Where's the Real Desktop Innovation?

I mentioned the other day that Sun's Looking Glass is tied intimately to the 2D concepts it's trying so desperately to be different from; and I compared this state with the level of UI design innovation created by the late Jef Raskin (author of The Humane Interface).

Raskin also designed a system which he called Archy, in which he didn't attempt to re-jig the existing GUI concepts. He threw all that in the garbage bin, and started from scratch, utilizing the latest research in cognitive techniques. A group of developers has been busy turning Archy into reality.

It's obvious, then, that there's still a huge amount of innovation left to discover in the GUI desktop world. Much of it is already documented in whitepapers and books such as Raskin's—the hard thinking has already been done.

So this leaves me wondering if Project Looking Glass really is all that revolutionary. Despite its 3D trappings, it doesn't achieve much in terms of usability; it doesn't break the current desktop mould which is constraining UI designers the world over. It still has the same application-centric outlook, and it still operates in terms of windows and familiar GUI buttons, lists, etc. In fact, all it really does is add an extra dimension of complexity. The Looking Glass team, then, needs to look further than gimmicky flippable windows (the ability to flip a window around and write notes on the back of the window) and show some real imagination.

An obvious place to start would be that the primary UI in LG3D is called the window manager.

If they simply redubbed this the document manager, it would immediately reveal just how wrong the current desktop UI paradigm is.

What sort of a document manager invites you to run applications? And yet, users primarily use their PCs to create documents (where document is used in a generic sense to cover graphical images, spreadsheets, Web pages, basically the fruits of the end-user's labors).

Looking Glass would be the perfect base for a document-centric, zoomable UI as envisaged by Raskin. Documents could be clustered together; and the user could operate in terms of clusters (or islands) of related documents, where each island represents a single project. The potential's there—so let's hope the Looking Glass team receives a sudden shot of vision, and that Sun really is serious about advancing the state of the graphical desktop.

About the Author

Matt Stephens is a senior architect, programmer and project leader based in Central London. He co-wrote Agile Development with ICONIX Process, Extreme Programming Refactored, and Use Case Driven Object Modeling with UML - Theory and Practice.