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  • Death to the desktop as we know it

    While I'm talking about operating systems, I have another gripe to vent. It has to do with one of the most integral parts of operating system interfaces. Yes, as the title suggests, I'm talking about the desktop.

    Conceived as a virtual replica of our desk, the concept works if you are the super-organised type in real life, where your real desk is neat and tidy, as opposed to being piles of paper everywhere. But even for these people, it is a struggle to keep order, especially with the ever growing amount of digital information being created/shared/collected on a daily basis. What's more, unlike any other storage location on your computer, there is a limit to how much stuff you can have on your desktop - anything that does not fit on the desktop may as well be lost forever (yes, you can navigate to the desktop directory, but defeats the purpose of the desktop).

    For most people, the desktop is our virtual miscellaneous folder, our virtual dumping ground, our virtual inbox, or a place we go to remind ourselves of how much crap we have.

    On top of trying to organise your own stuff, it doesn't help that so many applications seem to have an inferiority complex and need to compensate by adding icons to your desktop, wasting precious space. (Yes Adobe, I am looking at you - why the hell would I want a link to Adobe Reader and Acrobat.com on my desktop!!?! Firstly, who loads the Reader on its own, and not through opening a PDF file? It provides no functionality without a PDF file. And Acrobat.com - my desktop isn't an advertising billboard, bugger off. It's bad enough in my start menu, but this is just crossing the line.) I do realise this is more a Windows developer mentality issue more than anything.

    Somewhere along the way, Microsoft, Apple, KDE, Gnome and other desktop shell makers realised that our desktops never look as tidy and neat as they do in the marketing material. So they come up with all kinds of ideas to help us keep things off the desktop, with OSX introducing Stacks, KDE building various applets, and Vista ushering in various folders for stuff we commonly place on the desktop by default, among other things.

    So now, instead of cluttering our desktops, we clutter our user folders instead (another problem operating systems are struggling to fix), and now have to click 2-3 times more to get to that file. Great.

    My question is - why don't we make use of the desktop space, and make it better at organising our work, instead of pushing everything elsewhere? I don't know about you, but I have better things to do than stare are my desktop background all day, as mesmerising as some pictures can be.

    One thing that helps reduce desktop clutter is having virtual desktops, as is the case with OSX's Spaces, and most *nix desktop environments (these two environments are really crap at marketing - where the hell is the features page!?!!). Windows still doesn't, and doesn't seem like it will, have support virtual desktops out of the box (there are programs that offer this functionality though).

    But that does not go far enough - that only helps taskbar/application window clutter, not desktop clutter.

    Rather than having the desktop as a dumping ground for files, it should not be a storage location at all. Instead, it should be split into two sections - a task manager and a file browser. The task manager would list all the applications (thumbnail + name) running in the current virtual desktop. For every application loaded in that virtual desktop, related folders would be shown in the file browser area, sorted by the last modified file/folder first, with files modified in this virtual desktop highlighted. The file browser area should include shortcuts to commonly used folders (e.g. Downloads, Documents, Photos) as well as any devices (e.g. CDs, USB drives, phones) and hopefully web services (e.g. xDrive or Skydrive). To make it more visually appealing, copious amounts of transparency should be used, and a background picture allowed to show through.

    So for example, if I had Chrome open, the Downloads folder would be shown in the file browser area. Later I open Microsoft Word and start a document. I save the document inside the Work folder inside my Documents folder. As I do this, the Work folder is now shown on my desktop, along with the Downloads folder from before. I now close Chrome. The Downloads folder stays on my desktop, but over time, as other folders are needing to be shown, it becomes minimized down the bottom, showing the path and the files used in it only. I now insert a USB drive into my computer, click on the new icon on my desktop and the drive's contents is now shown on my desktop, along with the other folders. I double-click on a spreadsheet, Excel fires up, and away I go.

    Folders can also be pinned to the virtual desktop, so they stay there, even if the related application is not running inside that virtual desktop. Applications however cannot - application launching is the responsibility of the taskbar/dock.

    Of course, if applications are dragged into a particular virtual desktop, the related folders go with it.

    Because the Desktop is no longer a storage location, users and/or applications are now strongly encouraged to organize their files when saving them. Of course, the user can just specify a single folder for everything, defeating the purpose, so the UI should be made simple enough such that it is easier to organise now, than to dump and organise later.

    The concept can be expanded so that each virtual desktop becomes tied to a certain task/outcome. For example, I may have a virtual desktop for when I am coding an application. This virtual desktop would have my development folders pinned. When I am no longer coding, I should be able to suspend that virtual desktop, which should suspend all application instances within it, freeing up resources. Later, when I start coding again, I should be able to activate that desktop again, which will wake up all the applications within it and restore it to the state prior to suspension.

    I'd be really interested in seeing something like this. Or actually, anything willing to challenge the ubiquitous desktop concept, which none of the developers of desktop environments across any operating system seems willing to radically change. (Why I have no idea.) Because right now, there is nothing good about the desktop - it's way too easy to use as a dumping ground, and way too useless to be productive in (unless spending minutes visually searching through the various icons over and over again is part of your job description). 

    P.S. The worst desktop organisation I had ever seen was my materials engineering lecturer at Monash - his OSX desktop was full, so full that his desktop icons all overlap each other. I wish I had a photo, you had to see it to believe it.

     

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