Steaming piles

Posted on April 27, 2003 by Gene

pile.jpgRumor has it that the next Mac OS X update (codenamed “Panther”) will sport some new interface items. The most touted among them is something called the “pile.” As described by Apple Interface pundit Bruce Tognazzini:

Apple holds a patent on this one. Developed by Gitta Salomon and her team close to a decade ago, a pile is a loose grouping of documents. Its visual representation is an overlay of all the documents within the pile, one on top of the other, rotated to varying degrees. In other words, a pile on the desktop looked just like a pile on your real desktop.

To view the documents within the pile, you clicked on the top of the pile and drew the mouse up the screen. As you did so, one document after another would appear as a thumbnail next to the pile. When you found the one you were looking for, you would release the mouse and the current document would open.

Piles, unlike today’s folders, gave you a lot of hints as to their contents. You could judge the number of documents in the pile by its height. You could judge its composition very rapidly by pulling through it.
In this image, leaked by, I can already see the major drawback of piles: more desktop clutter. I already have dozens of files filling up my desktop, and now, instead of orderly grids of documents I’ll most likely have even more of a mess, consisting of files piled up at various angles.

This is a good time and place to complain about another bad interface choice: palettes. The elegance of the Mac menu bar has always been one of clean design: your commands are all hidden until you move to bring them into view. The menu bar sits nicely out of the way at the top of the screen, and all the menu items drop down when you request. But now, thanks to Adobe and Macromedia, our screens are literally covered with palettes of all sizes, offering a bewildering array of tools and commands. I spend at least half of my work day moving palettes out of the way, resizing windows so I can see around the palettes, and trying to come up with a window configuration that enables me to see what I am doing. I can see the necessity now for those huge 23″ screens from Apple. Why in the world can’t all those various commands, options, and tools be put back into the menu bar where they belong?