The next couple of years will usher in the next generation of user interface from Microsoft, Apple and the Linux community, and its going to be really, really cool.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer rolled out this week some user interface bits from the forthcoming Windows 7 at The Wall Street Journal's
"D: All Things Digital" conference. Here's the official Microsoft video demo
. The OS is currently scheduled to hit late next year.
Although everyone is talking about it, few seem to understand what all this means. Heres what it means: After several decades, the death of the WIMP user interface is at hand. (WIMP stands for Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing devices.)
Windows 7 contains core user interface functionality that researchers have been working on since the 1980s. Its exciting, and will radically change the way you use computers forever.
Here are the three things you need to know about Windows 7.
1. Windows 7 represents a new category of user interface that has no name.
I first told you about this new generation of user interface and Windows 7 back in December (I Want My MPC: The 'Multi-Touch PC' Era Dawns). In that article, I told you:
"The major components of this UI are multi-touch (the ability of a touch screen to accept many points of input at once); physics (on-screen objects that behave as if they have weight, mass, momentum and other physical properties); and gestures (the ability to send commands to the system by drawing a shape on screen)."
These user interface elements, plus hardware changes that I detail below, represent a huge leap in computer usage comparable to the leap from the command line to the graphical user interface (GUI).
The Apple iPhone has a very rudimentary (but first-to-market) version of this new OS type. Microsoft's proprietary vertical Surface PC has it, too. Apple will switch to this kind of OS as early as next year. Linux will, too. This is where all computer user interfaces are going.
But what do we call this new category of OS? So far, few agree. Some call it a multi-touch user interface. But the OS is more about physics and gestures than multi-touch. I suspect multi-touch was heavily marketed by Apple because it was the single most unique feature of the Apple iPhone from a hardware perspective. So everyone picked up on the M word. But it's an inaccurate or, at least, incomplete -- descriptor for the new UI.
I'd like to propose that we call this new kind of UI the MPG interface, for
Multi-touch, Physics and Gestures. (Just throwing this against the wall here to see if it sticks.) I'll refer to it as such for the rest of this article.
2. Pundits will bitch and moan about MPG, but later eat their words.
In the early 1980s, the conventional wisdom was that DOS's command line interface was faster, cleaner and generally better than that new-fangled, funky, slow "GUI" user interface of OS/2, Windows and others. All that was forgotten by the early 1990s, when everyone moved to GUI interfaces.
A similar thing is happening today with the MPG idea.
Blogger and Microsoft expert Mary Jo Foley writes: "I am still a non-believer. Do you want touch on your Windows notebook? I, for one, do not."
Henry Blodget wrote on the Silicon Valley Insider blog that "We never touch our PC screen, and we hate it when other people touch our PC screens. This will not change if Windows 7."
They'll change their tunes, believe me.
The reason is that reaching out and touching things is what comes naturally to humans. The mouse is a temporary interim device between typing commands via a command line interface and reaching out and directly manipulating objects on screen via the MPG interface.
The whole history of user interfaces has always been about making the ever-increasing computer power that results from Moore's Law work harder to make what's on screen look and behave like real-world physical objects. Look at how video games have evolved toward increasing realism. We crave it.
There will be many, many critics of the whole MPG approach. Theyll all eat their words.
3. The new generation of MPG OSs will kill off mice and keyboards.
There will always be variety in PCs. But each generation of UI has its natural form-factor. For the WIMP UI, the standard desktop PC has involved a screen, keyboard and mouse on the desk, with a separate CPU nearby.
The natural form factor for Windows 7 and the other MPG operating systems will look like a drafting table. The mouse and keyboard will go away, and the "CPU" electronics will be built into the back of a giant screen between 30 and 60 inches. It will pivot at the center of the left and right edges. It will tilt vertical for TV and presentations, and horizontal for "desk mode" where you can lay your physical books and papers right next to your electronic ones.
Generally, however, you'll use it in drafting table mode with the bottom of the screen at about waist high and the top of the screen at about head height when you're in your chair. Youll use both hands to grab, re-size, move, copy and interact with documents and other objects on-screen. When you want to write something, youll do the keyboard gesture to bring up an on-screen keyboard, and just type away.
The natural MPG form factor for mobile computers will be a clamshell design with a screen on both sides (one where the screen is located on mobile computers today, plus another screen where the keyboard is now). It will snap flat to form a huge single screen with a kind of "kickstand" to put it at an angle, or you can use it in writing mode and have an on-screen keyboard and touchpad on the bottom and your documents on the top (like today's laptops, but with virtual keyboard and touchpad).
Microsoft's demo included a standard laptop, with all the touching going on awkwardly on the standard screen. But future MPG-specific laptops will have touching going on full screen, or mainly the bottom half when used in clamshell mode.
Optional physical keyboards will pop out of both desktop and mobile systems, or connect via Bluetooth. They'll be there for purists, old people and others who don't like the virtual, on-screen keyboards. But the mouse will be gone forever.
Windows 7 might be great, or it might be another dog like Windows Vista. But mark my words, the next couple of years will usher in the next generation of user interface from Microsoft, Apple and the Linux community, and its going to be really, really cool.