Friday, December 23, 2011
The Death of the Desktop?
When the iPad was first released, I asked a friend how it stored files. So new was iOS, with its scrolling pages of apps, and so ingrained was the concept of a desktop, with its windows and file icons, that the idea that files could be stored within the apps themselves took some getting used to.
Suddenly, it seemed to me, the death of the desktop was nigh.
No more documents strewn across that backdrop picture of your family or best friends. No more leftover .dmg or .dll files scattered like the junk surrounding a construction site. Suddenly the user interface seemed so clean. We can’t be trusted, it seems, to keep our digital offices in order.
But no, I thought, we rely too much on our desktops to change them. We need them as creative spaces. They’re where we have room to spread out, to lay out our messes so we can mash and mix them up. Can our creativity survive in cursor-less, un-arrangeable spaces?
Now, several years and a major operating system upgrade later, we have Apple’s Lion. And, lo and behold, when we pinch our three fingers with our thumbs, up pops LaunchPad, that familiar gridded screen of Apps. And I wonder now: is this the integration of the desktop and iOS? Or, is this the beginning of a shift, a shift from the desktop playpen that we have known for three decades to the personal computer operating system of the future: an adapted iOS?
Steve Jobs and Apple are notorious for knowing what we need--and what we don’t need--before we do. We disbelieved the absence of the 3.5 inch drive when the iMac was shipped with only a CD tray. We started again when the MacBook Air shipped with only wifi and USB ports. (We even bought the Superdrive to be safe, expecting we’d need it, only to return it, still in its shrinkwrap, days later.)
Is an inaccessible desktop the next fast one?
I visited a Mac help forum once to find out how I could retrieve a feature that had been removed in the Lion upgrade. At the bottom of the comment thread--after an array of helpful solutions--the last comment noted, as if in summary: “If Steve Jobs thinks you don’t need the feature, you probably don’t.”
Now, only several weeks later, I can’t even remember the feature I was looking for.
And so, do we need our desktops? Or will we look back and wonder why they lasted so long? Is this the writing on the wall for their demise? The race is already on to make browsers the new desktop--they run “web apps” after all. Is a clean, local, scrolling app list all we really need to connect our desktop machines to our cloud-based lives?
Or, really, is this just the warm-up for something a little further down the line: the total integration of touch, voice, and three-dimensional projection--a user interface that connects our desktops made of atoms to our information made of bytes?