Ken Hess put up a post to the Virtually Speaking blog on ZDNet this morning with the provocative title “Why desktop computing failed.” I suppose one could reduce the entire piece to the following motto:
The desktop is dead; long live the app!
Here is a more reasoned statement of the basic argument in Hess’ own words:
Applications, not the OS, is where it’s at. Who cares to interact with the operating system for anything other than to run applications? I do but I’m a computer guy. But, if there’s an app for that, I want to use it. I can’t think of any reason whatsoever, under normal circumstances, for ordinary users to interact with the operating system. Sure, some of us techie-types like to mess with the OS but for most people, it’s just not a need.
Now, granting that blogs are there for all of us to vent our opinions, my basic conclusion is that, like just about any other technology wonk, Hess assumes that anything he says for himself applies to all users. In other words he is a typical example of why those of us who just want to get our work done never seem to avoid running afoul of the computer systems we use.
To be fair, I have to plead to being “a computer guy.” On the basis of his brief biographical statement, I would say that there is a good chance that I was “a computer guy” before Hess was born; but that has nothing to do with my current work activities. Now I spend most of my time writing, and most of my writing work involves doing background research. For me the great virtue of current technology is that I can be doing my research in tandem with my writing. This means that my rough drafts end of being sort of like stream-of-consciousness diary pages (or laboratory notebook for those who think the concept should be more dignified) that play out hypotheses and then document the sources I invoke to support those hypotheses; but I can do this because most (but not all) of those sources are in digital form, either on the Web or on my hard drive. I still have a fair amount of heavy lifting to do when it comes to turning a rough draft into something worthy of the attention of my readers, but the act of composition has become much more dynamic for me. For better or worse, I relish those dynamic qualities.
However, those dynamic qualities reveal the shallowness of Hess’ thinking, at least where my own work habits are concerned. The fact is that, while many aspire to a world in which all we shall need is a Web browser that easily manages a collection of tabs, I require a level of interoperability that goes beyond such a simplistic worldview. At the very least, digitization itself as part of what I do, mostly in the form of scanning with optical character recognition; and, because I respect the constraints of copyright, I feel it necessary to confine all of my created digital forms to the privacy of my hard drive. Similarly, I do a lot of reading; and that involves a lot of note-taking. I would not want my notes to reside anywhere except on that hard drive (and its backup server, which I still prefer to keep as a local device, rather than a cloud service). Indeed, I do not want my rough drafts to reside anywhere other than locally.
My point is that I do a lot of things with a lot of applications, but it is not just about using those applications. It is about whether I can depend on a useful level of interoperability among them. That interoperability takes many forms, but almost all of them are supported by an underlying operating system. Each application may be designed to allow the operating system to do its thing, but that is ultimately the point. No application can ever be designed to anticipate all the possibilities of interoperability, but it can be designed to confirm to some set of basic functionality guaranteed by the operating system. Take away that interoperability, and I would no longer be able to streamline my research practices to the extent that I have done so.
Having now made my point, I should also say that I agree with Hess’ indictment of “the fat and stupid operating system.” It does not take an awful lot of functionality to support interoperability; but the simplicity of such a foundation has not prevent most of the operating systems out there from becoming bloated with “features” (scare quotes intended) that are more likely to get in your way than facilitate your work practices. On the other hand, as we all know from Microsoft Office, it is just as easy for an application to succumb to such bloat as it is for an operating system.
The bottom line, then, is that Hess chose the wrong target. It is not the operating systems that have failed. The failure lies with software developers (and probably their managers) who prefer to go after “the next cool thing” without ever taking the time to think about what users are actually doing and how those activities may be impacted (and usually impeded) by the narrowness of vision that plagues the development process.