The Future of the Desktop

BY
Benjamin de Surmont
April 23, 2020

As teams become distributed, businesses need digital ways to collaborate on their content, since people can no longer physically pin photos on a cork-board, mark up documents or write down ideas on a whiteboard. To that extent, we have more and more options at our disposal but we still prefer to collaborate (propose ideas, co-create, gather feedback, etc.) with documents and spreadsheets.

We can regret that these documents, which impose reductive « Old World boundaries » on us, remain the norm, or we can ask ourselves why.

Unlike the pre-built tools, documents are flexible. By relying on their structure, you can invent management tools or stories as creative as you. They don’t drown you in an ocean of notifications and channels (lately, this point resurfaced with the distraction-less apps craze). Their structure, to serve the purposes of work, doesn’t get in our way. Like a sheet of paper with its margins and blank space.

What about the digital paper ? It’s even more appropriate for collaboration across borders and time zones because we have not only digitalized the writing paper, spreadsheet and slide, we have made them magic :

One of the most compelling snares is the use of the term metaphor to describe a correspondence between what the users see on the screen and how they should think about what they are manipulating […] For example, the screen as « paper to be marked on » is a metaphor that suggests pencils, brushes, and typewriting. Fine, as far as it goes. But it is the magic — understandable magic — that really counts.
— Alan Kay, “
User Interface: A Personal View

Thus, we’ve had compound documents, relational databases and raster graphics editors. We see that, from the very beginning, the user interface pioneers clearly understood that computers provided something more. Hence the history of progress in office softwares, from Wordstar to Notion. The last major updae in date is the movement from our desktop to the cloud.

Still, we hear people complain about documents. They’re not easy to manage, we have many version of them, when we collaborate, we often have access to a copy, etc.

We didn’t “transfer the paper metaphor so perfectly that the screen is as hard as paper to erase and change” but we’ve missed some of its essential properties : its physical nature allows side-by-side comparison, visual version management and visualizable re-use, for example.

The main issue with that “progress” is that we have to choose between documents. They are siloed in apps.

Teams need a “place” where they can work with each other regardless of where they are and what kind of files you share. They need the same magic applied to their desktop. It’s the last asset that hasn’t moved to the cloud.

Magic desk I for Commodore 64, 1983. Pretty literal.

The “desktop metaphor”, which was the basis of man / computer interaction in the last 35 years, was chosen because it was spatial. It allowed users to drag & drop objects like they would manipulate a sheet of paper on a table.

When our main “personal” computers became smartphones, this metaphor quietly faded away. Our files moved to cloud hard drives like Dropbox or iCloud, our documents became trapped in lists or grids. We traded the easiness of the desktop for the convenience of having our files at our disposal no matter where or when.

In the long run, we probably gained a lot, as our work spread across services, apps and devices. But we never got a “place” to fiddle, play, think with our files again.

We want to change that. That’s why we conceived Kosmik as a place. When you use it by yourself, it’s just an infinite canvas where you can drop your files, notes and images. This way you can create relationships between disparate objects. This easiness, this power, is demultiplied when you collaborate in Kosmik.

Not only can you make it your central source of truth (but unlike other programs, Kosmik is like a brainstorming room you would walk in to find the walls covered with post-it, papers, references, and annotations), you can also use it as a whiteboard AND a place to build complete documents properly laid out, ready to be sent out or delivered to your team or client.

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