“The desktop is dead,” declares David Gelernter. Gelernter is referring to the “desktop metaphor”-the term frequently used for the hierarchical system of files, folders and icons that we use to manage information stored on our home or office computers. At the annual gathering of technophiles at TechXNY/PC Expo 2001 in New York last June, he told the rapt crowd attending his keynote speech that the desktop metaphor is nothing more than virtual Tupperware. “Our electronic documents are scattered by the thousands in all sorts of little containers all over the place,” he said. “The more information and the more computers in our lives, the more of a nuisance this system becomes.”For the past decade or so Gelernter has been campaigning for a new metaphor to overthrow the desktop-first in research he carried out at Yale University, where he is a professor of computer science, and now as chief scientist of his new company, Mirror Worlds Technologies, with offices in New Haven, CT, and New York City. In March, Mirror Worlds announced a novel metaphor called Scopeware, software that automatically arranges your computer files in chronological order and displays them on your monitor with the most recent files featured prominently in the foreground. Scopeware is far more sweeping than a simple rearrangement of icons, however: in effect, it transfers the role of file clerk from you to the computer, seamlessly ordering documents of all sorts into convenient, time-stamped files.
If you have ever forgotten what you named a file or which folder you put it in, you probably will agree that it’s time for a change. The desktop metaphor is decades old, arising from early-1970s work at Xerox’s fabled Palo Alto Research Center, and was never intended to address today’s computing needs. Indeed, the product that brought the metaphor to mass-market attention was Apple Computer’s 1984 Macintosh; it had no built-in hard drive, and its floppy disks each stored only 400 kilobytes of information. Today we’re using the same metaphor to manage the countless files on our ever more capacious hard drives, as well as to access the virtually limitless information on the Web. The result? Big, messy hierarchies of folders. Favorites lists where you never find anything again. Pull-down menus too long to make sense of.