Tipping point: The Web is easier to use than your hard drive

Tipping point: The Web is easier to use than your hard drive

Summary: Via Dave Winer, I found this blog entry by Don Park that questions the complexity of today's windowing operating systems.  Park's observations exactly mirror what's going on not just in my household, but whenever I'm asked to help a friend or neighbor.

TOPICS: Browser

Via Dave Winer, I found this blog entry by Don Park that questions the complexity of today's windowing operating systems.  Park's observations exactly mirror what's going on not just in my household, but whenever I'm asked to help a friend or neighbor. Referring to the icon for Microsoft's Internet Explorer's, I've been asked by at least two people "Why is that an 'E' when it stands for the Web?." Can you imagine such a blasphemous question being asked in Redmond? Shock? Awe? They (the people who ask such questions) are right though.  It reminds me of how confused I was the first time I drove a SAAB.  Only some of the icons on the buttons in the cockpit made sense to me.  Windows of course isn't alone in this affliction.  As if all XML on the Internet was created equal, most of the orange buttons plastered all over the Web that say "XML" actually stand for "RSS."  ZDNet? Guilty. Anyway, what caught my eye about Park's blog entry wasn't what he said, but rather, one of the points made by Phil Jones who commented (excerpt):

Here's the amazing thing : there are about 8 billion pages accessable through the browser. And not one of them is that difficult to get to. (Assuming you find links going there.)....How many OSs and desktop applications have 8 billion options and functions? Yet, access to these is through a bewildering variety of different methods : menus and submenus, button-bars, wizards, right-click on the icon to change configuration options, hidden XML configuration files, command line arguments.

I couldn't agree more (oh, and by the way, where the Web *is* right clickable, it's usually to adapt it to our desktops). 

So, if we must have thick clients (big if), what could we do to make them little more than extensions of the Web (especially since HTML is kind of hard to author)? Given the way wikis make child's play out of Web authoring (and the emergence of applications like WikiCalc), instead of a desktop operating system, how about a Wiki Operating System.  Call it WikiOS (WOS for short).

Topic: Browser

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  • Flawed analogy

    8 billion pages on the web does not equal 8 billion different features or options in software. It means 8 billion files.

    You could get to 8 billion different files on your computer just as easily. Assuming they were somehow linked to one another (a nice little caveat the commenter put in and you didn't catch).

    The only option the web, as a whole, gives is navigation, and even it doesn't work very well.
    • Not exactly

      The web is not like 8 billion files. Many of those "files" are really live applications. Amazon, eBay, Google, comments on ZDNet blogs, buying tickets to a local concert put on by a non-profit, Bloglines, etc., etc. The web gives us navagation to static applications (static web pages) and live applications. Those applications seem to work well when we use the common UIs (see Jakob Nielsen on this) and most people don't have problems doing something on a web site they've never visited before. And, more so, with a little bit of helper applications on the client (that we don't really interface with that much in many cases) clicking on many links gets us audio, video, and more.

      By the way, linking (not shortcuts that sit by themselves) is a very important property of the web and distinguishes it from most files.

      -Dan Bricklin
  • Gee, I have no problem with shortcuts

    On the desk top, do you???
    • The only time I use shortcuts...

      is when I download something and save it to the desktop. And even then, now that I use Firefox, I usually open it from Firefox's download dialog box instead. To open applications, I almost exclusively use the the single click icons in Windows taskbar. Opening/Saving files that are buried on my hard drive is generally done through the applications that can access/create them. Quite honestly, my desktop is obscured by appiclication Windows 99.99 percent of the time. So, I don't have a problem with desktop shortcuts. I just never use them (or the desktop).

      • Your right but not always

        Currently, I would not be able to tell you what is on my desktop. I never see it, there is always 5 to 10 windows open before I get to see the desktop.

        When I look at what many office users do(who are not power users like almost all ZDnet readers) they behave very differently.

        They dont minimize, they close the windows. Even when they are just opening a new app for a few second or mere minutes, they close their word or excel app, do the stuff in the other app and then reopen the first app.

        That's what they do, always, even when we show them the benefits of multitasking. They get confused when 3 windows are openned, and I have seen many frozen when confronted with more than 5 windows.

        I think there is a great usability issue there to analyse.
      • The the argument could be made that I don't use

        available hyperlinks and prefer to Google every site I ever visit.

        Seems a bit silly to me but your mileage may vary...
    • Desktop?

      Get with the times, just keep an icon for your application or file in
      the dock.
      tic swayback
    • I use a Win 3.11 style of organization, works very well

      My desktop icons are hidden (install apps insisted on taking it over), and my Start menu is a mile long. I use neither.

      Basically, I've put an icon on my Quick Launch bar that opens up a folder that [b]I[/b] have organized with shortcuts to all of my applications. They're nicely organized into different folders. I've got one folder for games, one folder for paint/3D apps, one folder for application development tools, one folder for Internet development tools, etc. All nice and neat - nothing's more than one subfolder away.

      Let me put this bluntly:

      Windows does a [b]horrible[/b] job at organizing applications. The Start Menu is the epitimy of horrible organization: Everything is dumped into one place, the "All Programs" menu. No organization into groups at all. It's all one huge, long list that exceeded my screen size a long time ago. One wonders why [i]anybody[/i] would think that this was an improvement over Windows 3.11. In my opinion it's a step backwards, not forwards.
      • Highlights a lot of problems, actually

        I do a similar thing, I have my start menu organized by function (Communications, Multimedia, Programming, Web Development, etc.). This is the reason why Microsoft was (originally) going to not have any shortcuts/icons on the XP desktop, they recognized that people were using it as a dumping ground for program shortcuts and documents, thinking that it was "easier" but actually making a giant mess that was impossible to find anything in.

        The biggest advance that has been made in terms of document organization is the "My Documents" directory with built-in, appropriate sub-directories. I'm happy to see that even game developers are starting to put my saved games in there, it certainly makes moving to a new computer much easier.

        The problem with the Start menu is Microsoft's problem. If you look at a fresh XP installation, it is neatly organized by program function (not quite the same categories that I would use, but the concept is right). The problem is all of the application developers who insist on shoving their shortcuts into [Company Name]\Product Name, instead of, say, Accessories\Communications or \Games. That's the real problem.

        Yes, Windows has usability issues, and Microsoft is aware of them and has been making efforts to correct them. Look at what they are trying to do with the new Office, find a way to make the bazillion functions of each software visible at the right times, so users actually use the functions. What a great idea!

        The solution isn't to make the OS more like the Web. Indeed, the Web isn't so hot either. At least with my OS, I don't need to type in the name of every drive or directory I want to access first, unless I want to manually add it to an ever growing list of poorly named directories (which is exactly what bookmarking is, too many websites have vague titles on their pages, the default name used for bookmarks). I know too many people who use a search engine, and search for "zdnet" or "myspace" to get to those websites. That shows just how unusable the web is too, and not just with web browsers.

        There are huge amounts of research out there showing just how unusable the web is, and it is primarily due to web designers, just as much of the unusability of an OS falls on the shoulders of application designers. Too many websites, even without "application-esque" capability, are extremely unusable. The last thing anyone needs is their OS to emulate the web. Just as it's incredibly unusable when a webdesigner changes the scrollbar size/colors, it breaks the Web interface just as badly as when an application developer does the same.

        What we need are better usability guidelines, and developers who follow them, not more paradigms to follow.

        Justin James
  • Desktop Apps Could Be Made Easier

    I agree that desktop apps could learn quite a bit from web-based apps. I think Windows Vista?s ability to allow you search for an application, by typing in the name or a portion of name, is good step in the direction of allowing users to gain direct access to software functionality. I believe likewise, desktop apps should allow users to search for functionality within an application using a search feature. A user could therefore type in ?print envelope? into a search feature in a word processing program, and a listing of related functions would appear. The user could then select one of the items, and this would bring up a dialog box that executes the function. (Note: each item listed could also have a help option beside it, which provides step-by-step instructions on how to use the function to carry out a task.)
    P. Douglas
  • No comparison whatsoever

    Mr. Berlind is definitely on the mark when it comes to OS complexity. There are too many functions in an OS which don't get used because they are hard to find, and even the ones that users can find are difficult to get to work right for the average users.

    However, comparing the web to an operating system is an incrediblt invalid analogy. Well over 95% of the time, there is only one real choice to choose from when it comes to a link on a web page: click it, or not click it. An earlier commeter is correct, all the web is, is a humongous, distributed file system. But with the files on my computer, I have many choices: open file, delete file, rename file, move file, copy file, execute file, and so on. With the web, my choices really is to just open the file. Occasionally I will save the file. Even the right-click functions are simply variants on opening the file: open file, open in new window, open in new tab, save file to disk, print file.

    A better comparison between an OS and the web is an AJAX application, and even that is a poor comparison. An AJAX application is just that: an application. Compare an AJAX applciation to the application is emulates/relaces, and you will see that it is no easier or harder to use, as long as they have similar feature sets (that is important, since many, if not most AJAX apps implement only a small subset of a desktop application's functionality).

    The best analogy I can think of, is comparing an operating system to the highway system. It can take you anywhere you want to go, within reason (I'm not going to drive to Singapore, for example, just as I'm not going to run a web host on Windows Me), but how you get there is up to you. If you get stuck in traffic or lost, that isn't really the interstate's fault, is it? You didn't read the signs.

    Indeed, the market has shown, quite explicitly, that it does NOT want their OS to emulate the web experience. Active Desktop was a flop, and no one wanted to switch to using single-clicks to open/execute. The Mac has been villified for years for the single mouse button. When right-clicking became common in Windows 95, it was immediately widely adopted, because for applications that do more than one thing to any given entity, it was better to right click than to have to use a keyboard modifier or a menu bar.

    Justin James
  • Remember IE 1-3? The icon was the earth with a magnifying glass (NT)

  • Yes!

    This is <em>so</em> right : "Given the way wikis make child's play out of Web authoring (and the emergence of applications like WikiCalc), instead of a desktop operating system, how about a Wiki Operating System. Call it WikiOS (WOS for short)."

    I've been thinking along these lines for some time ( http://www.nooranch.com/synaesmedia/wiki/wiki.cgi?ProgrammingWithAndInWiki ) and it's one of the guiding ideas behind something I've been playing with (screencasts here : http://www.nooranch.com/sdidesk/wiki/wiki.cgi/ScreenCasts )