The Cyberdog that didn't bark in the night

One of the trends we’re seeing in the iOSification of computing on Apple products is the dominance of the application over the document, an interesting reversal of what Apple tried to do in the ’90s. I don’t think this is “the right thing”, but it seems more practical in the “worse is better” sense.

If you were a Mac user 15 years ago, you probably remember OpenDoc, the plan to make computing document-centered rather than application-centered. The idea was that if you were writing a report, for example, you’d want tables, graphs, and illustrations to accompany the text. Instead of having giant monolithic spreadsheet and drawing programs to create items that would then be copied and pasted into a document created by a giant monolithic word processor, the OpenDoc approach was to have small spreadsheet, drawing, and word processing components that would each feed their output directly into the document you were creating. The part of the document you were currently working on would determine which program component would be active.

Apple wasn’t unique in thinking that this document-centered approach was the way of the future. Microsoft was touting OLE in Office, a way to have, for example, a “live” spreadsheet in your Word document. Change a column of the spreadsheet in Excel and it would automatically update in Word. Of course, coming from Microsoft, the component programs were huge and bloated instead of small and focused, but at least the programs from Redmond worked. OpenDoc never really got off the ground, and when Steve Jobs came back to Apple, OpenDoc was one of the things he killed.

I still think OpenDoc was the right idea, but it failed for two reasons:

Fifteen years later, iOS has done away entirely with the idea of launching a document. Right or wrong, Apple has recognized that users think in terms of applications and that’s all that Springboard shows you. Many apps don’t bother with documents at all, and those that do bother handle their opening and closing entirely within the app.

With Lion, this approach is making its way to the Mac. Launchpad is going to turn our Mac screens into Springboards. And as for keeping file management within the apps, iTunes and iPhoto have always done this. They allow you to work with thousands of individual files without ever dealing with the file system itself. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pages, Numbers, and Keynote doing the same thing within a couple of versions.1 It’s very easy to imagine using an iPhoto-like interface to locate and organize all your Keynote presentations, isn’t it?

This is, as I said, a complete reversal of the OpenDoc idea, with documents completely subservient to application. Separate files will soon seem like “items” that our apps organize for us—we’ll never touch them outside their apps.

Some of us who understand the file system and who appreciate the value of opening files in more than one application will denounce this dumbing down of the computing experience. Even those of us who see its merit will have nagging doubts that something important has been lost. But Apple knows we can get along. It believes it’s more important to serve the people who don’t know “where” their files are, the people whose Desktops are littered with icons because they don’t know where else to put them, and the people who don’t know how to launch an application that isn’t in their Dock. Because these people outnumber us.

And frankly, when their lives are made easier, so are ours.

  1. I used to wonder why Apple hadn’t updated iWork since the ’09 release. Now it seems obvious that it’s waiting for Lion.