App-centric vs doc-centric. Consumption vs Creation?

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?


  • The arguments given count but we should not assume that – because it is attractive for diskless devices to provide a global storage accessible from everywhere will automatically lead to no local applications:-). A mobile device is related to mobility and yes the “global” storage with a web app is a vital enabler for mobility and it is silent.

    I see – the moment the harddisk is replaced by a non mechanic affordable device you will have a tiny plasitic box with some web apps on it on one hand and desktop apps storing data on this device … To implement something with delphi considering local and remote is really simple also using an encrypted storage.


  • The problem is that NEITHER approach is very good. App-centric doesn’t solve the problem of finding your files. Doc Centric requires you to understand a tree-structured file system with the counter-intuitive concept that you’re editing a COPY of whatever document you’re working with – as if you pulled a doc out of the filing cabinet, made a photocopy of it, and put the original back, so you could mark up the copy, and when you’re done, put your copy back in the filing cabinet after pulling the original and throwing it in the shredder (or maybe trash can, depending on the tools.)

    If we simply had an intelligent filing system that stored all documents in a database by type, author, timestamp, keywords, etc, with really easy tools to add and manage keywords, and less clumsy mechanisms than 3 character file extensions to determine which kinds of apps can work with which documents, people would be able to deal with doc-centric operating systems much better.

  • >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?

    It’s probably because the lines between consumption and creation aren’t very clear-cut. It’s very easy to read emails on my phone, for example, but if I want to respond to them, I need to *create* a response. Same goes for Facebook, Twitter, etc. The Web is a very social, interactive medium, and trying to create a device that’s only good at half the exchange just doesn’t work.

    The bare minimum you need is a real keyboard, with real keys that provide tactile feedback. iStuff doesn’t provide that, which makes those devices basically worthless in the modern Web.

  • Windows Phone 7 adds another (or attempts to, at least) angle – a identity/content/task centric OS – where you mashup (mash-in?) data from multiple sources to tie it to your contacts list.

    You still can use both the doc and app approach in WP7 apps, but the idea of attaching or approaching all information on/to a identity/task context is very sexy.

    It still remains to be seen exactly how seamless third party apps can integrate, though…

  • Michael, I’m afraid you’ve lost me. My point wasn’t about whether the storage was mechanical or not, but about how people interact with that storage.

  • Steve : I think the distinction is that in the app-centric model you don’t try and find your files. The app keeps track of them for you. Because it often doesn’t give you the option of choosing where to store them, they don’t get lost.

    Your smarter filing system is fine, but I don’t think it changes the point, it just may make working in a doc-centric world easier.

  • Mason : OK, so writing an email or a tweet is strictly speaking creating, but that’s not what I was aiming at. My use of the word creating was aimed at a larger endeavor: Programming, writing an essay or a longer blog post, writing or performing music, etc. In those activities I think it becomes a genuine need to manage your files.

    I agree wholeheartedly on the crappiness of the keyboard on the iPhone. I resisted getting one for a long time as I was very fast on my E71 and I still fumble on the iPhone. In the end, the apps swung it. Productivity is about more than typing speed, and when I way ti all up I am more productive on my iPhone, in spite of it’s woeful keyboard.

    Not sure I agree that they are useless in the modern web. Plenty of people seem to think otherwise. This may actually come back to my point: that if you are using the web as a creative platform, then you may well be right. If you are using the web as a platform for browsing (with the occasional status update) then it’s possibly just fine.

  • Thanks Lars, that’s really quite interesting. I’m not sure I’ve got my head around the implications, or even the subtle difference. Probably would need to play with it to get it.

  • This reminds me of the arguments made by Alan Cooper in “About Face”.

    I think they’re on the right track with the two groups of users.

    When you ask some users where they saved their document, their response will be “Word”, “Excel”, etc. They saved it in the app and expect the app to know where it is. I’m forever finding “lost” documents for my Mom.

    But as a developer, I love storing things in hierarchical structures so I can group them “logically”. I’ll also use multiple tools for similar (but not identical) tasks depending on the specifics.

    I (being technically inclined) can easily deal with both methodologies, but some less technical users are definitely more comfortable with an “app centric” view.

Join the Discussion

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code class="" title="" data-url=""> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> <pre class="" title="" data-url=""> <span class="" title="" data-url="">