Anti-Buzz: WIMP

by Andrew Emmott on February 28, 2012

in Anti-Buzz,Future Tech,General

The buzz: I know how to use my computer.
The anti-buzz: Today you know how to use your computer. Tomorrow? Up to you.

The WIMP paradigm. 

You’ve been working in it ever since you first got comfortable with computers, but it’s ubiquity stopped you from even noticing. Well, notice now, because the winds of change are blowing and, once again, you need to be ready.

WIMP stands for Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer. These are the basic building blocks of how you interact with your computer. There are many advantages to this paradigm, and I have no quarrel with it, but to understand what might be at stake, stop for a moment and think about how you might do things differently if you were to redesign how you interact with your computer. The key here isn’t to sell you on some slick new interface, but to pull you outside of your box for just long enough to realize that windows and folders and pull-down menus are not scientific law, and not a requirement of “being a computer.” One day, you might lose them.

When I yammered about operating systems I bemoaned a common misconception: that the interface that you use is the operating system. There is nothing ingrained in the hardware that requires windows and icons. Your graphical shell allows a hook into the operating system, but it’s just a piece of software that lets you mediate what your CPU does with the stuff on your hard drive. This shell is, of course, the thing that casual users care most about, and when you think of functional differences between Mac and Windows, you are mostly thinking about the differences in your user experience.¬†This boils down to comparisons between the Start Menu and the Dock and not which kernel has a better process scheduler or hard drive elevator.

A quick tour of why WIMP is good and why it has survived for so long:

It is powerful. Even command-line-loving hackers don’t lose very much performance or usability in the desktop-and-files metaphor.

Novices relate to it very easily. Organizing an interface like one might organize their desk just “clicks” for a lot of people, and did a lot to foster the idea of computers as a powerful business tool. Also, the paradigm is open-ended and scales well to many applications.

The skills you learn when navigating your computer are also the skills you need to operate your software. Scroll bars, close-boxes, buttons, fields – these components are available for any software you might run, and so you are usually able to transfer learned computer skills to new scenarios. Most of the time, WIMP is a very good design choice.

So why am I encouraging you to look beyond it? Because soon enough, you might not have a choice. I don’t see WIMP going away, but I do see post-WIMP interfaces emerging and entering into common use and influencing how we use computers.

It is happening right now with smart phones and tablets which, for many reasons, cannot present themselves in the same way as a desktop computer. These devices have different inputs, (touch screen, no mouse, questionable keyboard), and a much smaller monitor, not to mention different expectations of their functionality. These devices have to be different, but some might argue that they are just WIMP-lite, not really a change of direction, just a “cheap” remake of the real thing.

I would argue otherwise. The advent of highly usable touch screen will have an impact beyond tablets, as it illuminates a new approach to user interaction. Some tasks are just better with a touch interface, even on a desktop. Tablets are making us realize that maybe we don’t need so much clutter in our desktop interfaces either; icons can be bigger, windows can be streamlined or specialized. Making a nice tablet has reminded us of how wasteful our usual approach is in terms of pixels and knobs. After two decades of stability, we are finally pushing into new territory.

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