July 31, 2011
In the fall of 2009, I was afforded a rare opportunity: I got to start a lot of people thinking about something in a new way. A video I had spent my spare time producing that summer hit TechCrunch and subsequently all the major tech blogs, spreading the idea of a new kind of desktop user interface: after 25 years of mouse pointers, windows, and desktops, I proposed a new set of conventions that were in some ways radically new, and in other ways quite legacy-compatible. I called it 10/GUI, and it struck a chord with people across many disciplines.
The goal of 10/GUI was always twofold: to comfortably expand our tactile interaction with computers beyond the single pair of coordinates offered by the mouse, and to deal with the complexity of the modern multitasking operating system in a more elegant way than through fidgety stacks of windows. It solved some problems, but introduced others, perhaps the most prominent being “how would we actually transition to this?”
Indeed, the state of the desktop right now often seems unable to advance upon either of the fronts 10/GUI proposed, so bound are we to existing conventions and patterns. Or at least it seemed so—until Apple announced Mac OS 10.7 last year, releasing it this past month.
Apple is no stranger to combating the scourge of messy desktops. Even as far back as System 7’s window-shade effect and OS 9’s “spring-loaded” Finder windows, designers and engineers in Cupertino have experimented with ways to ease multitasking’s cognitive burden. With OS 10.3 in 2003, Apple introduced Exposé, perhaps the first mainstream attempt to address the inherent clutter of the window paradigm, refining its behavior in subsequent OS releases.
By the late 2000s, Apple’s foray into the mobile world had paved its own course, demonstrating, as Steve Jobs proudly classified them in 2007, “desktop-class apps” that adopted the full-screen paradigm of decades of purpose-built devices, embedded systems, and terminals. Now, in 2011, OS 10.7 has adapted this approach back to the desktop, synthesizing full-screen apps and multitasking into a linear application space to be swiftly navigated via multi-touch gestures.
Some have found this combination of linear application management and gestural navigation familiar. A common theme in email and Twitter correspondence I’ve received recently has been the similarities between Lion’s “Mission Control” UI for managing full-screen applications and 10/GUI’s “Con10uum” UI. There are indeed similarities. But I’m reminded of the infamous “rich neighbor named Xerox” story, the rich neighbor in this case being pre-HP Palm.
Palm’s WebOS and its “cards” model inspired the Con10uum linear desktop. I think it’s fair to say it inspired Mission Control to some extent as well. When you don’t need to manage applications in two dimensions—which, barring a few edge cases, describes everyday use for most users—one dimension makes the most sense. Palm knew this, I learned from it, and so has Apple. Did 10/GUI inform Lion’s design? It’s flattering to imagine, but it’s impossible to know. The question that interests me is where Apple may take Mission Control next.
One away from 10
I don’t see this as a controversial claim: Apple is setting the stage to deprecate the windowed desktop. The timetable for that is open to debate, but given Lion’s emphasis on Mission Control, the new full-screen APIs, and what can be seen as an eventual replacement for the dock, the preparations are clearly in motion.
What is most fascinating to me is that with the full-screen APIs in Lion, Apple is really not that far away from a full, 10/GUI-style solution. Once every app can be relied upon to work in a scalable (by screen resolution), full-height UI, there’s no reason they can’t begin to coexist on the same screen. The three-finger swipe currently used to navigate between full-screen apps could, in a pinch, resize them. The present “desktop” space could become a compatibility pen for old apps, leaving the Mission Control spaces to become the new un-desktop. Given that the menu bar is now only a part-time resident of the screen, even that could be reconsidered.
Of course, if this happens, I can then truly consider 10/GUI Xeroxed. But such is the history of technology: Experimentalists will experiment; innovators will innovate.