Software Stagnation

Operating systems and mainstream software like MS Office have fallen into a period of stagnation. Changes to Windows, Mac OS, and even Linux window managers like Gnome have become little more than pointless tweaks to their visual elements. Progress towards an intelligent workspace seems to have halted. Web applications (such as cloud-hosted productivity apps) are no better since they are islands of functionality with no integration except for “save to DropBox or Google drive.”

I came to this conclusion while testing tools for a project. After experimenting with eDiscovery tools, bibliographic reference managers like EndNote, and qualitative data analysis applications I was struck by how similar they were. Each allows you to build a catalog of documents and metadata which you can search, tag, annotate, and so on. The same wheel reinvented many times over. My thought was, why doesn’t Windows Explorer or Finder already do this? Why do I need often expensive software to catalog documents? Why isn’t this built into the OS?

The same applies to multi-media documents such as sound, music, image, and video files. Adobe has Bridge to catalog visual media, Audition, iTunes, and Windows Media catalog audio files and I would imagine other vendors provide something similar. More re-inventing the wheel.

The benefits of having a native cataloging capability are power and integration. All users would benefit from a vastly improved document management capability. We all have lots of documents we need to manage but the current OS level tools don’t make this easy nor are they powerful. They haven’t progressed for decades.

Integration is also a key benefit. When each application manages its own catalog we get more islands, catalogs that only work with that application or applications built by the same vendor. A native, OS level catalog, makes integration across application possible. A real workspace with your documents as the focus, instead of the application being the focus. If, for example, I tag a document then that tag is would be usable by all applications that can manipulate that document. Or, if I attach a note or some kind of metadata to a document it would be universally available.

With a powerful cataloging capability built into the OS other things become possible such as universal version control. Instead of each application providing its own, often weak (e.g., MS Word’s) version control, we could have a general capability to manage document change over time. And, yes, it would have to inter-operate with version control systems such as git.

My point is to bring back the user-centric notion of an integrated workspace rather than the current application-centric focus. My rule of thumb is that if multiple application are doing the same thing then it’s a good candidate for incorporation into the OS. It has to be done well, of course. Microsoft, Apple, and the Linux developers should break out of their rut, focus on user workflows, and start innovating again.



Categories: Uncategorized

2 replies

  1. Perhaps you can blame government for this. Microsoft used to embed lots of software into the OS, but then was sued for making it harder for competitors to have a similar product. Between the USA and the EU, tech companies have to walk a line to ensure they don’t get in trouble for bundling software with the OS.


    • I can definitely see how this would be a factor pushing Apple and Microsoft towards essentially “dumb” operating systems. On the other hand, Linux desktop developers (e.g. Gnome and KDE) are under no such fear yet have followed the same model as Microsoft and Apple. In my view, this suggests that the underlying cause is that the goals have changed. The pioneers of computing in the 1960s and 1970s saw computers as intelligent, interactive assistants capable of empowering people. Instead we have operating systems with limited capability on which we install a set of stove-piped applications. None of these applications are interactive in any meaningful sense. Ironically, the much maligned Microsoft Clippy was a step in the direction of interactive assistants; poorly executed to be sure but still the right idea.


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