November 16th, 2006
I’ve recently come to the conclusion that today’s desktop paradigm is no good. I’ll list my reasons and justify them in a minute.
<Windows specific rant>
First, let me get this out of the way – it doesn’t have to do with the modern desktop paradigm, but SHARED DESKTOP ICONS SUCK!!! Reason: There’s no way to distinguish between shared and non-shared desktop shortcuts! When person A installs software X, software X almost always sticks a single shortcut in the shared desktop folder. Each person can place the shared icon in a different position on the screen, which makes users oblivious that it’s shared until person B says “I’m tired of this icon” and deletes it. Then person A wonders what happened, and has to dig around in the Start Menu to find the program, create a new shortcut, and put it on his desktop. Shared desktop shortcuts are a STUPID idea. They just cause extra work, by eventually needing to be replaced with multiple non-shared shortcuts. Software X should just install a separate shortcut for each user in the first place. In my experience, this is the dumbest idea Microsoft incorporated into XP.
</Windows specific rant>
I fell better now. Onto my essay!
What is the Desktop?
The Desktop is a “special” folder. What are you supposed to do with it? Well, it’s like a real desk: you set whatever you want on it. It is not organized in any way. Currently the desktop serves two main functions: Application/file Launcher, and File Folder. (It also has some strange miscellaneous functions in Windows, such as possessing the Recycling Bin, which is neither in the Desktop folder, nor is it a shortcut, and if you install Microsoft Outlook, a mysterious Outlook icon that has unique and powerful properties, yet is neither a shortcut, nor a file.) On all operating systems I’ve encountered, Desktops perform essentially these two functions, and do both only crudely.
Why is the Desktop an application launcher? Windows already presents two other paradigms, the Start Menu and the Quick Launch bar, for that purpose, and Linux has even more (such as Katapult). (In Windows, I use an auto-hiding Custom Toolbar on the left side of the screen as a third paradigm.)
Why is it a file folder? It is not a very good one, because placing files on the Desktop means they can’t be organized into other folders. The only files that make sense belonging on the Desktop are miscellaneous or temporary files.
(On Mac and Linux): The desktop is a place where mounted drives appear (cameras, USB drives, CD-ROMs, etc.) That is convenient, but somehow it doesn’t make sense to me. That is simply assigning a third, magical property to the Desktop. The drives are not files or shortcuts, and the fact that they appear and disappear seems out of line with the normally “fixed” nature of other desktop icons. However, it may be the only thing the Desktop does well.
What should the Desktop be?
So today’s desktops are crummy, but what should tomorrow’s desktop be like? How could the desktop become useful again? (I try not to rant about something without first having some idea about how it could be better.)
Should the Desktop be a place for temporary files? Keeping temporary files on the Desktop looks messy - and we want our computers to be beautiful. Besides, Windows has another folder called “Temp”, and Linux had “lost+found” and “tmp”. A separate tool that specialized in dealing with temporary files, by letting you assign notes to files or automatically cleaned out old files for instance, would be better.
Should the Desktop be an Application launcher? It could be a good one, if it allowed labels, grouping, and organizing. However, it has some disadvantages. One, the desktop takes longer to get to than the Start Menu. Two, it takes up an awful lot of space. It would be convenient for those programs you use rarely, though, because it probably has enough space to list all the programs on your computer. I think an improved start menu, or an enhanced version of KDE’s Katapult launcher could perform the task of launching applications and files equally well.
The Desktop should be a portal for information. That’s the concept I’m favoring right now. I think the trend towards “widgets” and “gadgets” that display weather, pictures, new emails, and so on seems to indicate that other people agree this is a better use for the desktop.
As a final note, I wrote this essay before reading about the plans for the KDE 4 Desktop (Plasma). Plasma shows signs of being very useful. It will integrate a widget platform (SuperKaramba) into the desktop applet system, so that applets can live in system panels (bars), the desktop, or float freely. Plasma also plans to give the desktop the “bring to front” on a hot key power that is popular among widget engines, making the Desktop a useful tool for display information. But chances are, it will still work as a crappy folder and application launcher.
Edit: Either I'm a brilliant visionary, or A. Seigo and I are crazy in the same way... for KDE 4.1, Aaron is removing the desktop's ability to be a crappy folder and application launcher! Instead, he's delegating that responsibility to a new Folder View plasmoid (which can be made full screen to please old farts) that brings the new ability to show several folders (including remote folders!) on the desktop in an orderly fashion. Good for him!