The Metaphor Is The Message

IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS THE word. Or rather many, many words, weird words like edlin or pip. Those who understood what these words meant could get computers to do simple things, like copying data. But it was all too daunting for the average person, and computers remained largely the province of engineers and scientists. Then, a decade ago, Apple Computer introduced the Macintosh, and pictures crowded out words. The screen resembled a desktop with files that actually looked like file folders; discarded items went into an electronic trash can. A new class of users-writers, artists, business executives -embraced computers at work.

Now, that desktop metaphor may soon be as obsolete as the old geekspeak. The desktop works great if you're using the computer primarily for work. But there are now more than 30 million computers in U.S. households. These machines are keys to the world beyond spreadsheets: electronic shopping, education, entertainment on line. Software designers are developing onscreen images-interfaces-to tame this electronic frontier. The newest metaphor is a representation of the physical world beyond the office, with pictures of stores or books to help technophobes navigate in cyberspace.

One of the first of the new interfaces is Magic Cap from General Magic, a Silicon Valley company whose top staff includes two key members of the original Macintosh team, Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson. Before the end of this year, if all goes according to schedule, Magic Cap users will be able to move from a desktop to a library scene to a downtown street. Each scene reflects a different function: writing notes, storing data, electronic shopping. At this point, the software is designed to work on computers and portable communications devices (kind of like giant pagers with screens). Marc Porat, General Magic's CEO, wants to turn the couch potato into a "cybersurfer who can jump into ... all kinds of places in the world."

Magic Cap may be just the beginning. Microsoft-creator of text-based DOS and the Windows operating system, which also emulates a desktop and brought icons to millions of non-Mac users-is working on its own version of a real-world interface. Its design project, code named "Utopia," is still "evolving," according to a company spokesman, and there's no scheduled release date. Virginia Howlett, Microsoft's director of visual interface design, says familiar images, such as doors and rooms, make technology seem less scary.

Children's software designers learned this lesson years ago. Some of the most popular kids' programs start with images of a make-believe on-screen world. "We have lots of things that the big boys can learn from besides metaphors, says Bob Davidson, chief executive officer of Davidson & Associates, a major publisher of educational software. For example, Davidson's Kid Works 2, a story-writing program, has "talking help," audio tips that the child summons with a click. It's like asking a passerby for directions, except you're more likely to get where you want to go.

The next step might be complete voice interaction, the machine as right-hand man (a system you could operate with your eyes closed). You might, for example, dictate a letter and then tell the machine to send it. And after that, maybe virtual reality, where you feel like you're actually inside the machine. Metaphors are made to be broken.