Desktops of the future…

It was in 1990 that Microsoft released Windows 3.0, making the PC the dominant platform as it is today, by providing a cheap, easy to use environment for people to use and developers to program (without the horrible Apple royalties that had to be paid for Macintosh development at the time). Windows 3.0, as other graphical desktops before it (Atari, AmigaOS, GEM Desktop etc.) all borrowed from Xerox’ innovation which was commercially introduced to the world with the Macintosh in 1984. But all of those technologies, the concept of a file and a folder represented by a 2D rectangular entity on the screen and the hierarchies that emerge from it are 30 year old ideas that have been proven not to be sufficient for the complex interactions between pieces of information of our times. Computers have grown from (solely) scientific, military, research and statistical instruments to everyday companions in all aspects of modern life: music, cinema, communication, entertainment, task assistance, education; I am sure there are much more.

For those interactions, the leading desktop companies of the early 90s — namely Apple Computer Inc. and Microsoft Corporation — were considering object-oriented desktops with much increased capabilities and a completely departure from the archaic model even ‘advanced’ modern desktop environments (such as those offered by MacOS X and modern Windows as well as all Linux desktops). Projects such as the much-awaited Cairo operating system from Microsoft or the sophisticated Copland successor to MacOS from Apple, gave me, and I am sure millions of others hope for a better future; a time when interacting with your computer, even with the limited CPU power of the mid-90s would be much more sophisticated than the poor experience of Windows or MacOS. Unfortunately, such technologies were never realised in a commercial form. Windows is the most popular desktop operating system in the world, but is still based on 30 year old concepts. Apple Computer, although it provides by far the most well-done integration of UNIX with a graphical, polished environment, offers eye candy and object-orientation which is skin deep. Be Inc., perhaps the only true innovator in terms of desktop innovation of the last decade, is now defunct.

MacOS X, my Operating System of choice for the time being, it a big departure from classic MacOS. Considering Apple’s financial problems it would be very hard for them to release something as groundbreaking as Cairo or Copland would be. Some content indexing development is definitely taking place behind the scenes, with both Apple and Microsoft rumoured to release the feature in future products: the former in a form yet unknown to us, but with Dominic Giampaolo working for them certainly of some value, the latter with WinFS (or Windows Future Storage), NTFS’s successor which will be based on SQL Server’s technology, thus associating a set of meta-data to files allowing for more complex searches.

Considering Microsoft’s muscle in terms of development resources, one would think that their Longhorn release will try to move closer to the object-desktop that everyone seemed to believe Windows95 would be. Suffering defeat in terms of graphical display quality from a faltering company like Apple, which managed to incorporate several impressive additions to the graphics subsystem of MacOS X (such as Quartz Extreme and DisplayPDF) Microsoft should be expected to release something equivalent, albeit 4 years late to the graphical capabilities found in MacOS X that provide for the infamous ‘Genie’ minimisation effect.

Linux (and consequently ‘legacy’ UNIX) desktops have been following Microsoft and Apple closer than before, with successful projects that have attracted funding from several companies, namely Gnome and KDE. But the chances of those desktops causing a paradigm shift, or even providing groundbreaking functionality in the way one interacts with their computer are slim. So, one would think, that it is up to Microsoft and Apple to lead the way; which makes me wonder: Apple has just invested a substantial amount of money and effort to revamp its operating system at all levels; many of the traditional mac users whose experience with computers was limited to the MacOS, have only now managed to get comfortable with the new operating system and still have an aversion for its BSD subsystem. Will Apple be able to combine the evolution of the desktop with the polishing of a (still) incomplete yet impressive environment like OS X? Will it be able to attract more users, provide more key features and compete with Microsoft, after what seems like a break-up of their 6 year ‘agreement’? All while researching and developing something similar in features to what Longhorn seems to be offering? Stardock, a company that started from OS/2 and grumpily moved to Windows by offering the popular Windowblinds program and the Object desktop suite among others, already provides a taste of things to come. For MacOS X, Spring tries to do the same, although in a more ‘amateurish’ way, both in terms of appearance and integration with the OS.

With the faltering US (and consequently world) economy and the general apathy towards PCs (they are not the new and cool thing anymore), I believe we may just end up using archaic ways to use our computers for some time to come. Come to think of it, most people still use x86 based machines: an architecture that was criticised even before it was adopted by IBM for their PC about two and a half decades ago. But that deserves an entry of its own.