Last week, I bought an iPad. On a whim. I think many people do that. I was playing with the device a little in the local electronics store and I liked it. But, being a Linux geek, I cannot be caught with such a sexy, bigcorp, trendy device. Until I realised I just liked the thing and had the resources to get one. I went to the store to buy one. I shopped around a little first, but apparently, everybody sells them for exactly the same price. According to the shop clerk, it wasn’t forced by Apple, it just happened (I think, a huge chance for business; sell the devices for less). After playing with the device, I realised this could well be another revolution in the way we use computers.
In the beginning of the popular computing days, we didn’t really have an operating system that did much for us. There was DOS, that was doing just that: operating disks. There was not much more in it. It started the first paradigm in modern popular computer interfaces. There was a command line, and you used the keyboard to type in the name of the program you wanted to run. And that program started and had the entire machine to itself. This evolved into programs that used a menu to fire up your most used or popular programs. Which brought the dawn of the first revolution; the change of the command-line paradigm.
The command-line paradigm changed into the windows-paradigm. We got used to a start menu where we can start our programs, a little à la the menu-driven program starters. There was an underlying filesystem model with directories and files, where we could store our data. The main change is that we work ‘inside’ our operating system now. There are centralised drivers, as opposed to the command-line paradigm, where each program had its own drivers. All in all, the windows-paradigm is better than the command-line paradigm for human beings. The interface moved a little towards the real world using interesting metaphors, such as the desktop, folders, a trash can, etcetera. The windows-paradigm works pretty well. Currently, it is the only used paradigm in human computer interaction, for popular computer systems.
Until a few years ago, that is. Smartphones are starting to dominate the computer field. They started out as gadgets that nobody needed and grew into a device you have to have to survive in the current society. Because of the limited screen size and resources, developers for the smartphones had to re-engineer the human machine interface. And that was the beginning of the second revolution of human computer interaction paradigms.
The windows-paradigm is moving towards the app-paradigm. And this revolution is driven by Apple’s iDevices. They are the most popular app-based devices, looking at the huge amount of apps in the Apple Store. In the app-paradigm, there is no start menu. There are no folders and files. No trash can. You don’t even have a keyboard or mouse any more. By using a multi-touch screen you can start your favourite app (how many do you have anyway), you slide and swivel through your photos and videos and the on-screen keyboard is amazingly usable. And guess what? Other operating system makers are moving towards the same paradigm. Android, Windows 7 Phone, Ubuntu Netbook Remix all have the same way of interacting with the user, so apparently, this is the New Way.
Of course, new technology never replaces old technology. There are still COBOL programmers and the command line and windows paradigms will never be replaced by the app-paradigm. They will have their place in the computing world. In fact, I am typing this blog post on a computer with the windows-paradigm. And I use the command line still a lot. It is like we got a new tool in our box to better interact with machines. We will make less mistakes and have more fun, as we can choose the right tool for the job.