In a Google engEdu tech talk, "Quicksilver: Universal Access and Action", Nicholas Jitkoff provides some thought-provoking ideas on the future of the desktop.
Starting at 03:52 in the talk, Nicholas begins describing how he thinks the desktop should work, listing four categories of user goals: Search, Summon, Browse, and Act.
Search is a fast, comprehensive, and easy-to-use desktop search tool, such as Google Desktop. This may not sound new but, amazingly, this has only recently begun to be a common part of the desktop experience.
Summon is using desktop search for navigation. You know something exists, you just want to get back to it immediately.
Browse may sound close to what the desktop does now, but Nicholas seems to mean browse not as navigating a folder hierarchy but as finding objects related to or near other objects. For example, you might not remember the name of the specific song you want, but you might be able to remember the artist who wrote it; getting to the first allows you to recall the second.
Act is when you want to immediately do a task (e.g. play a music track) without any intervening steps such as opening an application.
Note the deemphasis of the traditional file hierarchy, the focus on objects, and the shift away from applications and toward actions on objects.
The desktop should seek to satisfy our goals immediately. We should not have to start to adjust the lighting in a photo album by navigating an hierarchical menu, locating an application that allows you to edit photos, waiting for the application to load, and then opening the files using the open menu in that application. We should just ask to adjust the lightening in a photo album.
The next few minutes of the talk further break down some of the constraints on the desktop metaphor. Nicholas advocates fast, universal access that ignores the boundaries of the machine, reaching out to the network to whatever data and code is needed to act. The focus should be on the task -- getting work done -- using whatever resources are necessary, requiring as little effort as possible.
The vision is fantastic and inspiring. However, while Quicksilver is an interesting example, from what I saw, it appears to be only a baby step toward these lofty goals. The learning and automation appears primitive, and the effort required to customize severe, which may make Quicksilver closer to a geek tool than a realization of the broader ambition.
Even so, Nicholas is offering intriguing thoughts on where the desktop should go. It is well worth listening.