The Desktop Is Changing… But to What?

The desktop metaphor has served our computing needs well for the last decade. It has started however, to show its age over the last years. For office users it is still adequate but for everyone else it is often awkward and slow. Since a computer is no longer confined in the office, but in some cases serves also as the entertainment hub in our living rooms, new User Interfaces are required. In some areas the foundations are already in place while in others users are silently suffering every day, having to cope with inefficient and unproductive UIs.

The desktop metaphor

By desktop metaphor we mean the concept where the Graphical User Interface represents an office desk on screen. The whole area is the desktop itself which is littered with many documents as in real life. Files are organized in folders similar to the ones stored in the shelves of the real desk and each folder can contain more folders or files. Most files represent office documents (letters, spreadsheets, reports etc.). The user manages the files with a “File Manager” application and organizes everything manually (as in real life). There is also a recycle bin/trash object which acts as a real one giving happiness to users that don’t realize what really “delete a file” means.

The only change is that some of the icons do not represent files but instead launch “applications” which allow the user to edit the files that represent documents. And that is all. There is no place in this metaphor for WWW/videos/streaming audio/3D-games/cameras e.t.c. These were later added with additional “applications” and “file types” but they have nothing to do with a real desk represented by the desktop metaphor. Users however, became quickly accustomed to these “add-ons” and most of them know how to use a “Web browser Application” even though there is no place for networks in the desktop metaphor. Again the “remote/shared/network folders” is simply an addition. A document that resides on your real desk is really there. It cannot be anywhere else.

The all-time-classic “My computer” icon is the proof that users will get accustomed to anything over time even if it fits nowhere in the metaphor they are presented with. Think this for a minute. You have a real computer on your real desk. Its screen represents a virtual desk. And on the virtual desk there is a computer icon clearly depicting the hardware (tower AND screen). What does this icon represent? A virtual computer in the virtual desk? The real computer that is sitting on your real desk? And if yes, the start menu is not “in” this real computer too? The applications that you run are not contained “in” this real computer? And last but not least the file icons on the desktop are not “in” this computer? They are somewhere else? The whole concept is circular. In fact this controversial icon just gives access to hard disk partitions and external devices connected to the real computer (cdroms/floppies/cameras/mp3 players etc.). None of this fits into the desktop metaphor so a special icon is layered on top.

Users never complained about this icon. Instead they loved it. Newer “Virtual Desktops on your screen” have even copied the same feature just to keep the users happy. We are talking about GNOME here, developed mainly by Novell/Redhat/Ximian targeted at corporate users with Unix systems, and attempting to reduce re-training costs of office employees switching to GNOME. They already know what the “My computer” icon does, so they instantly recognize the “Computer” icon in GNOME too.

Different UIs for different cases

Let’s start with the good news first. The desktop metaphor does not always need a replacement. It will still serve us well in a very specific user-base. These are the people who are indeed having a computer on their real desk in the office. They are actually using the computer for their office needs and they are quite happy with what they have. This is natural, since the desktop metaphor is targeted at them. They can easily do what they need with Windows/Office or GNOME/OpenOffice. Any User Interface which will not resemble at least on a basic level the desktop metaphor will make them unhappy if not angry.

Another area where the desktop metaphor will not be easily replaced because of inertia, is when the users don’t spend enough time interacting with it in order to observe its flaws. This includes gamers and users of vertical market applications. A hard-core gamer only comes in contact with the desktop metaphor for 2 minutes before his/her favourite game “takes over” the computer (keyboard, screen, mouse). The Operating System is simply a portal to a big collection of games. Each icon represents a game and double-clicking on it makes the desktop metaphor irrelevant since the full screen is now managed by the game. These users would care less with the User Interface of their OS so they won’t be directly affected by any radical changes.

Computers which are used for special tasks can also hide the inefficiencies of the desktop metaphor. Users who spend most of their time with special tasks (like Web development, Computer Generated Graphics, Desktop Publishing, Computer Aided Design, Hardware and Software Development etc.) do not really see the OS of the machine. For them the UI metaphor is Visual Studio/Maya/Photoshop/Dreamweaver… (insert vertical market application here). Their problems with User Interface will certainly have to do with the application they are constantly using, rather than the UI their OS is presenting on the screen. It is up to the companies who produce the respective applications to take into account user complaints and present to them the perfect user interface with each new version of their products. The OS has nothing to do with the metaphor used by the application which can by anything that suits the target group of the its users.

So this leaves us with the remaining user base. These are the people who use their computers for multiple purposes at their homes (and not for office use). They will listen to music, surf the web, write a letter, play a game, send an email, etc. They will organize their photos, use the Internet for information gathering, and in general spend most of their time interacting with the OS instead of specialized applications. We have already described these users in the previous article. Some of them are so young (12+) so that the desktop metaphor means nothing to them. They have never worked in an office in the first place!

We note the fact that this user base is ever increasing. Computers are reaching a broader audience each year. Wireless networks, digital cameras, and personal digital stereos make computers appear in many homes where the users need a User Interface NOT resembling the desktop metaphor. Still these users are using the same OS and UI which has stayed mostly the same for the last 10 years and is clearly aimed at office workers. Is this logical? Can we do something about it?

Unfortunately these users interact each day with the desktop metaphor considering it to be THE User Interface. They do not realize that this is just one possible method to use their computer. They think it is the only one. Companies on the other hand can sell their products as it is, so they see no need for a different metaphor. Why should they after all? Every day is business as usual…

The driving force behind this article is the fact that the latest buzz in user interfaces is to use 3D and transparency everywhere. Many users are excited and feel that the way they use their computer is going to change in some magic way. They cannot understand that eye candy is completely different from usability improvement.


The big player here is unquestionably Microsoft. Their latest OS is WindowsXP. Nothing needs to be said here. The OS is centered around the desktop metaphor and despite some artistic changes after Windows 2000, computer-user interaction is essentially unchanged since windows 95. Their next OS is around the corner but we can’t really draw any solid conclusions since most information is preliminary. Testing builds and screenshots can never say anything for the finished product.

Leaving aside the under-the-hood changes (such as the search based filesystem if and when is included) the screenshots really don’t show any radical changes. It is clear that Microsoft has thought that many users will want to view pictures and manage a large music collection with their computers so there are specials filter facilities (also known as virtual folders) for these, but other than that, things stay the same. The much-hyped sidebar (which appears and reappears between builds) is also another interesting concept but all demonstrations of it, copy functionality from existing third-party applications for Windows XP.

The “My computer” icons was not present in Windows XP (leaving only the recycle bin on the desktop), but we are not so sure what will happen with Vista. After all, many users will just re-enable it every time they do a clean install of Windows XP. The Vista interface looks more polished than previous versions and there is certainly an effort to reduce interface clutter (Gnome development heads this way too, KDE is not but simple KDE has recently appeared).

The other visible changes such as the transparent window borders or the 3D task switcher may look cool but really add nothing to usability. The former already exists for some years in complete Desktop Environments like KDE and even in lightweight Windowmanagers for Unix like fluxbox. The latter exists since 2001 in Sun’s looking glass. If these ideas added anything important to usability they would have become widespread by now. The Expose feature introduced by Apple (and copied by many DEs/applications/plugins) is one of the best ways to locate a specific window under the pile. We would prefer better a new “live” desktop instead (not based on the Active Desktop Idea which has failed), but this doesn’t seem to be the case with Windows Vista.

Nobody can accuse Microsoft for what they do. They have a vast user base so they can’t just change everything overnight. But one would expect that after 5 year of development the new OS would attempt some change in workflow. Especially since Microsoft targets other areas too. Windows Media Center boxes have no place in an office environment so there is no reason why Microsoft could not propose a different approach for their desktop OS too based on “consumer device” ideas.


The next big player is Apple. Apple is considered the major innovator in computer usability. They were the first supporters of the desktop metaphor at the same time. The recycle bin is their invention. It is one of the few companies that doesn’t fear major changes. The change from MacOs classic to Mac OS X was certainly a big one. It has not however changed the main concept. The recycle bin is still there, the finder/file manager, the applications and documents etc.

We don’t think that Apple will leave the desktop metaphor at least in the near future. The first reason is that the Apple desktop is mature, well integrated and certainly well thought. The flaws of the desktop metaphor are hidden behind brilliant Apple Engineering. The Apple desktop is considered the best of its kind and several other “virtual desktop on your screen” environments, still copy its ideas. The second reason is that the Apple desktop is the base for several vertical market applications (image, video, audio/editing/desktop publishing etc.) which brings us to users who are interested more in the application than the desktop environment, as already discussed.

Apple has also its own implementation of a “live” desktop. It is called dashboard and is quite interesting. The dashboard allows the user to fill the desktop with little elements (called widgets) that show useful information at any time. The list of widgets is extensive. Nothing really groundbreaking but still a great idea and an even better implementation.

Apple is still a great company. They have been in the headlines lately because of the switch to x86 from PowerPC. This has nothing to do with usability but it shows that a great company does not fear to break free from old concepts (Apple=PowerPC) and do what is best for its clients. When Apple engineers are fed up with iPod sales and start to think the next perfect user interface nothing will stop them from implementing it.

Gnome (Novell/Ximian)

GNOME is a great desktop environment. Corporate users feel right at home. In many ways it is a bit like Mac OS X. The main goal of its development seems to be a simple but yet powerful interface. Gone are the toolbars with numerous buttons, the endless options and configuration dialogs which most times can confuse the users rather than help them. Consistency, simplicity and uniformity best characterize the Gnome desktop. Some Gnome technologies are even used outside the Gnome community. Nokia for example uses gnome-vfs (a virtual unification of different filesystems implemented in userspace) in their latest gadget 770.

Unfortunately, Gnome historically has targeted the corporate world. This is also reflected in its applications. Evolution, gnumeric, nautilus and friends are all great applications but bring nothing new to the table. Furthermore a great deal of Gnome technology is developed for administrators (who manage many Gnome Computers with lots of users) reminding us again that corporate users are first in line. Examples are sabayon and the notorious gconf. Applications like beagle or F-spot cannot really disguise the fact that GNOME was and will (at least in the near future) always be offered by Sun/Novell/Redhat to their respective corporate users.

GNOME suffers from the flaws of the desktop metaphor. This is true even for experienced Unix users. A lot of them use GNOME because of the simplicity and great technology behind it, and at the same time are amazed when they discover that their desktop quickly accumulates icons from “temporary” tasks. Maybe Gnome needs a “clean up desktop icons” wizard too.

The “live” desktop in Gnome comes in the form of gdesklets. The technology is powered by python and XML. The idea seems interesting but in the end most gdesklets are the usual suspects. That is, mem/sys/cpu/net load graphs, xmms frontends and weather forecasts. Great looks no doubt, but the functionality was already there before.

So where does Gnome stand today? In an interesting move by Novell several videos showing an XGL-powered GNOME have surfaced on the net. These videos look really amazing. It’s GNOME like never seen before. Transparent windows? Liquid style windows? Live video thumbnails? Cube desktop switching a la 3ddesktop? It is all there. Several Unix zealots saw the videos and instantly declared that Vista is no-where near this and that the Unix desktop will never be the ugly cousin of modern desktop environments. Unfortunately they don’t see the big picture. Even though these screen effects are cool, they add nothing to usability. They only thing that really deserves so many headlines is the expose/clean-up-windows effect which will certainly come handy when the desktop is cluttered with many windows. Another interesting feature is also the graying-out effect for frozen applications. This gives a visual clue to the user that something is wrong with an application. But really everything else is pure eye candy. Novell has really surprised us not with the videos themselves but rather with the direction they are going with them.

Meanwhile there are numerous other technologies around, that crave for developers and will help users when they will become mature. We mean the howl/zeroconf/avahi implementations or even the dbus/hal combo. The future Gnome desktop powered by them will certainly be better than the current one and not just look better. Sadly these technologies are not in the headlines. This is because they are considered infrastructure (=boring) work and 3D stuff is always more eye-catching.

Soon after the release of XGL, redhat/fedora proposed their solution for a fancier desktop along with the obligatory video samples. Nvidia published their own whitepaper (PDF) too giving their ideas on the situation. Most people started comparing the technologies or asking why XGL development took place behind closed doors, when the real question is what enhancements do they offer to the desktop experience.

To sum up, it is sad to see that interested parties are just focusing on the visual effects of the technologies. The single most important purpose of the graphic system is to improve the human-computer interaction and not to look cool. It is easy to create great-looking interfaces that cannot be used by humans, but rather difficult to create usable interfaces that also look good too.

KDE (Germany 🙂

KDE is the other big Unix Desktop environment. It used to be more mature than Gnome but as both have progressed this is no longer the case. Under the hood KDE is powered by a smart component/parts system called kparts. Konqueror is not just a web browser/file manager combo. It is the central hub for the KDE idea of integration. KDE code is clean/object oriented and easily extensible. Writing KDE applications is a positive experience like no other. A great framework is presented to the programmer who can quickly use well-tested code to build his/her own ideas.

The visual part of KDE which is presented to the user is no match for the technologies that power it. The interface closely follows the desktop metaphor and several times it has been accused of being windows-like. KDE tries to offer its users every possible option that can be changed. The control panel, the overloaded toolbars, the kicker and the icon-cluttered desktop show clearly that KDE follows the tried-and-true user interface of the dominant Operating System in the desktop market.

The latest interesting headlines for KDE are the announcements of the solid and plasma projects. There are no published implementations just a simple description in their respective sites. Solid is described as “a system allowing to seamlessly use devices and networks available for your computer”. Plasma is an effort to create a “live” desktop for KDE. Although superkaramba exists for some time now, plasma seems to have greater aspirations for the KDE desktop. Plasma is part of the Appeal initiative which at the moment just states their goals. In the same site one can also find the Oxygen Icon theme which advertises itself as “not being just another icon-theme”!.

Knowing how KDE will transform in the future is difficult. Its developers seem to have reached the state where needed functionality is there, and higher level concepts are examined. KDE is clearly a mature desktop that has solid foundations but lacks the final polish that will give it a distinct identity.

As a side note the KDE developers seems to also spend time re-inventing the wheel. Gimp is already there yet Krita is heavily developed these days. OpenOffice is alive and kicking, yet Koffice reminds us that KDE needs everything to be done the KDE way.

Mezzo (Symphony OS)

The Mezzo Interface (part of Symphony OS) really deserves an article on its own. Mezzo tries to present the user with a revolutionary interface which is clearly aimed at casual computer users. The concepts behind Mezzo are best described in the “principles of a simplified desktop user interface and usability experience” whitepaper (downloadable as PDF) which can be found on the site. Mezzo not only has acknowledged the issues we are discussing so far but even proposes its own respective solutions.

The Mezzo interface does not allow any icons on the desktop. There is not any sort of sidebar/start menu. Instead it makes use of the screen corners to organize documents/programs/devices/trash functions. Most Mezzo windows run full screen and being transparent give a “consumer device” feel to the user. All menus are desktop wide and they shrink automatically to show additional entries (no scrolling/nesting). Application windows cannot move off-screen and when minimized go to the bottom of the desktop transforming into miniature screenshots.

Mezzo proposes other interesting ideas like a simplified file manager, and a universal search function (beagle like). It includes its own implementation of desklets powered by Orchestra which should be used to monitor resources and/or show live Internet information(feeds/weather/maps e.t.c).

Mezzo used to be just a collection of screen mockups, but lately a real version is available as an ISO file (currently in Beta). Mezzo is in no way finished but it is getting there slowly. If you are a programmer do not hesitate to help with its development. Mezzo is one of the few projects available which offer something new and refreshing in the desktop field.

Enlightenment (Rasterman and team)

Enlightenment is a very active project which advertises itself as a desktop shell instead of a desktop environment. It is not finished yet. There isn’t an official release and all code exists in CVS at the time. The development version is E17.

Enlightenment (as was also clear from version 16) goes for great looks while still presenting a usable interface on screen. Its screenshots reveal nothing extraordinary at first sight. The desktop does not have any icons apart from the application launcher engage which looks and acts like the Mac OS X dock. The “live” desktop is present here with separate modules as well. Some of them are are already started appearing on the net.

Enlightenment (at its present state) is not showing however its full potential. The technology behind it, the EFL libraries are truly unique. The Evas is an image-based-state-aware canvas which compared to (your-favourite-canvas-widget-here) is years ahead. Rasterman is the same man behind the ultra-fast imlib and imlib2 image libraries which have a large user base even outside of the Enlightenment community (Gnome also used imlib at some point). The edje technology is itself a breakthrough. Although users will often perceive it as theming on steroids, in reality edje allows for truly dynamic user interfaces with complete separation between the application logic and the application appearance.

Several Enlightenment applications are in the works, but none can really show what Enlightenment will present to its users when finally realized. Overall a very interesting project which should be closely monitored by those looking something impressive for their desktops.

Outsiders (The community)

And last but not least we are presented with the idea that there should be no desktop at all. This was started with ratpoison and ion Unix Window managers and has found its more mature form in wmii.

Ratpoison and Ion are non-overlapping window managers. They support the idea that the desktop is a waste of space and all available screen estate should be given to application windows. At the same time they automatically arrange all windows dynamically on the screen so that no window is over another one. Check out the screenshots [ratpoison],[ion],[ion].

Unfortunately this idea does not work for several applications which either were not designed with this kind of interface in mind, or they completely break the window manager standards. Interactive dialogs are known to have serious problems.

Wmii is the latest offering for this kind of window management. It is based on the same principles but at the same time offers the usual window management style (called floating layout) as an option. This means that even applications like the gimp can easily be run under wmii in this compatibility mode. The tile mode of wmii which is the most well thought one has its roots on Plan 9 (and acme). Wmii has also inherited file-system-like configuration which will show its full abilities when the 9p protocol is equally available to the Linux kernel (newer than 2.6.14) and applications too.

Wmii is the current window manager of choice for the author. Working with it is a different experience from all past ones. Although it is heavily based on keyboard control and clearly aimed at experienced Unix users, its ideas will certainly be loved by people who will devote some time learning it.

Expect the next major version of wmii (v.3) in April 2006.


So is the desktop metaphor here to stay? Do we need an alternative?
Is everyone happy with the situation? It is clear to us that many people have started seeing the problems of the traditional desktop. Realizing that there are problems is indeed the first step. The next step which is acting is rather difficult. The traditional desktop is deeply trenched into everyone’s mind. A lot of development time and money has been allocated for it already. Companies expect it to develop their applications. Users expect to find it on their computers.

We don’t have to wait for voice-recognition or even face-recognition to become part of our lives in order to build a better user interface. And we certainly don’t need 3D windows to present a usable interface too. What we need is open minded developers who will implement new ideas and open minded users who will accept these new concepts. Slowly but steadily we should attempt this.

About the author

Kapelonis Kostis is a computer science graduate. He has recently finished his military service. After guarding the borders of Greece for 9 months, he has many ideas on the perfect User Interface. Currently he is researching what programming tools will allow him to present his ideas to the open source community. He believes that the desktop metaphor is obsolete.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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