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Like Mirror Worlds, Inxight doesn’t intend a full-fledged assault on the desktop metaphor but rather seeks to give users-particularly high-end businesses willing to pay premium prices-a choice in how their employees see and manipulate information on a computer monitor. The company’s flagship technology is Star Tree, first developed at PARC in 1993. In the 1980s Xerox missed out on profiting from the desktop metaphor it developed; Inxight was founded in part to avoid that mistake with Star Tree, an alternative that uses space, rather than time, as an organizing principle.

Star Tree replaces hierarchies of pull-down menus with on-screen icons, whose relationships to one another can be viewed at a glance. A Star Tree-generated map of a Web site, for example, might show an icon representing the page you are currently on, with lines radiating outward to icons representing links from that page. You can also see what is linked to the links and so on-four layers of relationships at any one time, arranged on your screen in the shape of a globe (see Star Tree screen shot, left). If you want to find a particular set of links, you can spin the globe around on any axis by simply moving your cursor around the screen. It’s a visually appealing way to organize information-like Web pages or organizational charts-and it allows you to see relationships among files more readily than pull-down menus do. But Rao admits that the obstacles to getting the concept adopted widely are huge, and that his primary goal isn’t to overthrow the desktop metaphor but to become a part of it. “So when Microsoft says, Hey, we want to make this a part of Windows, so sell it or we’re going to pulverize you,’ then boy, we’ve won,” he says. “That is the goal. I’d love to hear that.”

Metaphor Trouble

Even Microsoft apparently sees the limitations in the desktop metaphor. The software Goliath has tried to introduce new metaphors on a regular basis-even though it has the most to lose if there is ever a disruption in the status quo. When the changes have been too literal or too radical, they have failed, even with the clout of Microsoft’s marketing behind them. For instance, Microsoft Bob, introduced in 1995, used the metaphor of a cozy-looking living room, complete with an animated guide, to help users navigate their computer systems. It was designed with new computer users in mind, as a way to give them a sense that they had nothing to fear. It failed spectacularly, mostly because the metaphor was so literal that it got in the way-users spent too much time navigating the desktop, trying to figure out how the virtual furniture, shelves and cozy fireplace related to a task like opening a file or application.

With Bob, in other words, it proved impossible to ignore all the distracting elements of the virtual living room. “In one sense the notion of metaphor’ can get you into trouble,” says Rao. “We call it the desktop metaphor,’ but the metaphor isn’t really very completely drawn out. It was just something to call it in the beginning, and after a while the computer desktop metaphor became its own thing, rather than something we thought of as like something else. There have been times people try to extend the metaphor, to make it look more like a desk or let you have piles of stuff like a real desktop, and it never works.”

Through Bob’s failure, though, Microsoft claims to have learned some things about what will work in new on-screen metaphors. For instance, Bob’s idea of an animated guide lives on in current versions of Windows as Clippy. While this personified paper clip is still far too obtrusive for many people-the little assistant is turned off by default in the new software-Microsoft researchers maintain that the idea behind it is extremely compelling. That’s because it points the way toward a design, alternatively known as an “adaptive” or “attentive” or “intelligent” interface, where the computer senses what we need and gives it to us. Call it the “friendly mentor” metaphor.

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