Desktops of the Future

Anthony Trollope, the Victorian novelist, invented a box with a sloping hinged lid which was his “travel desk”. The surface he wrote upon was clearly his desktop.

I have two desktops. They are at right angles to each other. One is littered with papers, books, CDs, a phone, a stapler, several pens, a box of business cards, etc. The other one has four rectangular work areas (called “windows”) and toolbars.

I'm not sure that the “virtual desktop” is my desktop at all.

On the other hand, Anthony Trollope, the Victorian novelist, invented a box with a sloping hinged lid which was his “travel desk”. The surface he wrote upon was clearly his desktop.

In his seminal article “As we may think” (Atlantic Monthly, January 1945), Vannevar Bush described Memex: a desktop personal computer. At that point, there was no electrical or electronic computer in existence. Thirty years later, we were on the brink.

Forty years later, in 1985, you could buy a Macintosh, an Apple, a Kaypro, and several versions of the IBM PC (AT or XT). I recall being amazed at the four-inch screen on the Osborne. The MacSE I bought early in 1987 had a 40MB hard disk.

Over this past decade, the concepts of locational computing, the size of hardware, and the necessity for cables have undergone a tremendous metamorphosis. The computer itself has shrunk from many tons to a few ounces. Cellular phones and infrared have cut into the wires; with that cut, the location of a computer is no longer fixed in any way.

Palm Pilots and notebooks of under three kg are ubiquitous.

So Where Will We Go?

We've got the size problem licked, and wires are on their way to vanishing. The actual power problem (battery weight and durability) remains with us. Still, we are well on the way to the Dick Tracy wrist radio—which we might think of as a “Wrist Pilot”.

But stop!

The MacSE didn't run windows. You could have more than one file open at a time, but the one you were working on sat on top, and keeping more than a few items open meant your machine ran very s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y. But I loved that trash can in the corner.

It was W, then X, that taught us about multiple windows, and versions of SunOS and DOS in the middle and late '80s that brought home the notion of reliable GUIs (the first GUI I actually used was that of the Apple Lisa in 1983). Motif and the Motif Window Manager came out a decade ago in 1989/90.

Could I actually put multiple windows on something the size of a Palm Pilot? Not if I want to read what's written. How about alternate screens, like on the old IBM PCs? Possibly.

Voice input? Sure. We've come a long way in the last 35 years, but we're not there yet.

Voice output? We're a long way from HAL.

I've been told that most folks want editing capabilities, e-mail, a spreadsheet and a database. None of those take up much disk space, and none needs much more space than the 5x7x1-inch spiral-bound notebook I use when traveling. That's the sort of workspace I want.

Add cellular phone capability, and I can use voice and also browse the Web. I'll bet Motorola, Ericsson and Nokia are working on that already. However, although I'd like to say that a three-inch diagonal screen would do, I think the minimum we'll find usable is 2.5x3.125 (6.3cm x 7.8cm), with a diagonal of four inches (10.16cm).

The shape and flexibility may change, but what it's used for doesn't change as rapidly. Business letters have been around for over 4000 years; double-entry bookkeeping was invented during the Renaissance.

Cell phone, e-mail, appointment book, phone and e-mail directories, memos, database, spreadsheet. And under a pound (450 gm). I'll take two, please. And an extra battery pack.

Peter H. Salus, the author of A Quarter Century of UNIX and Casting the Net, is Editorial Director of SSC. He can be reached at peter@usenix.org.

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