When you're staring at the computer screen, it sometimes seems
as if all innovation began and ended in or near Palo Alto,
Calif., in the 1970s.
As most students of information science know, the windows and
pull-down menus first commercialized in Apple Computer's Lisa and
Macintosh machines and later in Microsoft's Windows software were
invented at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center.
The companion mouse was conceived just up the road at SRI
International, in Menlo Park, at roughly the same time.
To be sure, the software's desktop metaphor, with its file
folders, documents and icons representing their paper
equivalents, was a vast improvement over the command-line
interface of earlier computer software.
But using it has never been as intuitive as its proponents
claimed, or there would be no need for "Windows for Dummies" and
countless other help books. And the desktop metaphor becomes much
less adequate when users venture off the desktop, onto a local
area network or the Internet.
Enter the "geographic interface," which attempts to depict
objects from the real world _ or at least some circumscribed part
of it, like your office. The first of these products to reach the
market was Magic Cap, from General Magic Inc., which serves as
the operating system and user interface on both Sony's Magic Link
and Motorola's Envoy, two portable computing and communications
Another was the opening screen for Apple's eWorld online
service, which aside from this nod to geographic interfaces is
otherwise very similar to text-and-icon services like America
But perhaps the most ambitious implementation to date of a
geographic metaphor is Novell Inc.'s Corsair technology, which
has been demonstrated at a few industry conferences and is
expected to reach the market sometime in the fall.
Corsair, which is embodied in a navigation tool called Ferret,
presents a three-dimensional, photographic color image of a
user's work space, with a desk, card file, file cabinet and other
commonly used tools. The image changes appropriately when one
leaves the desktop.
Click on the printer, for example, and you see the front of a
printer just like yours, with a status display to show if it is
turned on or if the paper is jammed. Click on the file cabinet,
and you gain access to other file-server computers located on
your local area network.
Click on the door to leave your office and head for the other
resources in your corporate environment, like personnel files. To
get to the Internet? Jump out the window, for an aerial view of
information-generating sites represented as buildings.
Unlike Microsoft's much ballyhooed Bob, which the company
calls a "social interface," Corsair is not aimed at the complete
neophyte. And at least in its early incarnations, it won't be for
the home user, either.
There are no animated rabbits or rats to guide the user
through tasks, and no built-in application software, so one still
needs to know the underlying command sequences of standard
programs and operating systems. Corsair's value lies in helping
users navigate complex networks.
"The place where geographic metaphors matter is when the
complexity of the system begins to approach the complexity of the
real world," said Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the
Future in Menlo Park, Calif. "That's one reason it makes a lot
more sense for a networking company" _ like Novell _ "to do this
than a software operating system company" like Microsoft.
As the leader in network software, Novell has a moderately
self-serving vision of computing's future: Everyone will be on
one network or another, and most likely on several.
At a recent industry conference, Robert Frankenberg, Novell's
chairman, chief executive and president, said he believed that
consumer PCs will follow their corporate counterparts onto the