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Reprinted from MacUser 12/88, column “The devil’s advocate,” pp. 374.

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The desktop metaphor. That’s what the Macintosh opening screen and interface is based on. That’s what everyone says, anyway. By definition a metaphor refers only to words and not to computer images, so I think the term is misused. Symbolic desktop may be more appropriate, but who said anyone at Apple was literate? Besides that, definitions change with usage, so desktop metaphor it is.

The idea is that the desktop is represented on the screen, You’ve got your file folders and trash bin, and you shuffle them around. The metaphor, as it were, doesn’t go much farther than that. So why can’t people come up with anything different when it comes to a Mac-like graphical interface running on some other system?

It’s interesting to note that the Mac-like GEM interface used by Atari and others did little more than change the interface by turning file folders into drawers and the waste can into a waste basket. Meanwhile, Apple sued Hewlett-Packard for its New Wave interface, which is a hopeless copy of the Mac desktop metaphor.

Is there any creativity out there at all? I sat down with a few friends and developed a dozen ideas for new metaphors. Coming up with substitutes for the garbage can is the easiest thing to do. How about a garbage truck? You could add compaction sound effects and have it drive off when dumped. There’s also a flaming burn barrel; why not use that? What about a noisy garbage disposal? There are a million possibilities. Why do companies just copy the can? I mean you could have Jabba the Hut in the corner eating discarded data. Let’s get with it!

And what’s so damned sacrosanct about the desktop? Let’s think big. I like the idea of the oil-refinery metaphor. Instead of the waste can, how about a sludge treatment plant? Most bad software is sludge anyway. The programs can be represented by various refining units. Data and programs wouldn’t be kept in file folders, but in tanks. Get the idea?

How about a farm metaphor? The crops would replace the file folders. A goat would replace the garbage can. Here’s where the mouse would have new meaning. This is easy stuff to dream up.

My personal favorite is the cow metaphor. The programs and data would be represented by cud. Programs and data, if not used, would dribble into the various stomachs as a function of time. After they hit the fourth cow stomach they’d either have to be backed up or they’d be automatically digested and turned into manure. The manure would represent the garbage can and it could be recycled (saved) or discarded. This would be a self-cleaning system too. Let’s face it, most software and many files are often forgotten and never used after a while. Soon the entire system is clogged with stupid files you’ll never use. Disk space shrinks to nil.

This all happens because the system is not dynamic like a living cow. Instead, it’s a desktop! A desktop needs to be maintained. This takes work. Isn’t the computer supposed to relieve us of some of this nastiness? Well, the cow metaphor does it.

Now a lot of people will immediately perk up and suggest that the pig metaphor better suits many of the systems we are beginning to see. Unfortunately, the pig doesn’t have the stomach physiology of the cow and the potential use of the cud function makes the cow an ideal computer metaphor. A pig eats, rolls in mud, and defecates. Not much complexity there. Perhaps it would be OK on one of those archaic one-disk systems.

A cow moo for an error message and the cowbell startup sound would be a welcome relief in any office where employees are tired of hearing obnoxious beeps, boops, and blats. We haven’t even discussed the function of the cow’s udder and its milk-producing prowess. Files could be represented by bottles of milk.

The various parts of the cow can represent obvious functions. Click on the mouth, and you get your telecom files. Are you a programmer? Then click on the cow’s tail and get your debugging tools (think about it).

I honestly don’t believe that the boring desktop metaphor is in any way better than my cow metaphor. This is no bull.

The question falls back on the shoulders of Microsoft, HP, and other promoters of Mac-look-alike interfaces: Why copy an old idea when better solutions are available? Even on the Mac itself we have HyperCard, which tosses out the desktop metaphor in favor of a simplistic 3-×-5-card metaphor. It’s mundane when compared with the cow metaphor, but it sure outshines the uncreative stuff from the competition.

Perhaps these copycats should look in the mirror and, as uncreative followers of style, realize that they should develop a sheep metaphor. It’s goes “Baaaaaa” when you boot the machine. The programs are fleece (even though it’s usually the user who is fleeced by programs), and the discards are put into a little sweater that is being knit in the corner.

Let’s not forget the dog and cat metaphor, lemmings, pack rats, horses, snakes, dung beetles, and jackasses. An argument can be made for each one of these critters as a metaphor to replace the desktop. Maybe all of them! They sure symbolize many of the human critters we run into in the world of high technology. And that, my friend, ain’t no bull either.

by John C. Dvorak

Page added on 6th October 2006.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.