Beyond the desktop metaphor

As an extension of the self, the avatar, which (despite the slightly outmoded term) remains a familiar concept from the world of gaming, could become a new paradigm for operating system interfaces. Three tendencies may contribute to this paradigm shift. First, computers are becoming increasingly mobile. Not only are laptops outselling desktops, they are also becoming smaller and lighter. Second, computers are becoming more ubiquitous: computer operating systems are increasingly powering other devices as well, such as cell phones, PDAs and music players. Third, networks are becoming pervasive, allowing more communication between connected mobile computing devices.

These three tendencies are leading to a transferring of identity, from the laptop, to the cell phone, to the office workstation. Networking in particular has introduced the concept of assigning identities to terminals or nodes. Increased mobility, on the other hand, is leading to a stronger personal association with our digital devices. And as operating systems follow us from our cars, to the office, to the plane, its not a stretch to assume that they are increasingly perceived as an extension of our selves, the devices along with the applications and online services they provide access to. It seems apparent: We are projecting our identities onto the computer systems we use. In instant messaging, we have already grown used to choosing an avatar as a digital representation of who we are. The next logical extension would be the desktop.

Second Life is a case in point. What began as a three-dimensional, immersive chat environment, is beginning increasingly to resemble an operating system: apart from chat, there is a wide range of other activities one can engage in. Second Life is essentially a platform for an infinite number of applications. Navigation in Second Life mirrors the real world in a highly literal way, as consequently is immediately intuitive. Storage and browsing are no longer abstract concepts. Furthermore, Second Life is a scalable environment which theoretically has the potential to extend to any device.

The desktop metaphor is now over 30 years old, and it is clearly showing its age. Not only is it increasingly out of touch with the way we work; moreover, computers are no longer only about work. They are becoming digital hubs for entertainment and communication of all sorts, and the way we expect to interact with these systems has little in common with the concept of a desktop. Appleā€™s FrontRow is certainly a early sign of things to come. Sugar, the interface of One Laptop per Child, has placed people, not CPUs and folders, at the center of the user experience. A people-centric operating system offers new opportunities for interaction which are more closely tied to the way we use and perceive computers.

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