What users see, when they use Windows and other operating systems are… Windows. Precious little innovation has taken place in the user experience space on Windows, Linux, Macintosh/OSX, etc. The basic paradigm consists of a desktop, a taskbar and some open windows. The windows have different user experiences attached to them. There are mainly file system windows representing files and folders, either locally or remote and application windows with custom user experiences.
Now, the reader may object that it is in fact not true that no real innovation has taken place on the desktop and in window managers. In Windows Vista we have Flip 3D and very nice semi-transparent windows. In Windows 7 we have Aero Snap which allows us to easily snap windows to parts of the desktop. On Linux there is Compiz Fusion with wobbly windows effects, cube mapping etc. There are also extensions to Windows for these kinds of things. It is also typical on Linux to have multiple desktops.
I claim that none of these things are novel in any way.
That’s an easy claim to make of course, talk is cheap as they say, but let’s examine the significance of these inventions from a usability view.
Does the wobbly windows of Compiz Fusion give any kind of benefit from a usability point of view? One will be hard pressed to find any task that one can perform more efficiently by having such an effect on windows. It is not completely worthless, however, as it adds a level of physics that one might refer to as Natural User Interface (NUI) but in and of itself, a wobbly window hardly makes the user more efficient in performing tasks of any kind.
Then what about the more exotic cube-, cylinder- and torus-mapped windows? Again, while fancy to look at, I think one is hard pressed to say that these form a leap forward in usability. Still, these do warp and twist the fabric of the desktop and represent a tiny little step forward but perhaps a step or two backwards as well: is reading text from and recognizing objects from warped windows easy?
Then we have Aero Snap in Windows 7. This is what I consider a small feature but in fact a genuine usability feature. This will indeed help speed up some tasks. The user does not have to resize a window by draging edges and moving several windows around. So points to that feature.
So what about the multi-sector desktop, typically manifested by a little grid depicting the different desktop sectors, is that perhaps a usability improvement? Yes. This is indeed also a usability improvement as it helps the user more easily manage many windows. On the other hand it forms an unnatural and artificial split between applications.
To me, all these features are either minor usability improvements or pure eye candy devoid of usability benefits.
What is needed then?
I believe what we need is something very simple but something which makes the limits of the desktop disappear. What is needed is something which makes the desktop appear less “digital” and more “analog” and natural.
We cannot currently move or zoom in or out of the desktop itself. The desktop space is a discrete space that our applications and data is trapped inside. What if the desktop was like giant, seemlingly unbounded map, like what we see when gazing into the sky? Our field of view is still limited but we can move our eyes and turn to new places in a fluent and seamless way. No desktop that I know of currently allows one to perform this seemingly trivial task.
This user experience is as simple as it is strikingly absent in todays (at least mainstream) desktops. However the user experience is not unknown, it’s widely used in games where in, for example strategy games, one has a giant map that one can translate and zoom in and out of and even tilt in 3D. Indeed even web services like Google and Bing Maps have this feature but somehow, when it comes to the desktop itself, we are stuck in a narrow constrained space and have been so for far too many years.
Windows, the operating system, has made major strides in usability in its software platform via the “Avalon” (now Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF)) architechtural pillar. However not that many developers use it and far fewer to full effect (myself included). WPF allows quite radical user experiences to be built in 2D and 3D and the retained-mode, scene graph architechture ensures that repainting is done in an optimal fashion. WPF does not have an equal on any other platform but even WPF does not really help us with the constraints of the desktop as, at least to my knowledge, one cannot build a window manager replacement in WPF. It’s simply too hardwired into Windows.
There have been rumors floating around that Windows 8 will feature some radical changes in user experience and if true, such changes will be very welcomed. Surface computing and NUI as seen in Microsoft Surface, is also bound to inspire the Windows 8 desktop and others.