The Future Of Desktop Computing (Yes, There Is One)

July 17, 2012 by  
Filed under Every thing you Need to Know

This post originally appeared on O’Reilly Radar (“A reduced but important future for desktop computing“). It’s republished with permission.

By Jenn Webb

Josh Marinacci (@joshmarinacci), blogger and co-author of “Swing Hacks,” sees a near-term future where the majority of computer users will be served by mobile devices, but advanced users — the 10% who need power, speed and UI flexibility — will continue to rely on a desktop experience. in the following interview, Marinacci discusses the mobile transition and what it means for desktop devices and software.

One of your upcoming OSCON sessions will explore how future desktop applications may no longer be the default, but they’ll still be important to advanced users — who are these advanced users?

Josh Marinacci: I think that in less than a decade, 90% of people will use a smartphone or tablet as their primary computing interface. they might have some shared computer with a keyboard for when they need to type in a long essay, but almost all of their time will be spent on these smaller devices. It will simply meet their needs better than a traditional PC. (When I say “PC,” I mean desktops and laptops with a traditional OS, like Windows or Mac OS X or Linux).

However, the remaining 10% need something more. These are the people whose jobs are to create and process significant amounts of information. think designers, software engineers, project managers, pro photographers, professional authors, etc. These people need the physical assets of a traditional computer: high-speed input and output through a large monitor and physical keyboard. they also need the processing power and UI flexibility provided by a traditional desktop OS. It would seem like a lot of people should fall into this category, but I really think it’s only about 10%. Most people will be better served by things like iPads.

How will current desktop applications need to change to accommodate advanced users?

Josh Marinacci: The needs of users, as well as the computational power of our computers, has grown tremendously over the past few decades. Desktop interfaces, however, haven’t changed since the mid-’90s because most of the industry’s focus has been on mobility and the web. I want to see that change.

I think there are three core places where current interfaces fail: customization, automation, and scaling to large amounts. Advanced users need to customize their tools to efficiently handle workflows. The few attempts at interface customization, like the toolbar in MS Office, have failed miserably. I think we need some new approaches to the problem.

Automation seems like a given. once a user has customized the interface to do particular tasks, they will likely benefit from making those tasks repeatable. Sadly, almost no software does this outside of the programming domain. Adobe’s Creative Suite and MS Office have almost no support for automation outside of complex macros, which require a full understanding of programming to be effective. Mac OS X’s Automator seems promising, but Apple is moving away from it with the new locked-down Mountain Lion OS X.

Finally, the core interfaces of desktop GUIs — lists, folders, and buttons — simply don’t scale to the massive amounts of information the modern desktop user has to process. probably the best example of an app that tackles the problem is iTunes. The average user’s music library is far too big to effectively manage as files, so iTunes has to introduce essentially a baby version of SQL for creating saved searches. I suspect we will see more interfaces along these lines.

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