Software innovator David Gelernter says the desktop is obsolete
- By Jack Vaughan
[January 28, 2003 - ADT's Programmers Report] - David Gelernter's Mirror Worlds Technologies Inc.
recently announced the beta version of software aimed at vastly improving the
end user's computer experience. Under development since Mirror Worlds was formed
in 1997, and now available free for download, Scopeware Vision Professional is a
visual information management system that resides above the OS and native file
system, allowing users to use quick keyword searches to find ''stuff.''
Finding ''stuff'' may sound like a minor undertaking, but it is not. Finding
stuff is becoming the biggest problems for users of desktop PCs. Early efforts
to organize computer work, designed around development project software and
desktop and file cabinet metaphors, may have reached the end of usefulness. So
says Yale University computer scientist Gelernter, who has given the matter
In fact, the plague of ''unfindable stuff factor'' is gaining wider
attention. The fact was observed last fall by none other than Bill Gates on a
Comdex-week appearance on Charlie Rose's TV show. Gates told Rose he had set
marching orders for Microsoft applications developers to improve the lot of the
end user ferreting about for files.
Developers know the problem too well, and a slew of often-expensive
development tools has grown up to meet just this need. These tools -- along with
the famed Xerox Parc desktop metaphor -- formed the basis, said Gelernter, for
the filing solutions we have today. But the metaphor or paradigm -- pick your
favorite term -- is overtaxed.
''The icons, the windows and the mouse were great in 1978. They were still
good in the early '80s, and they were still hanging in there with Windows 3.0 in
1990,'' said Gelernter. ''But now [this approach] is just outclassed and
''As e-mail and the Web became a big thing, it was clear that the
hierarchical file systems and tools we've inherited from the '70s would not
work,'' he continued. ''Stuff was sloshing around.''
It was Gelernter's renowned efforts in the '80s to develop parallel
programming techniques that led to the Linda language and related distributed
operating system. This work was highly influential in the eventual development
of Java, and the various distributed memory architectures that have subsequently
emerged. Linda was aimed at helping developers, but Gelernter now seeks to help
the end user. ''The needs of code developers are why we have this ridiculous
file system,'' he chided.
The tools, he noted, are now ''pathetically obsolete.''
What is needed is software ''not designed for software developers to organize
their projects, but which is instead designed for people that use the computer
as a communicator or writer or Web [browser] -- for the user as an everyday tool
vs. a special high-tech device,'' he said.
''Instead of information management growing from the machine up, Mirror
Worlds wanted it to grow from the user down. I want my information management
software to have the same shape as my life, which is a series of events in time.
I do something and then something else. I want the story of my life to be in
software. I want the flow to determine the shape of the picture I see on the
screen. I don't want to worry about directories, subdirectories or devices,'' he
In a way, this ''story,'' or narrative, approach to organizing material may
be at work in the increasingly popular Weblog software of recent years.
The search for such attributes led to Scopeware. What Gelernter came up with
in response to the ''stuff'' problem was a system in which the use of search
technology is central. Scopeware provides users with time-ordered sequencing and
information in context. It supports most standard document types, and creates a
catalog that contains all words within each document .The index allows for
high-speed search and retrieval of information. Everything is presented in a
''stream,'' a choice of metaphor, said Gelernter that better represents how we
work. Or how interests and projects flow from one interest or project to
The debut of Scopeware, which is formally due in February, could be an
important next step for an increasingly public Gelernter.
Gelernter's interests have increasingly broadened since
the first Linda days. He has written a series of challenging books, which
includes Mirror Worlds, a visionary piece on a networked future;
The Muse in the Machine, an examination of poetry and artificial
intelligence; and 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, which considers the
clash of futurism, culture and technology that occurred in the 1930s as shown in
that decade's World Fair in New York. Drawing Life
is Gelernter's personal account of surviving a 1993 mail bomb
sent by infamous Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
Now that Microsoft has become aware of the issue of ''missing stuff,''
Gelernter does not see them stealing a march. Its good publicity, instead, for
the problem, he indicated.
''We have been talking about it for years. Last summer Microsoft woke up to
this issue. That's good news for us,'' he said. ''When we started out, many
people did not realize [the problem]. This marked the industry coming around to
Programmers Report asked the pioneer of Linda and tuple memory space
architectures what he thought of distributed operating system work today,
particularly in the peer-to-peer (P2P) computing field. Gelernter largely begged
off, although he pointed to some applications of P2P in his Scopeware
''Linda and tuple were system tools designed for programmers. We decided the
software we cared about was for the entire world and not just programmers, and
we moved to work on Scopeware,'' Gelernter said.
But, he noted, the company is looking at beta versions of
desktop stream software with a P2P capability. ''In the long view, we see the
stream running on a lot of machines around the world simultaneously.'' This
would let you look at documents that represent a community of which you are
part, he said.
For a free evaluation copy of Scopeware from Mirror Worlds
Technologies, go to http://www.scopeware.com/products/prod_v_form.html
For other Programmers Report articles, please go
Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.