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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
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
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