Sorry, this is a bit of a rambling post, but partly I’m organising my thoughts after reading this article. The basic premise is that we’re heading towards a world of two different types of operating system: a Document-centric OS for “Professionals” and an App-centric OS for everyone else. Not sure I agree on the categorisation of end-users (I’ll come back to that) but the essential idea has some merit.
To paint with pretty broad strokes, in the document-centric corner are most mainstream OS’s at the moment (Windows, most Linux desktops I’ve seen, Mac OSX, etc) and in the App-centric corner are things like the iPhone and iPad. The article does a better job of explaining the difference, but essentially the App-centric OS shields you from storage details. You aren’t concerned with where something is stored, what filename it has, etc. You are much more focussed on the App you use to access the data, and you let it worry about the storage details.
Windows has been promoting the doc-centric view of the world for a long time. I remember that being one of the supposed big advantages of Windows 95, the ability to focus on your documents and not the apps that create them. File associations, OLE embedding, etc all attempted to push people this way. Yet my experience suggests most users resisted it, or missed it altogether. For example, I still much more frequently see people start Excel and create a new spreadsheet, rather than use the Start Menu option (or right-click option in Explorer) to create a new document. Most users still seem to think in terms of applications, not documents.
To the storage point, you regularly see inexperienced users struggling with the notion of where to save things, and often end up storing everything in the top level My Documents Folder. Worse, if the Open File dialog happens to come up in a different folder, many struggle to actually find where they stored their files and assume they are lost.
While MacOSX is, like Windows, pretty firmly in the doc-centric corner, the iPhone, iPod Touch and now the iPad have gone the other way. Is this just a case of different approaches for different devices, or will Mac OSX, as the original author seems to suggest, be led by the success of these devices into changing approaches?
Meanwhile, Google’s Chrome OS is currently quite App-centric. The Apps in this case are web apps, but the tabbed-view of apps and cloud-storage of data puts the focus that way. However, Google have recently hinted at a more doc-centric take on ChromeOS.
Apple and Google seem to be passing each other in opposite lanes of the same road.
While I can see the usability benefits of an App-centric approach, if we are to avoid going back to proprietary silos of data, api-level access to data will be critical. As a user I may not care where my docs are stored, but I do want choice in the apps I use to access that data. So whether it is stored in the cloud or locally, an app-centric view should not dictate the app I use. Developers need to be able to create alternative front-ends to that data.
I’m ultimately not convinced about the “different OS for different types of people” thing. It may play out that way, but I don’t actually think that’s the driver. I’m more leaning towards something that was mentioned in the comments of the original article. A document-centric approach may make sense when you are creating (art, music, software, etc) and want full control over the organisation of the data you are manipulating, whereas an app-centric view seems to make sense when you are consuming data (listening to music, reading, viewing pictures, etc). What I’m not sure of is whether that dictates a different device, a different OS or just different capabilities in the apps used.
I wonder if this is also behind some of the initial criticism of the iPad? It seems to me to be mostly a device for consumption of data, but was the early disappointment after the announcement caused by it being held to the standards of devices aimed at creation?