The Third Age

(with apologies to Toffler for the title – Third Wave has other connotations these days)

In the early days of personal digital computing things were pretty wild.  After all it was the 70’s and California (where much of the [computing] action was going down) was probably a pretty sweet place to be.  Unfortunately, I only know this second-hand – my parents lived near the Morningstar Commune in Sebastapol.  I digress.  So, maybe it was the drugs, maybe it was the spirit of the time.  But, nevertheless, ideas were – flowing!

Among those ideas are just about everything that we currently use to interact with our computers.  Take a look at Brad Myers’ “A Brief History of Human Computer Interaction Technology” for a retrospective.  Eventually, the drugs wore off.  The experimental 70’s came to an end.

Time to get real and sell, sell, sell – enter the corporate 80’s.  The “Office of the Future” was first sold commercially in 1981 as the Xerox Star.  It used a desktop-metaphor to help make these alien computing devices called PCs comprehensible to the humans.  Yup, just like your desk… sorta.  And then this company you’ve probably never heard of came along and made a product called the Macintosh in 1984.

Ok, so that’s pretty much the entire history of personal computing.  Well, not quite.  There was this sorta major event in 1995 that we still haven’t really recovered from.  Windows 95 / AOL / Netscape brought the internet to the world.  But somewhat surprisingly personal computers didn’t change much.

While the PC operating system world hasn’t really changed, the rest of the industry certainly has.  For example, my new phone (a Palm Pre) is a powerful computer, is a powerful Linux-based operating system – and it is beautiful, fun, functional, and damn near an entirely desktop-metaphor-free computing experience.  And I get it.

Well, what about this UNIX and Linux thing they talk about on the TV?  Yeah well, remember that wild and crazy time in the 70’s?  Some of those guys were droppin’ ‘C’-tabs and the trip lasted right up until June 2002.  At that point, Linux began to have a fairly viable desktop-metaphor-based environment.  Just like the rest of the PC gang… sorta.  Don’t get me wrong though.  The people who brought us GNOME 2.0 were heroes and visionaries.  Only it was very, very, long overdue and ushered in a new set of challenges.  Seth Nickell discusses this very eloquently in his GNOME Journal opinion piece “Experimental Culture”.  Check it out.

So, what do we do now?  Will GNOME 3.0 be the beginning of our third age, where we move beyond the desktop-metaphor?  Will a new crop of heroes emerge?  So far, things are looking good.  We’re already seeing some great contributions and exciting new ideas from people who are thinking about and working on GNOME Shell.  People who just get it and know that often a great design is anything but conservative.  Interested?  Stop by and say hey.

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PS. Many new technologies go through very similar growth stages before they realize their own “language” or establish their own idioms.  Somewhat canonical and well-studied examples include film, automobiles, and television that initially used metaphors of theater, carriage, and the hearth respectively.  I’d also suggest that it is very human: childhood (play), adolescence (mimicry), adulthood (expression).  There is a fourth age as well – but once again, I digress. 🙂

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2 Responses to The Third Age

  1. Oded says:

    Don’t get me wrong, from what I’ve seen GNOME shell is going to be awesome but its not so much as a move away from the desktop metaphor as much as its a further refinement of it – maybe as much as Windows 95 with its taskbar was such a refinement of the simpler desktop metaphor presented by Xerox, Apple, Microsoft and others.

    Also – where is the June 2002 figure coming from ? KDE 1 with a Windows 95-like desktop had appeared on July 1999, and GNOME 1.0 with a very similar look was release a scant 9 months later. Its not like later revisions of GNOME and KDE have made any significant improvements to the way a desktop is organized – even KDE-4 brings nothing new to the table in terms of how one relates to a computer UI.

    P.S. it would be cool if your blog had email registration so I can get notified there are more comments on this specific blog post – discussion are cool but I can’t be expected to sit here and refresh this page.

  2. David Love says:

    ” It was the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind – the year the Great War came upon us all.”

    Sorry – couldn’t resist.

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