The death of traditional interfaces on your desktop…. and the Web?

by Sherif

Meet Launchy (he’s only 200kb)

So a few months ago one of my colleagues introduced me to Launchy. Launchy is described as “The Open Source Keystroke Launcher for Windows”. Basically its a tool that runs with any given shortcut (Like Google Desktop’s CTRL+CRTL) and lets you type what you want – then launches that program for you. Lets say you wanted to open up Firefox. You would just press the keyboard shortcuts to open launchy (Mine’s Alt+Space) then type ‘fire..’ and hit enter.
Launchy Firefox Launch
You don’t really have to type the whole thing as it lists possible options as you type and then selects it if what you have typed is unique enough. Within a few minutes I was very impressed. I quickly realised that you could make it do anything you can do with a command line, like open up a URL and pass some GET parameters to that URL (eg doing a Google Search, or Looking up something in Wikipedia).

So how does this work? Well quite simply you just tell Launchy what you want to index. Eg Your Windows Toolbar is a pretty obvious choice, but you could also point it to a specific directory on your computer or your desktop. It then index’s that location so that when you type it looks up what you have got. Within 2 days, I emptied my whole desktop and alomst stopped using my Windows start menu. Opening up new programs half as long and I could basically type what I wanted and it loaded it for me.

Goodbye Launchy, hello Vista (he’s only 15gig!)

Recently I bought a new laptop, with Windows Vista Home Premium installed on it. I was about to install my lovely Launchy program, when realised – wait Microsoft pre-bundled something just like Launchy with the OS. They call it Windows Vista Instant Search. Basically the same thing as Launchy. All I have to do is press the start button and start typing what I want, and hit enter. Impressed, once again – but I wasn’t impressed at the fact that Microsoft basically killed Launchy (but that’s another blog post).

Windows Vista Search

So again, within 24 hours I had my desktop completely empty – why? Well I didn’t really need to look for what I wanted, then double click on it. I could just type the first few letters and I had what I wanted.

Is the desktop on it’s way out? What’s the point of looking for what I want and then double clicking on it? I thought these types of Command Line Interfaces (CLI’s) are really going to change usability and the way we design and develop applications. It’s funny because It alomst feels like we were going away from it many years ago – deeming it unusable to the non-nerd, whilst now its slowly coming back.

Where is it all headed?

Well if you combine the use of CLI’s and the use of natural language, what you can do could be pretty powerful. I’ve always wondered what user interfaces would look like without the need to logically click through a series of menus to get what you want, but rather think what you want, type it and get it.

I recently stumbled across a Google Tech Talk titled ‘Away with Applications: The Death of the Desktop’ – this really reflects what I’m talking about. The tech talk was given by Aza Raskin son of the Human Computer Interface Expert Jef Raskin. If you don’t know who Jef Raskin is – he is basically one of the starters of the Macintosh Project for Apple in the seventies.
Here is a brilliant overview he gives about his talk:

Currently, Web applications are often more usable than their desktop-based counterparts because each one does one thing and does it well. Desktop applications used to be the same way, but over time — as applications grew to support the the users in the long tail — each became a complex portmanteau of all possible features. If we are not careful, our Web apps will suffer the same conglomerated fate.

Mashups and services help to solve the problem on the development end by freeing functionality from any particular application. But, there is currently no way to offer that wealth of possible functionality to users in a scalable way. Would it be nice to embed a dynamic map into your Gmail message? Sure. A Flickr slideshow? Sure. But for Google to offer those in addition to the hundreds of other possible options, would clutter the interface beyond usability.

What’s needed is a universal method of accessing functionality: a way of harnessing the power of services without the need for application developers to explicitly support them. I’ll be demonstrating such a method.

Have a watch of the talk:

It’s brilliant and really opens your mind to where this is headed. Will we even have ‘menu’ interfaces? It’s very interesting to see where this is all headed.