Deep inside Apple's Piles

Forgotten UI innovation to be exhumed? Inventor speaks to The Reg


Apple is set to enhance the desktop UI it created twenty years ago, according a report at eWeek. The report bears the Rothenberg hallmark of quality, so listen up.

At the heart of the UI revamp are "piles". Although haemorrhoids give millions of sufferers discomfiture every day, Apple's "piles" are an intriguing concept which should ease the pain of using such a constipated file and folder UI metaphor.

Piles are an Apple invention, now patented, that allow users to browse and organize documents by their semantic content.

They were developed by Gitta Salomon and her colleagues at Apple's Advanced Technology Human Interface Group and announced to the world at the CHI conference in May 1992.

Gitta kindly sent us the original presentation and spoke with us briefly today. She left Apple in 1993, and after a spell at Sony's lab started her own company, Swim Interaction Design, based in downtown San Francisco.

The paper describes "Piles" as an adjunct to the file/folder metaphor, in the paper (co-authored with Richard Mander and Yin Yin Wong). A clue is in the title, which describes piles as a metaphor for "supporting casual organization of information".

Piles were seen as complementary to the folder filing system, which was used more for archiving than grouping recently used, but related documents. "The folder as the sole container type presents an impoverished set of possibilities," the authors noted.

But Piles are a deep innovation, which require the system to add content-based filtering and some, possibly AI-guided help to the user who is browsing through a Pile. They're more than simply eye-candy.

"There are different aspects to Piles," Solomon told us today. "They are a visual representation, but also helping them organize things, as a way to make suggestions. There are fuzzy edges - the computer is presenting you with 'what if?' questions on a pile of stuff.

This would help indexing of the contents of documents in real time, much as BeOS' BFS file system indexed metadata attributes in real time using a dedicated system thread. BFS designer Dominic Giampaulo joined Apple last year, and the rumor circuit has consistently suggested that better threading is a priority for the Panther update to MacOS X. Which suggests that Apple has both the will and know-how to provide a system capable of supporting very rich Piles.

"It would preferable to be real-time," agreed Solomon.

Even a glance at Apple's HIG 1992 paper shows a thoroughness and inquisitiveness that's lacking in much of today's software. Rather than being contented with the Pile, the team was weighing pros and cons of how it should behave, using iterative user feedback.

For example, the researchers identified four kinds of browsing methods: an "edge" method where users looked for clues from the outlines of documents in the stack; a "restack" method, where users took documents off the top to reveal the next; a "hinge" method, which sounds very much like leafing through a book, stopping at various points, and a "spread" method which empties the contents of the pile on the floor, so to speak. They explored the optimal structure of a Pile viewing "Cone".

The Piles team looked ahead too, at scripting, and how Piles could be used for informal collaborative data sharing. Most intriguing of all was the discussion of gestures for manipulating Piles.

That chimed. In this column lamenting the dearth of innovation in the Macintosh UI he helped create, Bruce Tognazzini promotes gestures as a way for Apple to restore its reputation.

"The clutter of words, icons, and buttons that obscure our screens today are the result of the severely limited vocabulary of the mouse. The only word it knows is "click," so you have to find an instance of the word you want to convey to the computer, then say "click" while you hover over it," wrote Tognazzini.

"The mouse is dead; it's time for a change," he concluded.

Well, yes and no - we humbly suggest.

Your correspondent recently spent an enforced fortnight in the world of Windows, for the first time in a couple of years, and the only highlight of the experience - which must be very similar to keel-hauling - was the productivity increase in using the Opera brower's mouse gestures. Once you've used mouse gestures, it's very hard to go back.

But for gestures, you don't need to throw away the mouse. Any two-buttoned mouse will do.

Uh, oh. Did we just say "two buttoned mouse"? ®

Bootnote: Via readers: mouse gestures for Cocoa apps; (thanks Andrew Bowman); and for Windows, too. "The only downside of the program is its name: StrokeIt," writes Edward Robinson from Georgia Tech about the latter. "It's very hard to be serious about a program with a title like that, but be that as it may, I think it's a fantastic piece of software."

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