Let's Not Declare Desktops Dead Just Yet

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The release of Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system is a good time to have a discussion about the overhyped death of the desktop environment. If you're not yet familiar with the qualities of Windows 8, it's the first operating system designed from the core to be both a touchscreen operating system and also a traditional GUI driven operating system.

I don't know about you, but this sounds like a classic "a camel is a horse designed by a committee" type of scenario. The way you interact with a touchscreen is vastly different than the way you interact with a mouse and a desktop environment. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen has written a blistering assessment of the vast shortcomings of the new Microsoft operating system in his November 19, 2012 AlertBox publication.

I've been hearing for some time now that tablets and smartphones will take over the world and indeed these mobile computing devices appear to be in the driver seat and are growing more dominant everyday. If you're only a typical user of computers, it be very easy to imagine the day when the only laptop or desktop that you'd ever see would be in a museum. Personally, I can't ever imagine giving up desktop GUI environments and I believe that it's way too early to be saying that the mobile Web is putting an end to websites and website design as we know it.

In his overview of Windows 8, Jakob Nielsen brings up the concept of low information density versus high information density. Mobile apps and websites are characterized by having low information density, that is the interfaces are very spacious in its use of background space so you don't have very complex text layouts. Now, before I start to sound like an Internet 1.0 blow hard who's not ready to give up his NCSA Mosaic web browser and those annoying blink tags, let me say that I find the emergence of low information density designs to be a very refreshing and welcome trend. It's just that there is a point of diminishing return in which lack of clutter becomes counterproductive by forcing you to commit some of your navigation options to memory or forces you to navigate excessively to find what you're looking for.

The web design mantra of yesterday was to abolish as many clicks as possible. Clicks were bad because for every click that you made your user make, there was a chance that the user would stop clicking and leave your website. I'm not sure if there is quite as dominant of a mantra for today's design wisdom, but it might be to not force your user to think. These two mantras embody the mindsets of low information density versus high information density and both are flawed when taken to extremes.

The problem I have with seeing a world in which all of our computing is done on a mobile device is that mobile computing is dominated by small interfaces with small screens, a stark contrast to the trend of the previous decade of screens getting bigger and bigger. So far, mobile devices have been able to make their limited screen space count by coming up with intuitive and easy ways to navigating using touch gestures, but there's only so far you can take virtual interfaces on such small screens.

A lot of people will certainly be happy with their small screens and limited interfaces, but the more that touch screens take over, the more likely we'll see a growing number of power users discover the real value of desktop interfaces. I own an iPhone and an iPad and I rather like them very much, but when I really need to get something done and get it done right, there is no substitute for having my speedy Mac Pro with a 30 inch monitor available so I can run dozens of windows and processes at the same time without having to wait or swipe constantly to finish just one task. 

I don't see mobile devices getting to the point in which they'll be able to offer me the same depth of UI options as a desktop environment because there are limits to the size of a tablet device that people will find acceptable. It's not a lack of imagination or technology that will limit the ability of touch screen devices to become serious business machines, it's physics. We're just not going to be carrying around 20" tablet devices and as unsexy as they may seem, keyboards and physical input devices do matter.

Without the ability to evolve without boundaries to larger and larger screens, tablet computing will remain joined to requirements of low information density design and there is only so far you can go like that. Even if a 30" touch screen device could be made portable, my belief is that the way you interact with a device you hold or touch would still be vastly different. The original Microsoft Surface was not a tablet device, but a table device. It was a touch screen the size of a table with some very innovative imaginings for how it could transform the way we use high powered computing. I got a chance to play with one of those a few years ago at TechCrunch and even with all that screen space, it was such a different beast that I don't think its evolution would have ever met up in a happy medium with traditional GUI driven devices.

Jakob Nielsen's critiques of Windows 8 brings up very interesting insights into how differently we process our computing interfaces when we touch them vs when we navigate using input devices. The two are different enough that we may never see a true merging of desktops and touch screens in the foreseeable future. Our expectations for how a computer will respond to us is just different when we drive it through direct touch than when we navigate it with a mouse. That presents a problem and creates a divide between mobile design and Web design. 

While the future of mobile is bright, its limits will become evident in due time. Don't write off the humble desktop or websites just yet. 


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