Whether they use operating systems or browsers, people want to do the same relatively few things with information-navigate through it to find what they seek, transfer it to or from other places, build on it with new information they acquire or generate themselves, feed it to a program or apply it as a program to other information, and perceive it with their eyeballs and ears. And they want the assurance that their information will not be used by others without permission. Interestingly, what people do with information closer to their specialties is not very different from these more elementary operations. Doctors navigate through patient records, build on the information there, transfer it to insurers and specialists, supply it to charting and analysis programs and display it or print it for their use. The right new metaphor should carry through, all the way up to applications.
To many technologists, the metaphor I am calling for is viewed as lower-priority “user interface” stuff. Underneath such “niceties” for the user, they see big differences between computers on which operating systems act and the networks on which browsers act, with different techniques needed for these two environments. These differences in mechanism are indeed there, as they are in today’s telephone systems: Copper twisted wires link your house and office to the local phone exchange while glass fibers link exchanges together across long distances, with different mechanisms used for routing and amplifying voice signals in the local and remote telephone networks. But users of the telephone are oblivious to these differences. To them, the telephone system helps them reach people uniformly. Period! It’s high time we technologists learn this lesson and shed our system-centric preoccupation that has governed our designs for decades: Let’s stop throwing our system and subsystem intricacies on users. Let’s, instead, use our ample technological arsenal and creativity to give users the simplest, most useful people-oriented systems we can create that address their needs.
Coming up with a new fresh-air metaphor for dealing uniformly with local and distant information, instead of a bloated conglomeration of current operating system and browser commands, would be a very big step in this direction. It would also be as historically significant as the 20-year transition from a DOS-like world where the computer drove humans with multiple choice questions, to the desktop world of WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointing) pioneered by Xerox PARC, then Apple and Microsoft. The benefits to people would be the ease of use we keep harping on, the human power to do more useful things by blending distant and local information, and the emergence of faster systems, freed at last from layers and layers of stale software. Let’s open the windows and allow the fresh air in!