Will the Mobile User Interface Overtake the Desktop?

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In the October 2011 Wired, Steven Levy writes about how the scroll bar has disappeared in Apple’s latest desktop operating system, code-named Lion.  Instead of using a mouse to point and drag to move the page up and down, Lion changes the metaphor into a two-fingered multi-touch movement, similar to the move used on your smartphone or tablet.  Is this the beginning of a fundamental change in the way we interact with office based computers? Will the mouse disappear next?  How will all of this impact enterprise computing?

The GUI is 40 Years Old

My first exposure to the windows-icons-mouse-pointer (WIMP) graphical user interface was when my dad brought home a Lisa in the early 80s. I don’t really remember my reaction, probably because I was still attempting to conquer the Apple ][. But given the market’s reaction, we weren’t ready for the GUI yet.  Heck, my dad’s main work computer was a TI terminal with an acoustic coupler!

Credit for the invention of the GUI is usually credited to several computer scientists working at the XEROX PARC lab and their Alto computer.  However the mouse itself and some other precursors to the GUI were pioneered at the Stanford Research Institute led by Doug Englebart.  The mouse was first introduced at a conference in 1968 - the full set of demo videos are still available.

Later, I had on opportunity to work with early commercial version of X Windows/Xt and Windows 1.0 (around 1983/84).  Each experience really made me appreciate all of the behind the scenes logic required to convert user actions into something meaningful and how powerful the WIMP model is to knowledge work.

As the GUI evolved largely through Microsoft and Apple (with a little Unix X/Xt and OS/2 thrown in for good measure) it became a mainstay on our corporate desktops.  Now, with the explosion of smarthphone and tablet interfaces, will the corporate desktop begin to adopt some of these new UI interaction styles? Or will we continue to see the GUI slowly evolve on its current trajectory?

Experiment with New User Interface Paradigms

It’s not clear to me how much of an impact Lion’s UI changes will have on Apple’s future OS and those from Microsoft.  However, given the proliferation of iPads, a surging Microsoft mobile OS, a new Apple iOS announcement and global growth of Android smartphones and tablets, I don’t think we can ignore the changing UI in the enterprise. Many of us are playing catchup on the mobile OS/UI front now, so it could be a good idea to start experimenting with the impacts on the desktop too.  Some things you could try are:

  1. Use an iPad as an extended/second monitor and experiment with finger control for some apps, maybe those with case files or images
  2. Experiment with an external pen input device for document editing and markup applications
  3. If you are feeling really adventurous, look into some augmented reality interface prototypes based on the Wii or Micosoft’s Kinect (you will need a little imagination to apply this to your business context)

I’m interested to hear how you think the user interfaces will change in your company and what you are doing to learn more.

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  • The mobile / touch interface is great for interacting with information at a high level, but as you drill down into the details, a more precise manipulation is often necessary.   I think that at least for the near term, we’ll see a hybrid approach, much like Microsoft is taking with Windows 8.  When using daily tasks, Windows will rely on the Metro UI to display live tiles that provide a summary view (number of emails, weather, stock quotes, etc.).   However, as you want to get into more detailed interactions, Windows will fall back to the more traditional desktop interface.  

    In corporate environments, this paradigm applies as well.  On a regular basis, many executives are only looking for a high level dashboard type view, and may want to drill down to one or two levels of granularity, which can be easily accomplished via a touch interface.  For detailed number crunching, a more traditional mouse based interaction will be appropriate.

  • Paul Morgan

    There is an obvious rush to augmented reality, and having a realtime AR feed to a pair of glasses opens up lots of advertising opportunities for Google/Bing etc. The challenge will be to come up with a user input interface to this, so that the user does not look silly stood in the street or look like they are fiddling with their glasses (or worse, pockets). I think the gesture interface is going to have to improve.

  • Nice piece, Chris.  Thanks for the link to Englebart’s demo.  Alan Kay has always called it the “mother of all demos,” which is saying a lot coming from Alan.  My guess is that UI interfaces will diverge due to function, not just form factor—e.g., information consumption, deep data analytics, knowledge work, etc.  In some cases, form factor will dominate, such as voice input on small devices.  In larger form factors, function will dominate.  The iPad and iPhone gave everyone else license to break out of the windows and mouse, which should drive a lot of innovation.