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Time for Fresh Air!

The distinction between operating systems and browers is an awkward anachronism. It’s time for a fresh approach that lets us deal with information more uniformly.

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.

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!

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