The way users interact with computers -- which has changed little since Apple rolled out the Macintosh and Microsoft stretched Windows over DOS -- is about to undergo a face lift. The transformation, which is being led by big vendors such as Microsoft and Netscape as well as an expanding cast of start-ups, promises to replace the classic Windows-style UI paradigm with Web-style interfaces, voice interaction, and new, associative ways of organising documents and other content. As a result, corporate IT managers will soon be able to more easily customise UIs for specific groups of users.
That's good news for IT managers, who are already seeing their users spend more and more time gliding through enterprise wide intranets, where they're becoming accustomed to using intuitive browsers to retrieve data. "The PC is just too hard to deal with. That is a fact," said Frank Hensen, director of IS operations at Dallas-based LTC Inc. "So anything that can be done to make that easier ... I am in favour of."
Not surprisingly, the Web is driving the first phase of the UI make-over. In Windows 98, Microsoft is merging the Windows UI with the Web browser. Windows 98 and its Active Desktop, due in two weeks, go well beyond simple browser integration. Active Desktop enables users to access Web sites and local applications from the same Web-like interface. With it, Web sites are no longer separate items. Rather, they are included in everything from saved folders to the computer file structure.
Likewise, Netscape is working to make Windows more Web-like by adding a more searchable, Internet-based UI to Windows. Code-named Aurora and currently part of the Mozilla source code development effort, the technology is much like Microsoft's Active Desktop in that it enables users to display online content and local applications and documents together on a single UI.
But the "Webification" of Windows is just the beginning. Microsoft officials say Active Desktop is only the first example of how the software maker will continue to pluck the best features of the Web and, the federal government notwithstanding, "morph" them into future versions of Windows.
"This is a time of experimentation to find what works and what doesn't and if there is anything out there that is better than what we have today," said Joe Belifore, group program manager in charge of UI design at Microsoft.
Microsoft is also looking at new, Web-inspired ways to allow users to create active links between documents in Windows. Although Microsoft won't commit new UI functions to a specific release, it wants to enable operating system users to hyperlink to documents or applications much like they do on the Web with HTML documents.
"Users don't know on the Web that they went to a different Web site or different server when they click on a link. We are exploring how that might be possible on the PC as well," said Steve Capps, a Microsoft UI architect.
Microsoft is investigating how it can use natural language processing to improve how the operating system and applications interact. The goal is to equip the operating system with natural language capabilities that would enable it to act as an intermediary between applications, launching, say, a personal information manager when an e-mail message requesting a meeting is received.
And, like IBM and other key vendors, Microsoft is investing in turning speech into a mainstream user interface medium.
As Microsoft evolves Windows, a handful of start-ups may well be leading the way in bringing the new UI into focus.
This week, a Seattle-based company called The Pixel Co. will debut technology that allows users to easily bypass Windows in favour of custom-built UIs. In the company's product, called MySpace, the control bar uses, for the first time, the 25 pixels that make up the border between today's Windows interface and the edge of a screen display. Unlike other shortcut navigation products, MySpace does not run on Windows. It is written directly to the video chip itself and is launched at the same time as Windows. An animated, rotating channel bar remains on the bottom of a user's screen and has the ability to provide quick, direct access to applications, online content or other operating systems.
For example, if a user clicks on a button that says "JavaOS," MySpace launches JavaOS and pushes Windows out of the way--dropping the user into a new operating system and a new UI. If a user were to launch a Web site, the user would be sent directly to that site, launching along the way whatever browser the user wanted.
The first release of MySpace will be tailored to Packard Bell computers that will ship in the third quarter. This fall, Pixel will release a version that will be distributed by online content partners and can be downloaded by users, said Tim O'Rourke, the company's president and CEO. O'Rourke said he has also signed distribution deals with several other PC makers.
Other start-ups, including Natrificial Software Technologies LLC and Digital Harbor, also have new products that sit on top of Windows and give corporate IT departments the flexibility to create their own customisable UIs, in some cases using speech as the input method for interacting with a PC.
Natrificial has designed a UI called The Brain, which acts as a shell that sits on top of Windows and allows users to customise local and online content and applications and to organise everything in expandable organisational charts dubbed "brains." While not without its kinks, The Brain represents a new way of organising and presenting content to the desktop.
Digital Harbor on the other hand, has created a technology called WorkSpace NG that is designed to let corporate IT departments create their own customised desktop out of JavaBeans.
Capable of running on top of any Java Virtual Machine 1.1-compatible operating system or virtual machine, WorkSpace NG is a JavaBean container that requires 477KB of space with a 150KB interface file. Developers can create any combination of JavaBeans to build the UI and can also use the FolderBay GUI service that is provided by WorkSpace NG to create tool bars. The JavaBeans can be locally self-contained or connected to back-end systems that support the Enterprise JavaBean or other Java back-end applications. If driven by Enterprise JavaBeans, the server would launch the GUI. If the JavaBeans are stored locally, they enable the dynamic creation of the GUI.
Not all IT managers are ready to junk the Windows-style UI and assemble their own user interfaces just yet. Some, in fact, see a significant risk in doing so too soon.
"Yes, we want to see improvements. But they have to be done in a controlled fashion," said Chuck Timpson, a desktop administrator for more than 3,000 desktops at a major Southern distribution company. "Otherwise, you will see a major training and support issue creep up inside the corporate world."
Still, many managers say it's high time for the monolithic Windows-style interface to take on a new, more flexible image. "Technology is simply there to help us do our jobs," said John Peetz, chief knowledge officer at Ernst & Young, in New York. "Web technologies are good for some things ... but not for others. We need it all, and we demand it all. And we expect that a lot of these technologies will merge."