We’ve learned to take much of the look and feel of the Windows operating system for granted. For many of us, Windows is all we know. Windows is computing. This is largely due to the fact that Microsoft absolutely dominated the PC market in the 1990s, a decade when computers were burned into the fiber of mainstream living and business. Computers revolutionized the way we communicated, worked, and played in the 1990s. Physical desktops gave way to virtual desktops on screens. Spreadsheet programs replaced hand-based methods for calculating. Windows 95 and Microsoft Office were groundbreaking technologies.
Fifteen years later, I would argue that they are antiquated.
In 2010, most office workers stare at the same screen they did in 1995. There are fundamental aspects of the design of Windows and the design of Microsoft Office that are rooted in the pre-computer world, or what I call the “hard” world. In the hard world, objects can only be one place at a time. A piece of paper can be filed in one, and only one, folder at a time. A stapler can only be in one place on your desk. A phonebook can only be stored in one drawer.
The soft world of computing has no such barriers, yet the design of Windows and Microsoft Office fails to leverage this. If you look in Windows Explorer, you see a series of little yellow manila folders—cartoonish versions of the same dusty paper products in your office filing cabinet. Commands in Microsoft Office applications appear in one place on toolbars or ribbons. To use objects in Windows, you have to know where they are—just like you need to know where that stapler is before you can bind that TPS report.
But there are no filing cabinets on hard drives. The quantity of “soft” objects in a computer does not depend on the physical space of your motherboard. In fact, there is no reason at all that anything has to be in any one spot. Everything should be everywhere.
Too much to ask?
Well think about this: It is often easier to find a web page on the vast expanse of the Internet, a system of some 25.21 billion pages as of March 2009, than it is to find a command on the Office 2007 ribbon. If you don’t know where a file is on your hard drive, you will spend much more time searching for it than you would doing a Google search.
With Google, you’re given one simple text field, a slender, narrow box representing a portal to the cyber universe. You tell Google what you want, and Google gives you answers. You don’t need to know the location of CNN’s web server or the location of web servers containing information on growing daisies. Location is irrelevant.
Why can’t the same be said of Windows and Microsoft Office? Why is there no text field above the Office 2007 ribbon that lets me type in “pivot” if I want to create a pivot table or “bar chart” if I want that? Why am I forced to memorize and recall the location of countless virtual buttons that reside in one, and only one, location?
I look forward to the day when Microsoft finally leaves the hard world behind—much like Google has and also Apple. One of the reasons I view my introduction to Apple computing in 2008 as somewhat of a personal computing renaissance is because of features like Spotlight, which allow me to just type what I want to do. Mac apps like LaunchBar take it to a whole new level. Again, the common thread is that location does not matter in the soft world, and it shouldn’t.