Gelernter’s alternative, Scopeware, is the outcome of a decade of research and development at Yale. Scopeware replaces the desktop metaphor with what Gelernter calls a “narrative information system,” or what you might call the diary metaphor, where every type of file-an e-mail message, a word processing document, a digital image-is stored chronologically, in what appears on-screen to be a tiling stack of file cards.Search for the term “demo” on the Mirror Worlds Web site, for example, and you get a stack of six virtual file cards, dated back to February 9, 1998. In the upper right-hand corner of each card you see an icon indicating the type of file-in this case, four files in Adobe Acrobat, one in Microsoft Word and one in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer that was taken from a Web page. On each card you see the title of the file, plus a small box previewing what’s inside. Moving your mouse’s pointer over one of the cards brings up a summary of the document and a larger picture, so you can see if it’s what you want; a double click opens the file itself. Search for “Gelernter” and you get about 70 such cards, chronologically arranged, with older documents receding into the background. You know immediately how to navigate. Scopeware works.
The diary metaphor has some clear advantages over the desktop metaphor. It is based on the notion that what we have created, modified or even looked at most recently is probably still most important to us. And, Scopeware’s inventor maintains, our sense of time is a strong organizing principle that can help us locate a file simply because we remember when we used it last. Rather than requiring you to manually rifle through buckets of information stored on your hard drive or inside an application like e-mail, Scopeware sorts information automatically, streaming it into predetermined categories.
But kill the desktop? While Gelernter has deeply criticized the desktop metaphor in his books and in a manifesto about the future of digital technology called The Second Coming, it’s our years of familiarity with that Xerox PARC design-the point and click, the icons and the menus-that make Scopeware so intuitive. Those of us who were 15 or older when we used our first mouse still remember how difficult it was, initially, to equate the horizontal movement of our mousing hand with the movement of the cursor on-screen. Now it’s natural. And Scopeware, if it succeeds, will do so because it makes use of what we already have. The company has positioned the product as a business software tool that helps companies organize and share information, rather than as a replacement for Windows; it works through a browser rather than as an operating system. “We aren’t taking on Windows at all,” Gelernter says. “That would be suicidal.”
That’s the quandary that researchers in the field of human-computer interaction have long struggled with: make something look too different on-screen, however good it is, and you will fail. “About ten years ago I realized that I wasn’t able to say, Okay, turn off your machine, because tomorrow I’m going to bring you a brave new world,’” says Ramana Rao, a founder of Inxight Software, a Santa Clara, CA-based startup funded by Xerox that is also exploring and marketing new user interfaces. “I needed to accept that there are hundreds of millions of PCs out there, and figure out where within that structure I could insert the thin edge of a wedge of a new way of doing things, where I could show you something incrementally better, then start pounding on the wedge until the old face drops away.”