Only Software That
Creates New Metaphors Can Change the Way We Use Computers
According to legend,
the Roman god Janus opened the door to each new
year. He is represented with two heads because every door looks both
I was thinking about Janus the other day when I
realized that there are two aspects to our use of personal computers.
We use computers both to look backward to our past way of doing
things, and to look forward to new ways of working, learning, and
playing. Each time we use a computer, we look through time's door in
one direction or the other.
My major personal computer application is word
processing. When I use a word processor I'm looking backward, using the
computer to accomplish tasks that are performed by older
technologies-typewriters, typesetting equipment, and so on. Of course
the computer has advantages over these, or I wouldn't use it. As
writing tools, computers do the job much better than these older tools.
What the computer lacks in novelty, it more than makes up for in
Other backward-looking applications are abundant:
Graphics programs, accounting packages, and music-transcription
software are all examples of ways computers can be used to look back
through time's door to perform tasks that we can relate to in numerous
The concrete connection between some computer
applications and the types of tasks we used to perform without
computers makes this technology easy to justify and apply. When we're
told about a new word processor, it's easy to generate a set of
criteria by which to judge the program before we even take it out of
When computers are being used to perform tasks that
are new to us, we have no frame of reference. How would you establish
the criteria for judging the world's first interactive adventure game,
for example, or a mouse-driven musical instrument?
Computer applications that look forward are
exciting, but they provide special challenges to users and software
The major problem from the developer's point of view
is marketing. How can you convey the usefulness of a program that does
something no one has seen before? The most common approach is to
express the program's function with a metaphor. Sometimes this works
and sometimes it doesn't.
I remember sitting in a meeting during the late
1970s discussing a forthcoming product called VisiCalc. No one had any
idea of how to describe the product, the first electronic spreadsheet,
to potential customers. Someone called it an electronic blackboard;
someone else suggested calculator array. There was no clearly
understandable metaphor that captured the essence of this product until
someone noted that the spreadsheet, known to accountants, was close
enough to convey at least one of the program's applications.
Another example of a new computer application came
in 1984 with the introduction of Filevision
for the Macintosh. This
program was the first commercial hypertext database-although this term
was unknown to most computer owners at the time. I remember watching a
computer salesman try in vain to explain what Filevision did. He called
it a combination of a graphics program (old metaphor) with a database
(old metaphor). Now that Apple has released HyperCard, the public's
awareness of hypermedia is high enough to support products of this type.
It takes a brave soul to be among the first to adopt
a new technology, even though pioneers often end up at a tremendous ad
vantage over their more conservative peers. I've often started working
with a new class of software only to find applications for it that were
not foreseen by the original developers. The problem with being
innovative is that new applications rarely sell well enough to become
commercial successes in their first year. Many small, innovative
companies don't have the resources to wait until the world understands
their new product.
We'll always use computers to perform old tasks, but
it's important to realize that the advantages of using computers in
this way are incremental. We may not like living without a word
processor, but most of us could use a typewriter again if we had to.
Completely new applications for computers, however,
have the capacity to allow major modifications in how we work, learn,
and play. It's through the creation of new computational metaphors
(almost all of which are created by small companies) that computer
technology will influence our lives in the coming years.
Computers are like Janus-they look forward and
backward in time. If you expect the computer to be a power tool in your
life, be sure that some of your programs look forward, not backward.
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