Software innovator David Gelernter says the desktop is obsolete

[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 special attention.

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 overwhelmed.''

''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 said.

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 another.

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 our view.''

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 stream-oriented efforts.

''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

For other Programmers Report articles, please go to

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.


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