Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 96 / MAY 1988 / PAGE 10


 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 ways.
    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 efficiency.
    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 concrete ways.
    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 the box.
    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 developers alike.
    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.

David Thornburg welcomes letters from readers and can be reached at P.O. Box 1317, Los Altos, California 94023.