Why We Need to Rethink the Computer ‘Desktop’ as a Concept

Thoughts about a new direction for desktop UI

Ben Zotto
Published in
13 min readMay 18, 2021


Just contemplating some Serious Business before hitting the tennis court. From “Macintosh” (1984) by Apple Computer.

The long-lived “desktop” operating system has been with us for almost 40 years. Although some of the mechanics have proven remarkably durable, contemporary computer usage is very different from the context these were born in, and it’s time to do some rethinking.

I’m going to outline the original idea, illustrate some changes in computer use, and suggest some new ways of thinking.

(I’m a longtime Mac user, so my experience and examples are specific to that platform. Maybe Windows is awesome now, I don’t know, my last real exposure was with XP when I worked at Microsoft.)

This is the dialog that I see every time I want to close the Preview app to clear my desktop of all that clutter in a hurry for a video call. The option I want is the one that’s missing: quit, but keep all the documents.

Partly this is just silly UX: the app already keeps all those unsaved images around. So I use Force Quit to quit Preview, because it does what I want. But that’s not what Force Quit is for, and anyway the reason the option that makes sense isn’t here is due to a philosophical disconnect illustrated rather precisely.

Everything that is outdated in computer desktop usability is captured by that dialog box.

Surviving and thriving at Consolidated Companies, Inc. From “9 to 5” (1980).

What is the desktop metaphor?

Ever since the dawn of the Graphical User Interface operating system on mass-market computers in the mid-1980s, they have been designed primarily around what was then called the “desktop metaphor,” and is more usefully described as a document-centric system:

  1. You, the user, are imagined to be looking at the top of an old-fashioned, pre-computer desk, which is covered with documents for your work: memos, spreadsheets, pictures. Topmost is whatever you are working on right now.