As it's the twentieth anniversary of the Mac I've found myself over the last few days reading articles about the original development of the Mac, Star, and Lisa; how they came up with and honed the various interface elements. It's all stuff that we're now familiar with and consider ubiquitous, such as scroll bars, windows, icons etc. The current state of the interface art seems to work quite well, but I do think there are alternatives -- major alternatives really, when it comes to the very idea of launching applications to perform tasks.
Years ago I was one of the first to get my hands on an Apple Newton, and I've had every hardware version since then. The Newton was a computer -- in that you could download software into it, and it was very flexible in how you used it -- but because it was a handheld they took the opportunity to start again from scratch with regard to the interface and what metaphors it would use.
Instead of using a desktop as the back bone of the OS, they chose a notepad, or rather, an endless roll of note paper.
You didn't create new notes, or save them or name them. You simply drew a line across the screen and wrote something new below it. The OS then turned the line into a separator and date stamped it, using the first few words of the note as a title to be used when viewed in the overview mode. Third party developers wrote enhancements for the OS that made the notepad incredibly powerful, and easy to navigate.
When going back to an earlier note, the first thought wasn't "what did I name it," or, "where did I file it", but rather, "when did I write it?" This reference to a timeline seemed such an obvious and natural method of searching that I began thinking about how it could be used in a fullsized setting -- for everything. Not just notes created or edited, but having every activity recorded on the timeline. If the timeline projected into the future as well it could also serve as a scheduler.
I imagine something vertical that could be zoomed or filtered to reduce clutter. With the resolutions available on today's screens it could be a permanent fixture of the OS. If the timeline was a column that was positioned at the lower-left of the screen then above it could be the data column. The first use for the data column would be as a list of contacts. Other categories could include websites, inventories and collections, any sort of quick reference lists. That leaves the rest of the screen which would be primarily made up of the content screen.
The lower portion of the content screen could double as a context, or properties screen. If an active item is clicked but not activated then relevant information would appear in this lower right screen.