last night i had a dream in which i was debating various desktop design issues with some other people. (and yes, i do have more normal dreams from time to time as well.) an interesting point (at least it seemed interesting in the dream) was raised during the discussion: computers are made and sold more like cars than like houses.
unless you're really forking over the big bucks, when you buy a car you get to choose from a small number of options: the colour of the paint (and even then it's usually a limited palette unless you spring for a custom job), what kind of seats, sound system options, etc ... but generally one type car is like another of the same type. to enjoy true variety (for aesthetic or practical reasons) you need to switch model or even manufacturer.
when you purchase a house you usually have a lot more say in things. one can choose right down to the smallest details like hardware on the cupboards in the kitchen or what sort of window coverings (if any) ... even when you rent you usually get quite a bit of leeway. personally i've pulled all but one of the interior doors down in my house. the last door will be going once i get to that room as well. instead of doors, i use drapes. granted, this isn't a configuration for everyone but it works just great for me.
desktop software today tends to come much like cars: pretty much set with a certain feature set. want other features? got get a different application, or even a whole different operating system. sure, there are options to change colours and styling ... but when it comes to the feature set and how things are arranged it's pretty limited.
today when a desktop comes along that offers more configurability it's disparaged for that by certain "i prefer cars over houses" minded people. (hint: you want to live in a car, go ahead; the rest of us prefer houses and like the flexibility they afford) but perhaps that's because most of the configurability is of the "would you like a cd player, satellite radio or the basic radio with that car?" type rather than impactful feature modulation or addition.
in the dream the question was raised whether our desktops were indeed more like cars or more like houses: do we drive them or do we live in them? is it really possible to design the one feature set for everyone? cab drivers certainly spend a lot of time in the car, but most people spend their time in houses, offices and out-doors. (more of the latter if you're fortunate =)
the dream debaters came to consensus that it was economically infeasible to make computers like houses for proprietary shops. it was also noted that such economics don't apply directly to the open source methodology; yes, there are resources in scarcity but they align and can be invested differently.
we started talking about home goods stores: kitchen stores, bathroom stores, flooring and drapes stores, book stores, lingerie shops ... different stores cater to different types of people based on lifestyle, economic resources and culture / self-identity. one voice asked: why couldn't it be possible to have different stores for desktop computer feature sets that people could browse through and select from? (remember: this is a dream, analogies don't always remain well focused or sensible)
another noted that all/most houses do have things in common: main entry portals, bathrooms, places to prepare and eat food ... perhaps we could deliver a base model (call it the "car of the desktop") which does what's needed. then allow people to decorate their car into a house (again, it's a dream; don't ask for too much logic)
i asked how this was different from today and we agreed that today we let people adjust the colours and select the sound system but that feature sets are much more hard wired. that going forward we should perhaps concentrate more on delivering applications that allow for fundamental features to be added and removed by "shopping" through a catalog, and that these catalogs would, if allowed, naturally self-organize into catalogs for gamers versus catalogs for office work. which implies that it should be easy to make such add-ons (just as it's "easy" to make knobs for cupboards) and that the applications should be robust against such additions (the cupboards should stop opening just because you changed the knobs)
some of our applications are somewhat like this. kicker, amarok and to some extent konqueror. firefox is another interesting example.
what would our desktop look and function like if more of our apps were more frameworks that provided the essentials with easily browsable (ala "get hot new stuff") accoutrements that allowed the addition of specific functions from the general to the specific.
would we end up with "interior designers" that would provide highly tailored looks specific to an individual or use case for a fee? would we have an ikea for the desktop? what would an email or calendaring app built like this look like? a file manager?
since waking up (and getting over the annoyance of realizing i'd been dreaming about software) i've been thinking about it. not sure if it means anything particular (not atypical for a dream) or if there's something useful in it. *shrug* if nothing else it was an interesting way to spend sleep time.
(wow. this blog entry feels very ... random)