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1. motivation

1.1 application-centric design

The majority of users interact with modern computing systems in the form of smartphones, laptops or desktop PCs, using the mainstream operating systems Apple iOS and Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows or Android.

All of these operating systems share the concept of Applications (or Apps) as one of the core pieces of their interaction model. Functionality and capabilities of the digital devices are bundled in, marketed, sold and distributed as applications. This focus on applications as the primary unit of systems can be seen as the root cause of multiple problems.

For one, since applications are produced by private companies on the software market, developers compete on features integrated into their applications. To stay relevant, monolithic software or software suites tend to accrete features rather then modularize and delegate to other software. This makes many software packages more complex and unintuitive than they need to be, and also cripples interoperability between applications and data formats.

Because (private) software developers are incentivised to keep customers, they make use of network effects to keep customers locked-in. This often means re-implementing services and functionality that is already available to users, and integrating it directly in other applications or as a new product by the same organisation. While this strategy helps big software companies retain customers, it harms users, who have to navigate a complex landscape of multiple incompatible, overlapping and competing software ecosystems. Data of the same kind, a rich-text document for example, can be shared easily within the software systems of a certain manufacturer and with other users of the same, but sharing with users of a competing system, even if it has almost the exact same capabilities, can often be problematic.

Another issue is that due to the technical challenges of development in the this paradigm, applications are designed and developed by experts in application development, rather than experts in the domain of the tool. While developers may solicit feedback, advice, and ideas from domain experts, communication is a barrier. Additionally, domain experts are generally unfamiliar with the technical possibilities, and may therefore not be able to express feedback that would lead to more significant advances. As a result, creative use of computer technology is limited to programmers, since applications constrain their users to the paths and abilities that the developers anticipated and deemed useful.

The application-centric computing metaphor treats applications as black boxes, and provides no means to understand, customize or modify the behaviour of apps, intentionally obscuring the inner-workings of applications and completely cutting users off from this type of ownership over their technology. While the trend seems to be to further hide the way desktop operating systems work, mobile systems like Apple's iOS already started out as such walled gardens.

1.2 cloud computing

Web Apps often offer similar functionality to other applications, but are subject to additional limitations: In most cases, they are only accessible or functional in the presence of a stable internet connection, and they have very limited access to the resources of the physical computer they are running on. For example, they usually cannot interact directly with the file system, hardware peripherals or other applications, other than through a standardized set of interactions (e.g. selecting a file via a visual menu, capturing audio and video from a webcam, opening another website).

Cloud software, as well as subscription-model software with online-verification mechanisms, are additionally subject to license changes, updates modifying, restricting or simply removing past functionality etc. Additionally, many cloud software solutions and ecosystems store the users' data in the cloud, often across national borders, where legal and privacy concerns are intransparently handled by the companies. If a company, for any reason, is unable or unwilling to continue servicing a customer, the users data may be irrecoverably lost (or access prevented). This can have serious consequences, especially for professional users, for whom an inability to access their tools or their cloud-stored data can pose an existential threat.

1.3 inert data (and data formats)

Cragg coins the term "inert data" for the data created and left behind by apps and applications in the computing model that is currently prevalent: Most data today is either intrinsically linked to one specific application, that controls and limits access to the actual information, or, even worse, stored in the cloud where users have no direct access at all. In the latter case users depend solely on online tools that require a stable network connection and a modern browser and could be modified, removed, or otherwise negatively impacted at any moment.

Aside from being inaccessible to users, the resulting complex proprietary formats are also opaque and useless to other applications and the operating system, which often is a huge missed opportunity: The .docx format for example, commonly used for storing mostly textual data enriched with images and on occasion videos, is in fact a type of archive that can contain many virtual files internally, such as the various media files contained within. However this is completely unknown to the user and operating system, and so users are unable to access the contents in this way. As a result, editing an image contained in a word document is far from a trivial task: first the document has to be opened in a word processing application, then the image has to be exported from it and saved in its own, temporary file. This file can then be edited and saved back to disk. Once updated, the image may be reimported into the .docx document. If the word-processing application supports this, the old image may be replaced directly, otherwise the user may have to remove the old image, insert the new one and carefully ensure that the positioning in the document remains intact.

1.4 disjointed filesystems

The filesystems and file models used on modern computing devices generally operate on the assumption that every individual file stands for itself. Grouping of files in folders is allowed as a convenience for users, but most applications only ever concern themselves with a single file at a time, independent of the context the file is stored in in the filesystem.

Data rarely really fits this concept of individual files very well, and even when it does, it is rarely exposed to the user that way: The 'Contacts' app on a mobile phone for example does not store each contacts's information in a separate 'file' (as the word may suggest initially), but rather keeps all information in a single database file, which is hidden away from the user. Consequently, access to the information contained in the database is only enabled through the contacts application's graphical interface, and not through other applications that generically operate on files.

Another example illustrates how a more powerful file (organisation) system could render such formats and applications obsolete: Given the simple task of collecting and arranging a mixed collection of images, videos and texts in order to brainstorm, many might be tempted to open an application like Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop and create a new document there. Both Photoshop files and Word documents are capable of containing texts and images, but when such content is copied into them from external sources, such as other files on the same computer, or quotes and links from the internet, these relationships are irrevocably lost. As illustrated above, additionally, it becomes a lot harder to edit the content once it is aggregated. To choose an application for this task is a hard trade-off to make, because in applications primarily designed for word processing, arranging content visually is hard to do, and image editing and video embedding options are limited, while tools better suited to these tasks lack nuance when working with text.

To avoid facing this dilemma, a more sensible system could leave the task of positioning and aggregating content of different types to one software component, while multiple different software components could be responsible for editing the individual pieces of content, so that the most appropriate one can be chosen for each element. While creating the technological interface between these components is certainly a challenge, the resulting system would greatly benefit from the exponentially-growing capabilities resulting from the modular reuse of components across many contexts: A rich text editor component could be used for example not just in a mixed media collection as proposed above, but also for an email editor or the input fields in a browser.

To summarize, for various reasons, the metaphors and driving concepts of computing interfaces today prevent users from deeply understanding the software they use and the data they own, from customizing and improving their experience and interactions, and from properly owning, contextualising and connecting their data.

Interestingly, these deficits do not appear throughout the history of today's computing systems, but are based in rather recent developments in the field. In fact the most influential systems in the past aspired to the polar opposites, as I will show in the next section.