Roped in by OS Limitations


By Samuel Greengard

The graphical user interface is now about 50 years old, and it's starting to show its advanced age. Although Apple and Microsoft have continued to innovate on the concepts that Doug Engelbart introduced at the SRI Labs in the early 1960s, we're increasingly roped in by the limitations and restrictions of today's operating systems.

Right now, the iPad is the closest thing we have to an ideal device. The ability to use gestures-- pinches, swipes and taps-- on a touch interface is intuitive, convenient and powerful. What's more, the use of dedicated apps is brilliant. Alas, an iPad--even with a Bluetooth keyboard--isn't robust and powerful enough to handle industrial-strength work.

That leaves most of us with Windows and OS X computers. The main problem with both of these operating systems is that they weren't designed to manage dozens of applications at the same time.

What used to be a solution is now a problem: windows that tile and overlap. This was great when you had only a few apps and files open at any given time.

But, today, it's not unusual to wind up with a screen that's littered with 25 browser tabs, dozens of open e-mails, and a smattering of Word, PowerPoint and PDF files. There's also a calendar and address app, project and task management software, and other tools. Finding objects and items is something akin to an archeological dig.

Worse, the constant minimizing and maximizing of windows is a huge time suck. Up, down ... Up, down.

Why not build an OS that lets me reduce active programs, files and other items to small thumbnails on the desktop and attach them to other objects I'm working with? Why not let me tear off tabs for Word or PowerPoint documents the way that Firefox and Chrome allow me to combine or change browser groups?

Why not let me right-click on folders and files and share them with others peer to peer? And why now allow me to work on my current desktop session on any of my devices by automatically syncing everything through the cloud?

Google is doing some of this with the Chrome browser, which now syncs active tabs across systems. Apple is slated to add iOS-like capabilities to its next OS X upgrade. And Windows 8 will undoubtedly support major improvements, including enhanced cloud support.

But, in the end, these are incremental additions rather than the quantum leap we need to work in the digital age. It increasingly feels like we're staring into the past rather than gazing into the future.