Desktop metaphor

Desktop metaphor

Post by Barry Margol » Tue, 02 Jan 1990 11:53:00



There have been a number of recent articles, mostly spurred by the
question of what menus represent in the "desktop" metaphor, taking
jabs at the phrase "desktop metaphor", because the window systems they
see don't look much like their desks.  I've seen and read about a
number of windowing systems, and I think part of the problem is that
the common ones these days are less complete than the ones that were
in use or design when this metaphor was defined.

The most familiar windowing system these days is the Macintosh.  I
agree that its display doesn't look much like a desktop.  How many of
you have your trash can on top of your desk, for instance?  However,
the fundamental common aspect of most windowing systems is the window.
At least in systems that allow overlapping windows, these are intended
to represent pieces of paper (or pads of paper) sitting on a desktop.
Windows obscure each other just as overlapping pieces of paper do.

On some more sophisticated windowing systems you do get much more of a
desktop metaphor.  There might be in- and out-box icons, for instance:
mail is sent by dragging a file to the out-box, and clicking on the
in-box reads your mail.  In some of the early Xerox systems (and maybe
still in the current ones for all I know), there was a printer icon
(and personal computer printers often sit on desks), and files were
printed by dragging them to the printer icon.  And phone dialing or
terminal emulation would be done by clicking on an icon that looks
like a telephone (this is still often true of the application icons).

There would probably be less controversy if the term were "office
metaphor" instead of "desktop metaphor", since many of the common
icons (trash, file drawers) represent objects in the office that don't
usually sit on the desk.  But this is just jargon, so don't try to
read too much into it.

To answer the original question I alluded to, I think menus represent
quick-reference cards that help you find all the commands in a
program (I originally thought they represented manuals, but manuals
usually have much more detailed information than menus).

Barry Margolin
Thinking Machines Corp.


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