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Getting the whole George

21 January 2013

Dear friend,

Today's operating systems, desktop and mobile, are converging around the idea of full-screen applications. Isn't this trend a move backwards ? Windows embody context, and by losing the ability to interact with, and between, multiple windows, we lose the ability to deal efficiently with context and relationships.

While communication between user and computer was now more direct as a result of their sharing a fuller and richer environment, the communication was still limited and stilted. A predominant feature of the stiltedness, again, was driven by the medium of interaction: At any point, the user could only be actively engaged in a single process, the one visually represented to the user by the single-screen medium. But peoples' tasks on the computer are rarely limited to a single process or to a single file at a time. People switch between activities midstream and are used to doing so from their everyday interactions.

Thus, though the interaction between user and computer within a single activity was more direct and natural than in previous mediums, the overall environment was not. Users were still limited to a single activity at a time. The unnaturalness of the overall interaction is somewhat as if you had a friend name George to whom you could talk about chemistry in a chemistry lab and about food in a restaurant and for whom the twain never meet. In fact, you would need a third language to get George to go from the chemistry lab to the restaurant. Now, because George was never seen simultaneously in both environments, and in any single environment George showed no evidence of ever having been, or ever being capable of being in the other environment, you got the feeling that at any time you were only communicating with a part of George. You never had the whole George. You were not even sure there was a whole George.

R. Reichman (Adar), Communication Paradigms for a Window System. In D. A. Norman & S. W. Draper, User-Centered System Design (pp. 285-313). LEA. 1986.

Agreed, in a world of multiple devices, the device could be the context. But would you still get the whole George ?

Looking forward to hearing from you,
Hubert Sainte-Force