New Geographic Interfaces Introduce World to Desktop

Article excerpt

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 devices.

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 Online.

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 Net. …

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