# Wednesday, April 19, 2006

User interfaces

There is a lot of hype around new user interfaces lately: the new Vista glass look, how it compares to the always improving Mac OSX interface, and the Linux response (Xgl).
These are all nice and eye candy evolutions of existing interfaces, though. Like I discussed in a previous post, and as Jeff Atwood frequently reports in his articles, there is a lot of room for UI improvement. Embedded and ubiquitous search is a key improvement in my opinion. But surely future interfaces will bring more interesting features, even without a radical shift of paradigm. In the last "In our time" column of IEEE Computer (March 2006), David Alan Grier talks about pervesive computing. The definition of pervasive computing dates back to 1991, and it is due to Mark Weiser. Mark wrote that "the most profound technologies are those that disappear", "weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life".
Mark war an engineer working at (guess where?) Xerox PARC. Exactly, the same lab where GUI as we know them today were born. 
He was aware of the importance of such ideas, but he also felt that they were incompatible with the idea of a pervasive computing environment. A windowing operating system, no matter how sophisticated, only makes "the computer screen a demanding focus of attention, it does not fade into the background".
I agree with him: where I work I often see people that are so focused on the screen to forget somehow they primary work. They are so focused on how, they forget what.

But is it really a defect of the window paradigm?
I don't think so. Especially after seeing "The Island". Take a look at this desktop environment:

do you see the computer? The operating system?
Maybe a closer look...

The desktop... is the desk. It is amazing to see it in action! Using some sort of mouse, the principal (The character with glasses) "throws" a window at Lincoln (the guy in white). Then Lincoln begins to draw, like on a sheet of paper on the desk. And when he finishes, he passes the window with the drawing back to the principal.
And there is no shift of paradigm. There are windows, and folders, and documents on a desk. A mouse to grab and move them. But the desktop IS the desk!

This is pervasive computing, for me. And I really want one of those desks... :)