The computer desktop is a faulty abstraction

In Windows 7, Microsoft has made further efforts to make the desktop more usable. There is a "peek" feature that makes all running applications temporarily transparent when you hover over the Show Desktop button. If you click the button the apps all minimize, so you can interact with the desktop, and if you click again they come back. Nice feature; but it cannot disguise the desktop’s inherent problems. Or should I say problem. The issue is that the desktop cannot easily be both the place where you launch applications, and the place where they run, simply because the running application makes the desktop partly or wholly inaccessible.

The Show Desktop button (sans Peek) is in XP and Vista too, and there is also the handy Desktop toolbar which makes desktop shortcuts into a Taskbar menu. All worthy efforts, which are workarounds for  the fact that having shortcuts and gadgets behind your running applications is a silly idea. The desktop is generally useful only once per session – when you start up your PC.

In this respect, the computer desktop differs from real desktops. Cue jokes about desks so cluttered that you cannot see the surface. Fair enough, but on my real desktop I have a telephone, I have drawers, I have an in-tray and out-tray, I have pen and paper, and all of these things remain accessible even though I’m typing. The on-screen desktop is a faulty abstraction.

The inadequacy of the desktop is the reason that the notification area (incorrectly known as the system tray) get so abused by app developers – it’s the only place you can put something that you want always available and visible. In Windows 7 the taskbar is taking on more characteristics of the notification area, with icons that you can overlay with activity indicators like the IE8 download progress bar.

It’s true that if you don’t run applications full-screen, then you can move them around to get desktop stuff into view. I find this rarely works well, because I have more than one application visible, and behind one application is another one.

Why then do OS designers persist with the desktop idea? It’s possibly because it makes users feel more comfortable. I suspect it is a Skeuomorph (thanks to Phil Thane for the word) – “a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues to structure that was necessary in the original”. An example is that early electric kettles retained a squat shape with a large base, even though the logical shape for an electric kettle is a slim jug, enabling small quantities of water to cover the element. The reason for the squat shape was to spread the heat when boiling water on a stove. It took years before “jug” kettles caught on.

It is better to call the computer desktop a workspace, and to forget the idea of putting shortcuts and gadgets onto it. Which reminds me: why does Windows still not surface multiple desktops (or workspaces) as is common on Linux, and also implemented in Mac OS X Leopard as Spaces?  Windows does have multiple desktops – you see one every time UAC kicks in with its permission dialog on Vista, or when using the Switch User feature – but they are not otheriwse available.

I’m also realising that sidebar gadgets were a missed opportunity in Vista. Microsoft made two big mistakes with the sidebar. The first was to have it stay in the background by default. Right-click the sidebar and check “Sidebar is always on top of other windows”. Then it makes sense; it behaves like the taskbar and stays visible. Not so good for users with small screens; but they could uncheck the box. I know; you don’t like losing the screen space. But what if the gadgets there were actually useful?

The other mistake was to release the sidebar with zero compelling gadgets. Users took a look, decided it was useless, and ignored or disabled it. That’s a shame, since it is a more suitable space for a lot of the stuff that ends up in the notification area. If Microsoft had put a few essentials there, like the recycle bin, volume control, and wi-fi signal strength meter; and if the Office team had installed stuff like quick access to Outlook inbox, calendar and alerts, then users would get the idea: this stays visible for a good reason.

In Windows 7, gadgets persist but the sidebar does not. Possibly a wrong decision, though apparently there is a hack to restore it. It’s not too late – Microsoft, how about an option to have the old sidebar behaviour back?

I’d also like a “concentrate” button. This would hide everything except the current application. Maximized applications would respond by filling the entire screen (no taskbar or sidebar), save for an “unconcentrate” button which would appear at bottom right. This would be like hanging “Do not disturb” outside your hotel room, and would suppress all but the highest priority notifications (like “your battery has seconds to live”).

My suggestion for Windows 8 and OS 11 – ditch the desktop, make it a workspace only. Implement multiple workspaces in Windows. And stop encouraging us to clutter our screens with desktop shortcuts which, in practice, are very little use.

4 thoughts on “The computer desktop is a faulty abstraction”

  1. OK, you’ve made me write one of these inane comments that merely say: “I completely agree” 🙂

  2. Hi Tim,

    He’s a better link regarding the tray misnomer: . Raymond Chen is a Microsoft stalwart who regularly blogs about these kinds of odd little things.

  3. A very good post with all good points.

    The problem with the desktop is the way users spit their metaphoric dummy/pacifiers out if something like that changes behavior.

    I was resistant myself to the change on the start menu with Vista. I was so used to spending 10 minutes finding the shortcut I wanted that I was stuck in denial that, in fact, its so much faster to type the name of what you want and have it show up in seconds. Now if me as a technical person had that problem, how does the average user respond?

    I have in fact been trying to convince my less technical friends that the new start menu is the best thing since sliced bread. They however just utter “I don’t like it” without bothering to try to get used to it.

    How can I convince them its all good?
    I myself only “got it” after using Linux extensively as my primary OS (I already had been used it for web development and router tasks for many years but rarely desktop use) as I was so used to running things from the terminal I found I couldn’t stand the chore of searching the start menu for the application link I wanted anymore.

    Yet, how many users even use the start menu? I think the majority use the desktop for the same speed reasons I like the new start menu. So you can see why changing the desktop is an even bigger issue for most people. No matter how cluttered it gets, most people seem to think the desktop is where “everything goes”.

    The number of times people get stuck because “its not on the desktop” baffles me. People still seem to be afraid that their PC will blow up if they click the wrong thing, when all it takes is to actually pay attention to what the computer tells you and always choose the NO option if in doubt, instead of YES which people seem to do because they convince themselves its all a lot more complicated than it really is. If people were more comfortable saying NO then they would no longer be as afraid of clicking the wrong option, as anything that can screw up the PC usually quite plainly asks you if you are sure you want to do it in the first place.

    I can only imagine how well the Windows 7 taskbar is going to go down with average users. Even I have switched the text back on, icons are just not intuitive enough and I keep getting caught out by window/desktop peek as I rollover to find the Window I want, think “thats the one” then immediately try to move the cursor into the Window to use it – then it disappears because DOH, I need to click the THUMBNAIL version first! I already think that is going to get old fast and I will be looking to change the default behavior or turning it off entirely if I can’t.

    However my biggest objection to the changes is the sidebar being taken away. What on earth were they thinking? I can only hope it will make a comeback at retail.

    I had JUST started to use the sidebar and write my own gadget for it on my new Vista laptop, only for them to take it away. I simply cannot imagine ANY gadget that is useful to have sat OVER the active window. I had always figured the point of the sidebar was to utilise the otherwise dead-space you have on a widescreen monitor, because the most common activities do not need all that horizontal resolution. So it makes perfect sense to steal 150 pixels of it and prevent Windows from maximising over it, so that you can always see your gadgets. Dead useful for e-mail reminders, eBay, RSS feeds, WiFi status, Battery status – all things you might want to keep an eye on without having to keep dedicated applications (such as your web browser) open for.

    As it stands in Windows 7 RC however the fact you can’t stop Windows maximising under/over your gadgets makes them useless or at the very least, they hinder what you are doing in your applications.

    For example in Firefox my gadget ends up sat over the search bar, minimise/maximise and close buttons. Sure there are keyboard shortcuts for those actions but even me, a technically minded person, neglect to use/remember them. Keyboard shortcuts are very much like the changes to the start menu for most users, they simply do not want to have to learn something new so if something hinders their ability to use the icons, they aren’t happy at all. Now sure, I can move my gadget further down but then things are even worse as then its sat over the scroll bar, again one of the most used part of the screen when browsing web pages. The scroll wheel is all very well but not everyone has one and it also causes major RSI/cramp if I use it too much, so I still like the click/drag the scroll bar a lot of the time.

    So you can see how even small changes can have a huge impact on most users, even when they aren’t deeply stupid changes like removing the sidebar. (which ironically probably wont effect most users as I think the majority of people turn it off because like you said, Microsoft did not exactly sell that feature well)

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