Icon Wasteland: the Madness of Multiple Desktops

Everywhere we look, we are surrounded by desktops.

Everywhere we look, we are surrounded by desktops.


Once it was merely our laptops and PCs, and then it was our companion netbooks, too. Then our Web 2.0 accounts: Facebook, MobileMe, Google apps. After that, our phones got smart with apps and files of their own, and then our car nav systems. CES showed our e-readers are incorporating them, and our TVs too; some of our computers, like Lenovo’s new hybrid tablet/notebook, contain two distinct machines with, yes, two discrete desktops. Soon, we may add more, in the form of an Apple iSlate or Microsoft Courier.

When will it stop?


Oddly enough, few companies seem intent on coalescing all our many desktops into one central location. Apple tries halfheartedly with MobileMe–I can get my photos and my iDisk files online–but to keep my files in sync, I have to use a third-party tool like Dropbox or Evernote. Still, the clutter grows on both machines. Where did I download those attachments? What became of that torrent? What machine was I using?

Not only is the confusion growing, but companies like Microsoft are coming to consider this desktop confusion to be normal. Their FUSE social networking lab, created this fall, is building its Web strategies around a user model it calls “cloud-plus-three screens.” In other words, they’re taking for granted that you have a PC, a mobile device, a TV, and a Web account. That’s like pulling your nice big steamship alongside the sinking Titanic and offering the flailing passengers SCUBA gear. What the hell, Redmond?



Somehow, we’ve become remarkably apt at sharing with others, but not so good at sharing with ourselves. If I want to collaborate with a colleague on a project, I can use SharePoint Workspace, or Google Docs, or subversion clients like Versions. But if I want to keep the same home movies on all my devices, then what? Sure, Windows 7 has its nifty HomeGroup feature, which lets me share certain directories and media, and iTunes’ Home Share lets me transfer songs from MacBook to iMac. But the desktops remain, like so many cutting-room floors, full of the jetsam of my digital life.

There are plenty of utilities that give me more desktops, like Xilisoft Multiple Desktops for Windows or Spaces for Mac. But there aren’t any that give me fewer. Back in the day, when the Graphical User Interface was a novelty, we weren’t ready to abandon the metaphor of the actual desk. Gizmos that do–like Google’s new Chrome OS–look oddly claustrophobic. Now, it seems, we’re trapped inside a stupid 2-D concept that never made much sense to begin with.

Desktp Escape

There’s at least one Flash game (aptly named Desktop Escape) that makes light of this plight–but that’s cold comfort as I try to remember where I last dumped my photos.

About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.