Monthly Archive for March, 2011

Towards a Discoverable Computer Operating System

The operating systems OLPC Sugar, Android and iOS (especially including the iPad version) are now actively competing with Windows in the new computer user space around the world: they re-imagine computers with more approachable design metaphors appropriate to the internet age. These can also be more readily understood without presuming as much formal training on the contrived human-facing standards of the original desktop computers developed at Xerox PARC that were widely applied over the last 20 years (like mice, windows, files, folders). This will improve the uptake of computers as they reach out to the next billion users, implicitly will place a strike through some of our most common basic desktop concepts, and will free up our cognitive capacity to think more about our tasks at hand (literally).

Windows, since the 1990s, has greatly relied on its huge and unavoidable market share and its network effect to make new users trained and familiar with its metaphors. Windows still has only a rudimentary plan to evolve. These new operating systems, in contrast, take advantage of progressing input technology to discard the original assumptions and draw users closer to the machine. They abstract away the gotchas that can, without training, clutter or interfere with common problem solving; fundamental things like saving, file organization, and mouse coordination. Forgetting to save is mitigated by removing save. A tower of babel of a folder hierarchy is flattened by search and ordered by task or sites. The touch interface deletes the mouse. Only the keyboard really remains unassailed.

If the new OSs’ revolution universally succeeds, then Windows may feel progressively less and less attractive as more and more of its founding metaphors are tossed off and deprecated. More importantly, computers and their designers are showing a new kind of egalitarianism that can accommodate new societies and groups adopting computers for increased productivity in ways that don’t presume an essentially top-down training model of adoption–more like mobile phones and Facebook. The best software has always been intuitively discoverable, now maybe the basic concepts can be too.

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