Google & Jeff Raskin: goodbye desktop

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POSTED: May 16, 2006

GMail is interesting at the moment because the notion of folders, and replaces them with the ability to add an unlimited number of user-defined labels to a message. In addition each message is automatically threaded to whatever it is replying to.

If you click on a label name then you, in effect, get all the messages in the Friends “folder”, with the advantage that some of these could also be found in the UK “folder”. So if someone were to write me a mail inviting me to a possible conference I can label it Friends, UK, conference rather than putting it in one of these folders and then having to remember which one when I try to find it later.

I regularly have to find data that could logically have been placed in one of several folders, and it involves trying to remember which of the possible locations I actually placed it in.

Why might this lead to the abolition of the desktop?

The desktop is basically a fancy way of archiving documents by giving them expandible pathnames, and then challenging you to remember the pathname (or its visualisation as folders inside folders) later. The GMail approach adopts a different metaphor. Every file lives in the same undifferentiated space. What makes it unique is a behind-the-scenes id number the user doesn’t know about or bother with. What makes it findable is a string of labels and tags, and a blindingly fast search engine that has pre-indexed everything.

Google and Yahoo both have desktop search engines for download that pre-index a variety of stuff and make finding anything a matter of milliseconds. If files had the native ability to have labels or tags embedded within them then the desktop metaphor would suddenly seem very clumsy and inflexible. Instead of a pretend desktop you could have a dynamic window in which the content changed instantly according to the search criteria you applied.

At the moment GMail is in beta. There are many missing features. Before it works “properly” GMail will have to allow you to manually unhook a message or file from a thread, and manually hook something into a thread. It will also have to allow you to filter more precisely: to see all the mail labelled Friends + UK, for example.

The Google approach has some resemblances (superficially at least) to some of the work of Jeff Raskin who died on Saturday February 26th 2005.

He died just before finishing work on Archy: A Humane Computer Environment, which is allegedly a complete rethink, not of an operating system, but of the metaphors, images and tools presented that are presented to the user.

Indeed, Raskin argued that the operating system should not be an issue for the user, anymore than the brand of fan in the computer should be. He argued that the visibility of current operating systems was the lagacy of historical errors, as were standard behaviours like the computer throwing work away unless you actively saved it. he suggested that it made more sense for the computer to save everything unless you actively deleted it.

His primary concern, though, was with the interface itself, and the limitations of the file-folder-desktop metaphor. This is an issue that GMail (as well as the new Google Desktop Search) is also tackling head-on.