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making computers better

Adam Wiggins // Oct 2020

how we interact with our tools

Consider the humble interaction of copy-paste.

Doing creative or professional work on a computer would be unthinkable without it. Yet it has many flaws—visibility of the buffer contents, as one example. Why haven't we been able to improve on this since the introduction of the clipboard in 1983?

This is just one example: most core interactions like overlapping windows, task-switching, command lines, hyperlinks, tabbed browsing, and pinch to zoom are a decade or more old. Perhaps the tech industry doesn't have much ambition here.

Some interaction innovation is happening with voice interfaces (Alexa, Siri), camera-first interfaces (Snap, Tiktok), and virtual and augmented reality including motion controls. But notable that these are mostly consumer and entertainment-oriented products, with little to offer makers or professionals to improve their productive computing lives.

copy from phone camera, paste into desktop computer photo-editing tool

ClipDrop, an experiment to update copy-paste for a world with smartphones and augmented reality.

Recent productivity-oriented interaction breakthroughs I can think of (GitHub pull requests, Google Docs suggest changes, Figma observation mode, Roam backlinks) are in the application layer. These are good, but what about interactions that cross application boundaries?

That brings us to a delightful subgenre of concept projects to rethink the fundamental interactions of the OS. Some of my favorites are Artifacts, Mercury, Desktop Neo, and Semilattice.

board collecting rethink-the-OS projects

Concept projects to rethink the OS from the ground up.

One reason I like these is that they might inspire up-and-coming designers work on productivity tools rather than consumer technology. I'd like to see more designers excited to work on the next Excel rather than the next Instagram.

Most of these rethink-the-OS concepts never go beyond a concept sketch. That hints at the deeper structural problem for innovation on core interactions: we don't have the right institutions to create, implement, and bring to market such work.

Our existing institutions include:

I have a hunch that a particular flavor of industrial research lab such as Bells Labs, ARPA, and PARC would be better for innovating on OS-level interactions. This is what inspired me to start Ink & Switch.

Other current independent researcher efforts include Andy Matuschak and DynamicLand. There are also some teams who are structured as commercial entities but with an indie researcher mindset, such as reMarkable, The Browser Company, MakeSpace, and Looom. Many of these have non-traditional funding sources such as nonprofit donations or crowdfunding. Whether any of these examples will yield repeatable long-term results remains to be seen.

The world we have: Our core tool interactions languish, partially due to lack of the right venues for innovation.

The world I want: Let a thousand flowers bloom of weird and wacky interaction experiments. Independent research offers an institutional vehicle for small teams to be funded over the longer term. Well-understood technology transfer process can bring lab results to widely-used products with the goal of making us all more productive and creative on our computers.