Is the PC desktop really dead?

Much ado has been made lately over the problems of the PC "desktop metaphor," the system of folders and icons included in Macintosh and Windows PCs. Critics of the desktop rightly point out that today's PC users encounter much more information than in the 1980s, when the desktop was first introduced. While I understand these criticisms, I question whether the desktop is really dead ‹ in other words, whether the solution really lies in building a better desktop. Instead, I think that the real issue is the increased information, not the interface between it and the user.

Some technologists are ready to discard the old desktop. Last month MIT's Technology Review ran a piece on new software attempting to bypass the desktop metaphor. None of the tools are very convincing. Scopeware, a software package from Mirror Worlds Technologies (founded by David Gelernter, an Edge contributor), essentially removes all file hierarchy by showing files sorted by creation date. While the tool has some nice search features, it's unclear how removing all file hierarchy is an improvement over today's desktop. Other technologies in the article include a two-dimensional graphical "map" of the file system and a 3-D navigable space. These programs try to solve the problem of a cluttered desktop by presenting a new metaphor that could become just as cluttered.

To be sure, there are advances to be made in the tools. Using Microsoft Windows, even briefly, reveals so many interface flaws that it makes me cringe. But fixing these myriad flaws will not address the central issue, which is the tsunami of information arriving into users' PCs. It is the user, not the tool, that should be the focus.

The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed several Americans to inquire about their personal strategies for dealing with their e-mail. Receiving 50 to 150 incoming messages per day, these PC users described the methods they use to stay on top of their information and remain effective in their jobs.

What's interesting about this article is that the Journal recognized e-mail use as a personal activity. Many other business activities, like using approved software or submitting timesheets, may be closely regulated by the IT department ‹ but not e-mail. Each user in the article has become conscious of his or her information flow and has created a system to manage it, using the software (albeit flawed) at his or her disposal. The story is about personal needs first, tools second. The industry's response to this problem should be the same. If we could just teach more users to use their tools better, we'd be in far better shape than if we simply churned out yet more complex software.

I would be happy to be proven wrong. Gelernter's Scopeware, for example, could turn out to be a revolutionary advance in curing information anxiety. My guess, however, is that even the best tools will fall short of a cure. We may need a combined strategy of better tools and greater education of users about the nature of a world awash in information. To be effective in coming years, users must assume greater responsibility for their own information management.

Of course, there are problems with that proposition. For one, new desktop metaphors, like the 3-D software, is sexy and makes for interesting press clips. Educating users is decidedly dull. What's worse, there is no easy business plan to educate users en masse in more efficient ways to organize their information. Making a tool that promises to help is so much more profitable. But tools alone won't save us. If all we can do for users is give them a newer, flashier, more distracting interface, then the desktop may indeed be dead forever.

Mark Hurst is the founder of Creative Good, Inc., a leading user experience consulting firm.

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
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