In the dim past, if you wanted to place a long-distance phone call, you booked ahead of time and the connection was made by an operator, but if you wanted to make a local call, you dialed direct. These different ways to reach your party sound crazy today. Yet that’s exactly what we do with computers: We use an operating system like Microsoft Windows to work with local information in our own machines while relying on a different system-a browser like Netscape Communicator-to deal with long-distance information in other machines around the world. There’s no reason for this craziness, other than the historic emergence of browsers 40 years after operating systems. It’s time for a change!
By now, developers have realized this and have begun combining operating system software and browser software, mostly by adding the features of one to the features of the other. This will result in a tangle of commands and conventions, covered by a thin cosmetic user interface veneer…to make us feel good. No such veneer, however, can hide the underlying differences of dealing with information: For example, in a browser, clicking on an icon opens a distant home page, but in an operating system clicking on an icon selects it for further action. Retaining both capabilities is as sound as turning the steering wheel to steer the car when driving in your neighborhood streets and turning the steering wheel in the same direction to apply the brakes when driving in the country! Besides, there are some actions you can do with an operating system on local information that you cannot do on distant information with a browser-and vice versa. Yet system developers are accumulating the features of browsers and operating systems to conserve financial and emotional investments in both breeds of software. The result is still unfit for human use.
The time has come for a new metaphor, as fresh as the air we breathe, that will replace stale operating systems, browsers and awkward combinations of the two. Much like today’s direct-dial telephone, a single new system would let us deal more economically, more naturally and more uniformly with information, wherever it may reside.