Once upon a time, when computer operating systems learned to multi-task, their basic user interfaces started to reflect this ability: applications now ran simultaneously in a number of windows that could be freely opened, closed, moved around and resized on the screen. This was (an important aspect of what is) called “the desktop metaphor”.
Always-visible gadgets like “task bars”, “docks” and “menu bars” were introduced for basic tasks like managing open windows and opening new ones.
It took for the advent of super-user-friendly mobile devices (limited multitasking ability, limited screen space) for developers to notice that unlike modern desktop computers, people aren’t actually very good at multitasking. At least for the tasks they do with mobile devices, people are perfectly happy with only having one window, or menu, open at a time.
This trend is now coming to the desktop computer. Apple recently announced a new release of Mac OS X, explicitly stating that many of the new features are inspired by the iPhone and the iPad. The most striking one is Launchpad. It is nothing more than a menu of all available applications, but one that takes up the whole screen. Together with Dashboard and Exposé (now called Mission Control), that’s quite a long list of special-purpose full-screen gadgets taking over window managing/application launching functions traditionally fulfilled by task bars etc. And together with Mac OS X’s new full-screen apps (not quite your traditional maximized windows), it quite clearly marks a turn toward a one-window-is-visible-at-a-time principle.
A similar thing is going on in GNOME Shell. They are cramming everything for which there used to be panels and menus into one full-screen view called Activities, including Exposé-like overviews of the desktop(s). If the multitude of full-screen gadgets in Mac OS X seems confusing, the GNOME approach of cramming so many things into one full-screen view seems bizarre. If upon clicking a button with the ultimate goal of, say, firing up the calculator, the contents of the whole screen change and hide my currently open windows, I consider this a high price to pay. In return, there should at least be a gain in focus, as with the Mac OS X gadgets, each of which shows more or less one kind of thing only.
So what is a desktop environment developer to do if she really wants to advance the state of the art instead of just haphazardly introducing new misfeatures (or taking it slow with moving away from the traditional desktop metaphor, as Microsoft does)? Is there a happy medium between overview and focus? Bear with me for Part 2: The Glorious Future.