Blogger: Larry Cannell
Not too long ago we were introduced to the Apple iPad, and this week we saw a glimpse of Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 operating system. One of the most interesting aspects of the ultra-competitive mobile device market is the innovation it is driving in user interface design. It was enlightening to read in the New York Times that Microsoft is using the development of their latest phone operating system to take a fresh approach:
“Microsoft’s executives called the software a departure from traditional PC software, saying past fixations on Windows traditions had stifled the company”
In observing the changes the latest generation of mobile devices are enabling, Stowe Boyd recently made a similar reference to past approaches.
“But the thing that is blocking us from moving forward, to a better user experience centered on social interaction and not physical data, are the existing metaphors of OS's. Since we are living in a world of general purpose computers running Unix, Mac OS, and Windows -- and we need to have them interoperate -- we seem stuck in the 90's.
“To have a break with the past, and to make the past a platform, we have to push it under and not pretend that its constructs are desirable. We need to push files, folders and the notion of a desktop under the surface of a better user experience, and keep it under. Let a new generation of user experience shield us from that drudgery and detail.
“The only way forward is to build a new user experience on top of the physical hardware and software that form a platform for it, and conceal it's nasty details from us.
“This is one aspect of the genius of the iPhone and iPad generation of devices: we don't need to know about the files and folders. We don't need a desktop with data bundles lying in piles.”
I couldn’t agree more. Two years ago I wrote something similar regarding the file/folder user interfaces that dominate enterprise desktops, entitled I Hate Files:
“I don’t even want files. What I want is the information stored in a file. I want documents… you know, reports, analysis, recommendations, etc. Files are overhead. Computers are supposed to take care of overhead.”
So I have been thinking about files and documents lately and I have come to the conclusion that our reliance on the computer file as the primary structure for storing our digital "stuff" is hurting us in ways we cannot see. This is holding us back from realizing truly breakthrough capabilities.”
Disruptive events, such as the introduction of new mobile user interfaces, are opportunities for us to rethink the metaphors that dominate our assumptions; especially those that influence how we interact with information and how work is done. In particular, a “document” does not need to be stored in a file (which is organized in folders and edited with specialized applications), in the same sense that a mobile device does not need to use application or file icons as its primary user interface. In my opinion, documents stored in files are black holes of information. They are hard to share (people take personal ownership in files) and require far too much overhead to manage.
Online productivity suites, like those provided by Google Docs or Zoho, are one approach that might break us free of the constraints of the documents-as-files metaphor. Wikis are another. But neither of these approaches has taken the enterprise IT market by a storm, so I’m sure there still more approaches that may be effective. Google Wave’s stream of information and ability to support multiple authors is another approach that is worth watching.
Even Microsoft (although a company seemingly motivated to propagate the documents-as-files metaphor) seems to be grappling with how workers manage documents with forthcoming web versions of Office 2010, the “enterprise wiki” site template in SharePoint 2010, and the introduction of “Document Libraries” (made up of multiple folders) in recent versions of Windows.
But these measures are band-aids, at best. The promise of large scale creation and collaboration around content (while also meeting the information management needs of large enterprises) has mostly been unfulfilled. What we need is the emergence of a market disturbance (like what the iPhone has done for the mobile device space) that stimulates Microsoft (and other large enterprise vendors) to come to the realization that the existing documents-as-files path is no longer sufficient and they need to “start over” (like Microsoft said they did with Windows Phone 7).
Meanwhile, a good start towards realizing a better future for online enterprise collaboration is to focus on what information is needed by workers to get their jobs done and not just focusing on managing or sharing files.