Roben Kleene

On New Paradigms

Ink & Switch has a great in-depth study of a prototype iPad app they’ve developed:

Muse is a prototype iPad app for reading, thinking, and developing your ideas. Starting with inspiration from physical workspaces, it tries to be a repository for your creative inputs; helps you see and connect all your raw material to make new creative leaps; and enables active reading of PDFs and other media via annotations and excerpting. All of this is in a fast, fluid user interface to create a sense of empowerment and excitement for you as a creative person.

The app uses a zooming user interface. One of the most exciting aspects of the mobile era is how it has lead us to re-evaluate many paradigms we’ve taken for granted, starting with the WIMP user interface. While some of these changes have been successful, such as the “app-centric” nature of iOS1, what has been more remarkable to me is how resilient many of our paradigms have turned out to be.

At the heart of so many of the debates raging over the pros and cons of macOS vs. iOS, open vs. closed, file-centric vs. app-centric, stacking vs tiling, there’s a deeper philosophical question: How did we arrive at our current paradigms? Was it because of their innate superiority? Or was it just an accident of history?

The important thing to recognize is that for the most part the ideas aren’t new. The first instance of a zooming user interface was in 19622, and both the Xerox Star, from 19813, and the first version of Microsoft Windows4, in 1985, used tiling window managers.

If you’re advocating for the iOS way of doing things it’s important to ask why this paradigm didn’t win out in the first place? And what’s changed that makes it better now?

  1. When the iPhone finishes starting up, you see SpringBoard, your apps, whereas when you startup a Mac you see your desktop, your files. That’s the fundamental difference between an app- and file-centric OS. ↩︎

  2. Wikipedia on the first ZUI: “Ivan Sutherland presented the first program for zooming through and creating graphical structures with constraints and instancing, on a CRT in his Sketchpad program in 1962.” ↩︎

  3. Wikipedia on the Xerox Star’s TWM: “The first Xerox Star system (released in 1981) tiled application windows, but allowed dialogs and property windows to overlap.” ↩︎

  4. Wikipedia on the TWM in Microsoft Windows 1.0: “The first version (Windows 1.0) featured a tiling window manager, partly because of litigation by Apple claiming ownership of the overlapping window desktop metaphor. But due to complaints, the next version (Windows 2.0) followed the desktop metaphor. All later versions of the operating system stuck to this approach as the default behaviour.” ↩︎