Peddlers and Dealers... and Relationships too!

Disclaimer: The views expressed below in no way reflect those of other members of the Reveal team. If they don't agree however, then I reckon they're gimps :)

Having recognised that purely visual additions to the windows GUI don't offer any fundamental shift or advance in our relationship with our interpreter; we must now consider what will. Complete shell replacements are an obvious choice; compared to window shaders and Plus themes, they are a much more severe alternative to our interface-interpreter.

To continue our metaphor, we might consider that replacing our shell is the same as giving our official interpreter the slip in some electronic back alley, and taking up the offer of one of the local civilian guide-translators.

Now, this motley bunch of characters offer their services from street corners and more respectable shop fronts across The Interface, (that's what this city-state is called, I've decided) and their manner of interpreting reflects their origins and breeding to a great degree.

Remembering that this is still a metaphor for shell replacements (no, I haven't forgotten), this analogy crosses over quite nicely. We currently have various interpreters/shells to choose from (with new ones cropping up all the time), each with a different angle and sales-pitch.

In this way, our interpreter marketplace is like any service industry; the providers of the service fulfil their job description in different ways, to different levels, and with different priorities. As a consequence, you often find trends and niche markets that are similarly targeted across a whole slew of service industries, from fast food chains to mechanics - our shell marketplace is not an exception.

For example, many industries have smaller, but reputable suppliers who provide only a particular facet of some more extensive services, but in doing so perfectly fulfil the needs of a certain demographic of customers who only want that part of the service. To continue with our interpreter analogy, we might say that there are tourists who are rather comfortable in the customs, traditions and protocols of the native culture and are after a certain minimalist level of service. Interpreters like EVWM can be seen to parallel this particular trend.

Another trend many growth industries foster are a collection of start-ups who offer a radical method for fulfilling said service; they may indeed be trying to completely change the way the customer uses and thinks of the service. This example also can be seen to be occurring in our shell/interpreter marketplace with software like dimension and (if you'll excuse the mention), reveal.

There's obviously so many possible trends and demographics that have and undoubtedly will pop up in the interface marketplace, that I can't go into all of them here. However, there's certainly situations that we would hope not to emerge from the interpreter breeding ground.

For instance, there is an almost invariable inclination in most markets for the most popular alternative (to the leading monopolistic conglomerate) to be lauded as a David fighting a corrupt Goliath. Distressingly, as the exalted David expands, it often suffers from the same lack of direction, purpose, intelligence and vision of the behemoth.

Well, at least we can be thankful that that scenario hasn't reared its ugly head yet…

So we've established some of the trends in our "industry". Perhaps the most important concept in all of this is the idea of the interface as service, not product or commodity. (You can debate the all-is-commodity-in-a-capitalist-society issue later.) In evaluating and developing interfaces, this recognition of the role of interface as servant is a crucial tool.

Another important issue is this notion of choice; That the customer finds someone to supply the appropriate variation of a service that suits them best, is equally important. Using it, we can appreciate the difference between "power" users and empowered users.

The difference between the two is really not that subtle. Power users is a term mostly used to elevate more computer "savvy" people above their more fresh-faced brethren. Basically, you're not a power user if you haven't installed linux on a calculator (or whatever the current test is).

Empowered users, on the other hand, are those who feel (and are) empowered by their computer (obvious, huh?). They feel comfortable with, and trust their interpreter. Through it, their humanity is retained and extended, they don't have to act more computer-like to. Essentially, their Interface (I'm once again using the term at a more conceptual level: as a manifestation of the Human-Computer Relationship) empowers them.

It should become evident by that definition of an empowered user that few (if any) of us are one. Sure, some of you may know the insides of your PC inside out, but is it really that much of a Personal Computer? Do you trust it?
Does it share and "understand" what you're trying to achieve with it? Moreover, do you have a working (and playing) relationship? I don't think so.

But why is that?

There's quite a collection of reasons, but we can distil them all down to a single issue that is particularly (and not surprisingly) relevant to our current discussion, and is something I've briefly touched on. Relationships.

Don't worry, this isn't going to turn into a dear syndrome column, but consider this: Computers lack common sense. Why? A few central issues are responsible, but they're all really based on the same thing. (A lolly-pop for the guy up the back who guessed "relationships".)

For starters, computers have no realisation of who's using them, and for what? To do so, they'd need to not only recognise but "know" the person using them: their habits and interests; their manner of working, playing and interacting; their goals and their emotions.

Essentially, the computer needs to have a relationship with the user. Moreover, as the user recognises the computer's "awareness" of them, there would be a considerable increase in efficiency in just the way the user "spoke" to and interacted with the computer - completely aside from the actual reactions of the computer. Through an actual relationship with the computer, human's could get around and get things done in The Interface so much better.

Sound far fetched? Perhaps, but a lot of those issues could begin to be solved in at least rudimentary ways quite simply, with the benefits being sizeable… but that's for next week.

But let's not stop our contemplation there. Consider also that although the OS itself "knows" that there's all these apps working (well, all it really knows is that there's some processes to devote cpu cycles to); is the shell really conscious of what's going on? For that matter, - and arguably more importantly - are the interface elements and applications themselves "aware" of each other in any way?

It's sort of a bit stunning to realise that there's virtually no relationship or communication between all the (for want of a better term) objects that make up our interface. The more stunning thing is when you realise the possibilities that such cognisance between parts could bring.

This idea of (interaction and task) objects being in communication with each other is intrinsic to the idea of relational computing, and will be focused upon more in next week's emergence and complexity discussion.

Before we adjourn, let's return to our interpreter. I've spoken above on how if you're going to be an empowered user, it's essential that you find the interpreter that suits you best. Given what we've just recognised regarding Relational Computing (more on the misdirection of Object Orientation another time), it's obvious that you're not going to just find an interpreter to suit you. You're going to have to train one. In fact, you're going to have to train your interface to not just be an interpreter, but a faithful emissary and secretary, companion and expert.

Can you really create an educated interface with available shells and other software at the moment? Do you have any way in which to oversee and handle all your interaction and task objects?

No. But you should.


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