Location and navigation in computer systems

I’ve been working a lot lately with Semantic Web technologies. In particular I’ve been reflecting on the profound impact of basing everything on URIs. At one level it doesn’t look much different from primary keys or universal ids or GUIDs, but at a number of levels it is quite different. I might talk about that difference in this article, but for now I want to talk about how systems look different after you’ve been marinating in these concepts for a while and, in particular, how we rely too much on location in our systems. Let’s start with your typical desktop operating system. Let’s say you want to change a classpath variable so you can run a particular program (from anywhere on your computer!). For starters, the classpath variable is just a variable to tell the operating system where something is. (You still have to identify the program you want to run, but this makes its name slightly shorter.) Imagine that your computer was (or had) a big triple store instead of the anachronistic hierarchical file folder system we’ve come to know but not really love. We would identify our program by its URI, refer to it by the URI, and not really care where it was as long as we could get to it. (This is making your desktop look a lot more like the web rather than vice versa.) “But wait!” you say, “What if I want two different versions of the same program?” This is one of those great abuses of the file system that we’ve gotten so used to that it doesn’t even seem perverse. (We do the same thing with our documents and spreadsheets: put them over here and they mean something different or are different versions even though they have the same name.) If they really were two different versions they would have two different URIs. If you want to keep track of which one is newer, etc., this would be far easier with some triples than “knowing” which folder is more up to date. The more amusing part of this location-based identity thing is the other half of the classpath problem I started with, not what it is (a pointer to a location where you can find something else) but where it is (where is the classpath variable itself). “Well, that’s easy. You just click on the ‘start’ icon, click on the Control Panel menu choice, select ‘System and Security’ then choose the ‘System” bringing up a new window (basic information about your computer). Over in the left hand menu, there it is: ‘Advanced System Setting.’ Another window pops up ‘System Properties.’ Just go to the ‘Advanced’ tab and push the ‘Environment Variables’ (another pops up), scroll down to find the variable you want to set, click the ‘Edit’ button, and there it is!” (Why is it that all the variables you want to change are behind at least two and occasionally four layers of “advanced”?) In the first place, I have no idea where it is. All I know is a navigation procedure through a bunch of UIs that will lead me to it. This is one of the simpler ones. I’ve been dealing with this kind of stuff a lot lately and have come to the conclusion that UI designers are frustrated game developers. The simplest thing involves a journey through several rooms (forms), down all kinds of hallways (buttons and menus), and picking up all kinds of magic feathers (click this check box in order to get the button enabled). Game developers (sorry, I mean application developers — I’m getting them more and more mixed up the more I use applications) compete on trying to make the navigation “more intuitive.” The enduring popularity of “classic” interfaces is a testament to how well this isn’t working. Maybe we need this multi-layered, multi-display type interaction to manage our way through the vast complexity. But maybe search and meaningful names would help. Maybe the UIs could be reduced to a tutorial for the first time through and then be done. What if I had the URI of the classpath variable? I could just set it. No navigation required. Of the several thousand settable variables (think about it — there are over a hundred just on my print driver), I regularly use maybe a dozen. How cool it would be to have a docked window with those dozen variables I change a lot, and the ability to click and change them. And a search box to find the ones I don’t use as often. Until that day, if you happen to see me wandering the halls of “Control Panel,” don’t forget to give me the sword that gives me three new lives. You never know when you might need them.

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