Replacing the Desktop

Charlie Stross and other journalists are theorizing that Apple is trail blazing a new world for computing. As Charlie puts it,

Steve Jobs believes he’s gambling Apple’s future… on an all-or-nothing push into a new market. HP have woken up and smelled the forest fire, two or three years late; Microsoft are mired in a tar pit, unable to grasp that the inferno heading towards them is going to burn down the entire ecosystem in which they exist.

If they are to be believed, the iPhone OS, also found on the iPod Touch and iPad (which Apple just announced the sale of the first millionth), represents a vision of the future of software and user interface design. The desktop metaphor is being replaced… by what?

I wouldn’t say there is a singular metaphor to replace the desktop. There is, however, a replacement theme. It’s a theme that we’ve been seeing in movies, like Minority Report and Avatar, for quite some time. It’s been echoed across everything from Microsoft’s Surface to Autodesk’s multi-touch wall. The theme is “direct manipulation.” As such, we are seeing a plethora of very literal visual metaphors, such as page flipping, spinners, and details taken from physical objects, right down to the stitching in the leather seams of the “pocket” in the Notes app and the stitched binding in the Contacts app on the iPad. Some of them are behavioral, while others are merely decorative, but they all speak to a very familiar, physical approach to interaction.

First Touch

I mentioned in a previous post that a feature of Interaction ’09 was the Tangible Interaction Café. Manifest Digital provided a Microsoft Surface for us to fiddle around with. This was my first hands-on experience with the table, and while it was interesting, I was a little underwhelmed. It wasn’t as big as I imagined it would be; it’s the size of a smallish coffee table. The resolution is also quite low. The interactions were very natural, however, and it was fun to spend a few minutes flicking photos around and playing with the water table “screensaver”.

One thing that made it a bit more engaging was that Manifest had developed some software expressly for our conference. They had it pulling in photos and tweets from the conference feeds, which was a nice tie in, but the icing on the cake was the interface with Crowdvine, the social networking site tied into the conference. Everyone who had registered with Crowdvine had a 3-D barcode on the back of their nametag. When I placed my nametag on the Surface, it recognized me and pulled in my photo from Crowdvine.

Microsoft Surface

The red “connect” swash could be dragged onto another person’s photo, which would send them a message through Crowdvine saying that I connected with them on the Surface at Interaction ’09. While this is a rather trivial example, it turned what could have been a short, distraction with a novelty item into a more relevant and engaging experience.


Today at D5, Bill Gates demonstrated Microsoft’s new platform, Surface. Basically, it is a computer built into a table with a rear-projection, 30” display as the surface. It utilizes cameras to detect hand gestures, touch, and objects, such as smartphones, media players, and digital cameras. It can communicate with such objects using wireless technologies such as Bluetooth and WiFi.

At face value, this should be really exciting. The videos created by their marketing team show some really cool capabilities. The multi-touch manipulation of photos and videos looks completely intuitive. The seamless transfer of digital files and information between the table and objects placed on it is inspired. The potential applications and methods of interaction not shown are titillating.

So why am I yawning as a write this? Why has Surface not engendered the same fevered anticipation I feel when watching the videos of the iPhone? You don’t have to dig very deep to find that the table will cost between five and ten thousand dollars. Microsoft is doing what it does best, partnering with other companies to sell Surface and get it into the market. What market would that be? They plan to have them installed in high-end hotels, casinos, and the like by the end of the year. That means I’m not likely to see one. I’ll be surprised if I have the chance to interact with one before 2010.

I’ll have an iPhone in my pocket come July or August.