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Tuesday, 10 December 2002

StevenBerlinJohnsonWatch

Steven Johnson has a new article up on Slate about interface uniformity--that just maybe "one-fits-all" is not necessarily the best approach and sometimes just using the best tool for job may be better. Excerpt from the article:

[By] bundling iPhoto with OS X, Apple is basically saying: The desktop metaphor is great for certain types of files, but not for files that happen to be photos. Some types of data need a new kind of interface. But the fascinating possibility right now—and it's only a possibility—is that Microsoft's next major upgrade to Windows, code-named Longhorn, will move in the exact opposite direction. For some time now, rumor sites have been speculating about Longhorn's integrated database, designed to tie all your different types of data together under a unified interface.

The ultimate goal is to prevent you from having to learn entire new programs to interact with your mail messages, your contacts, and your home movies—to ensure that each data type doesn't become the exclusive province of a specific application. (To take an example from the iApps, iPhoto is great at organizing your photos, but it's useless if you're trying to figure out which snapshot you e-mailed to your mother last week.) Think about searching for text strings in four different contexts: in a Word document, in your inbox, on the Web, and in your hard drive. There are four distinct search tools for those four tasks, each with its own interface, each "belonging" to a different application. But in each case, you're just searching for text. Why use a Swiss army knife when one blade will do? As Bill Gates put it on Charlie Rose last month, "Right now when you use Windows, the way that you step through your photos, the way you step through your music, the way you step through e-mail or files, they're all different. You have to learn different user interfaces, different search commands. ... The idea of Longhorn is to have one approach, one set of commands that work for everything, including all of those things. And so the number of concepts you have to learn is dramatically less."

A big fan of Pinker, Steven says on his blog:

One interesting analogy here, which I'd originally included in the piece, is the way this struggle mirrors debates about the brain: is the brain a swiss-army-knife of specialized modules, or is it more of a general intelligence? The evidence right now certainly makes it seem like evolution selected the modular approach. It will be interesting to see if our interfaces follow a comparable path. [more]

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