TECH TALK: Rethinking the Desktop: New Ideas

Before we go ahead, I wanted to share two quotes by Vannevar Bush, both written many decades ago. Their relevance to what our computer desktop should do is striking.

[The human mind] operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course: trails that are not frequently prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all in nature. As We May Think, 1945.

A Revolution must be wrought in the ways in which we make, store and consult the record of accomplishmentIt is not just a problem for the libraries, although that is important. Rather, the problem is how creative men think, and what can be done to help them think. It is a problem for how the mass of material shall be handled so that the individual can draw from it what he needs instantly, correctly, and with utter freedom. Memex Revisited, 1967.

As we seek to make better use of the resources that are today the most precious our time and attention, let us consider the objectives of a new, improved desktop:

  • It should give us a snapshot of the information that we need quickly along the lines of the dashboard in a car.
  • Information should come to us, rather than me going out in search of it.
  • It should reduce the clicks we need to do repetitive tasks. Every click or keyboard entry that we need to do reduces the probability that we will do it.
  • It should be possible to customise what we see because we are all different.
  • There should be a time-ordering option for information: because we understand the passage of time better than the vastness of space.
  • It should facilitate the two-way sharing of ideas.
  • A Search option, which goes across documents, mails and the Web, is a must. The irony is that today it is so much easier to search the Web than it is to search our own hard disks.
  • It would be nice if the desktop could learn what we do, so it could automate some of these tasks. I say this with some hesitation artificial intelligence applications are easier dreamt of than programmed!
  • It should leverage the applications we are already familiar with, rather than making us to learn something new.
  • It should be able to alert us when something important happens if we are not at our desk.

    In a nutshell, the new desktop should help us leverage our time better when it comes to interacting with information, use the computer screen that we see more effectively, and ensure integration with the world of devices through (near) real-time alerts.

    Many luminaries like David Gelernter and Michael Dertouzos have written in recent times about the desktop and the interface which we use to interact with computers. Microsoft (and other companies) have hundreds of engineers working on developing software which can make our computer-related lives better.

    My objective in rethinking the desktop is not to question the fundamentals of the human-machine interface. Rather, given the constraints we work in, we need to see how best we can use an aggregation of some of the ideas and innovations that are happening to provide something that is much better than what we have today. Sometimes, a few simple ideas taken together can make a big difference. In this case, the building blocks for these ideas are weblogs, RSS, publish-subscribe, outlines, open source, XML and web services, IM/SMS and some value-added aggregation.

    Tomorrow: The Building Blocks

    “Rethinking the Desktop”

  • Published by

    Rajesh Jain

    An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.