Way back in the mid-Eighties and early Nineties, I had a number of conversations with IT professionals who lamented the onset of GUIs and the downgrading of the command line. I had experts tell me that word processing would never succeed, as all that was needed was Tex. The advent of the Windows interface was the death knell for the command line elitists, and it introduced a standard interface to the chaos of DOS-based applications.
The desktop analogue with its icons of filing cabinets and manila folders became ubiquitous, and apart from a few small differences, the same interface is in use today on Windows, OS/X, iOS, Android and Linux.
A crowded desktop became the norm for most users, until the advent of the Start menu in Windows 95. This provided a method of accessing commonly used programs and direct access to commonly used storage, such as documents and pictures. This eventually gave way to the use of a Windows Task Bar or the Mac Dock, where commonly used applications could be directly started.
Today, our desktops are a little like icon graveyards, with most functions accessed by a task bar, dock or a Start menu. It’s also becoming more common to simply type in the name of a tool to run it — due to the increase in the number of tools/apps available.
Two other factors are also pushing for the evolution of our common GUI, and that is a need to bring some order to the increasing chaos of our applications/data and the evolution of multiple input methods.
Windows 8 and the WinRT (Metro) interface is a first attempt to provide an OS that uses multiple input methods, and makes an attempt at organising our data and apps.
Just like last century’s DOS users, many people are resenting the coming retirement of the Start menu. While I can understand why some people object (it is a change after all), I don’t really understand the reasoning behind their objections. The Windows 8 Start Screen is simply a combination of the Start menu and the Task Bar that is always visible — taking up the screen real estate where we used to put our unused icons.
In addition, the Windows 8 Start screen is dynamic. Those bigger icons/tiles will display information from their underlying applications, without the need to start them. It also provides a degree of organisation, so my Mail will be under Mail and my pictures under Pictures, despite the myriad of applications that produced them. Best still, I will use the same GUI on multiple platforms and form factors.
When it comes to input methods, I don’t want to be constrained. Yes, my tablet or phone may be primarily a touch device, but I should also be able to use voice, a mouse/keyboard, stylus, game controller and gesture, depending on the hardware available. If I’m using a Microsoft Surface tablet, I want to be able to use all these input methods. When I’m working, I may switch from touch to mouse/keyboard, or lean back and use voice or gestures — Windows 8 will give me that ability.
It may be that I have been using Windows Phone for a year and have used the developer and consumer Windows 8 previews, but that grid of static icons is starting to look very old. With Microsoft now preventing Windows 8 booting to the old desktop, it looks like we’ll all be dragged into the future — me with eager anticipation, and a few of us screaming and kicking.