both demos had in common -- was a feature which allowed users to reach out and literally retrace their work. In the Surface Demo, we saw users replay edits and revise them in real time; in the MacBook Pro demo, we saw Final Cut and Photoshop users skip back along their work's timeline to find just what they were looking for.

The ability to use your personal computer to literally reach out and change your past is a whole new way of looking at your computing experience. It's very closely linked to the idea that our computers move with us as we go about our daily lives. Why shouldn't we be able to retrace our steps both digitally and in real life?

I'm excited about the end of the office as a metaphor for computing. It'll be interesting to see whether we'll continue looking backward for a way to understand how these powerful machines and services fit in our lives, or if the metaphor will arise out of our everyday tech use and get applied in some other aspect of 21st century culture.


(* Sure, there were games, but there was a parallel technological home incursion going on via gaming consoles. The big computer makers were not marketing their PCs as gaming machines in the 1980s.)

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