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2. historical approaches

Two of the earliest holistic computing systems, the Xerox Alto and Xerox Star, both developed at Xerox PARC and introduced in the 70s and early 80s, pioneered not only graphical user-interfaces, but also the "Desktop Metaphor". The desktop metaphor presents information as stored in "Documents" that can be organized in folders and on the "Desktop". It invokes a strong analogy to physical tools. One of the differences between the Xerox Star system and other systems at the time, as well as the systems we use currently, is that the type of data a file represents is directly known to the system.

In a retrospective analysis of the Xerox Star's impact on the computer industry, the desktop metaphor is described as follows:

In a Desktop metaphor system, users deal mainly with data files, oblivious to the existence of programs. They do not "invoke a text editor", they "open a document". The system knows the type of each file and notifies the relevant application program when one is opened.

The disadvantage of assigning data files to applications is that users sometimes want to operate on a file with a program other than its "assigned" application. [...] Star's designers feel that, for its audience, the advantages of allowing users to forget about programs outweighs this disadvantage.

Other systems at the time lacked any knowledge of the type of files, and while mainstream operating systems of today have retro-fit the ability to associate and memorize the preferred applications to use for a given file based on it's name suffix, the intention of making applications a secondary, technical detail of working with the computer has surely been lost.

Another design detail of the Star system is the concept of "properties" that are stored for "objects" throughout the system (the objects being anything from files to characters or paragraphs). These typed pieces of information are labelled with a name and persistently stored, providing a mechanism to store metadata such as user preference for ordering or the default view mode of a folder for example.

The earliest indirect influence for the Xerox Alto and many other systems of its time, was the Memex. The Memex is a hypothetical device and system for knowledge management. Proposed by Vannevar Bush in 1945, the concept predates much of the technology that later was used to implement many parts of the vision.

One of the most innovative elements of Bush's predictions is the idea of technologically cross-referenced and connected information, which would later be known and created as hypertext. While hypertext powers the majority of today's internet, many of the advantages that Bush imagined have not carried over into the personal use of computers. There are very few tools for creating personal, highly-interconnected knowledge bases, even though it is technologically feasible and a proven concept (exemplified for example by the massively successful online encyclopedia Wikipedia).

While there are little such tools available today, one of the systems that could be said to have come closest to a practical implementation of a Memex-inspired system for personal use might be Apple's HyperCard.

In a live demonstration, the creators of the software showcase a system of stacks of cards that together implement, amongst others, a calendar (with yearly and weekly views), a list of digital business cards for storing phone numbers and addresses, and a todo list. However these stacks of cards are not just usable by themselves, it is also demonstrated how stacks can link to each other in meaningful ways, such as jumping to the card corresponding to a specific day from the yearly calendar view, or automatically looking up the card corresponding to a person's first name from a mention of the name in the text on a different card.

Alongside Spreadsheets, HyperCard remains one of the most successful implementations of end-user programming, even today. While its technical abilities have been long matched and surpassed by other software (such as the ubiquitous Hypertext Markup Language, HTML and the associated programming language JavaScript), these technical successors have failed the legacy of HyperCard as an end-user tool: While it is easier than ever to publish content on the web (through various social media and microblogging services), the benefits of hypermedia as a customizable medium for personal management have nearly vanished. End-users do not create hypertext anymore.