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LN 006

Swappable views

As discussed in previous lab notes, items in your system can show up anywhere — in a browsing path, within other items, and so on.

In LN 002, I left the discussion on how items are displayed to this description:

When you pull an item into some other place, it is still rendered by its hosting application. Hosting applications provide the view components for rendering data items in different situations or sizes.

But let’s push this definition further… what if you could change the view used to render items of a certain type? Or the view used for one item in particular? What if you could use different views provided by different apps in any situation?

This brings us to swappable views, a simple (but consequential) foundational feature in the operating system of the future that I have been designing.

All data items have a type (email, note, task, task list, event, and so on). You can pick what view component is used to render all items of a certain type across your system, or you can quickly flip between applicable view components for one specific item. These view components can come from any installed app.

Consider: Say you prefer to compose your emails in markdown. Or rich text. Or in a minimalistic writing environment. Or any of the three, depending on the day. You could pick one to be your default. And you could easily switch between them whenever you wanted.

Different kinds of views a user might choose for composing their email drafts.

Further say you found a view for your inbox that you like better — maybe it lets you archive things more easily, or maybe it batches up your newsletters grouped by sender. You could install and use that view for your inbox.

But here is the important implication: you would not have to stop using the compose window you prefer for drafting your outgoing messages.

In today’s systems, you pick one email app, and if you like the compose window of another, you’re out of luck — you have to choose one, with every aspect of the app along with it.

In this operating system of the future, since you can pick any view for any item type, you are free to more flexibly choose exactly what you want for any particular item, purpose, or day. And no choice is binding: you can set defaults, but flip around on specific items.

Extending the above example, you could install an email renderer that blocks images, or one that offers a simplified reader view, etc. All of your things are simply items in the system. You can tell the system what views you want to render each item, and you can even flip to different views on the spot.

In today’s operating systems, if you wanted a new feature for your drafts or the rendering of emails, you’d be on the hunt for a new email client — which means everything changes; you have to worry about whether that email app has all the features you need, whether it adheres to your or your workplace’s privacy requirements, whether it allows you to navigate your emails the way you prefer, etc. — all just to get that one new feature you prefer. Compromises are made in droves by users of today’s operating systems.

If your search for a new app turned up nothing, you could theoretically build it, but you would have to build every other aspect of the application as well — likely too much time to invest unless if what you build would be purchased by a few thousand others, who want that feature as well, to fund the development.

But in this operating system of the future, since you can pick a new view to render any item type, you could simply find and use a view that supports the feature you want. Or as a developer, you would only need to build that view in order to realize your vision for it.

Besides setting a new default view for items of a specific type, you can also quickly flip between applicable views on any one item.

Consider: Say you like to occasionally use timeblocking, on your busy days. On calmer days, you’ve found timeblocking to be too cumbersome for your regular workload. In today’s operating systems, that would likely mean using different planner or task apps on different days, or even more likely, it’d mean being left experiencing frustration with your software for its inability to keep up on certain days.

In this OS of the future, we can flip to a different view for any one item; so for a single day within our planner, we can use a timeblocking view (rather than the standard list of todos).

Video showing a user flipping between three different views for one date in their planner: a standard list of tasks, one with time estimates, and one with time blocks.

Or consider: You may want to navigate and use a collection of items in different views at different times — one might make more sense when you’re fleshing out your thoughts, another when you’re updating the current status, and another when you’re presenting at a meeting.

In this example, you see that we can switch between a freeform canvas, a navigable and sortable list, and a Kanban-style board of columns.

Video showing the user flipping between three different views for a collection of items: a list, a canvas in which one item is dragged and moved, and a board of columns that show each item's child items within lists.

You can flip between these views whenever you want, even if the views themselves are offered by different apps.

Swappable views are an effortless way for users to get the kind of functionality they’re looking for from their software, without having to regularly throw out entire apps and all of their data to get it.

And for developers, entirely new types of things can be built that are simply not possible or economical today.

As a developer, you might want to overhaul how we interact with the inbox. Even though your innovation touches just one aspect of the overall email client, today you have to rebuild the entire thing — from implementing IMAP to drafts and so on… email clients are quite large things when you consider all of their features, and you largely cannot reinvent one portion of them without rebuilding the entire thing.

In this concept for the future OS, you can freely ship one view. Or a few. And people can select any of the views you’ve built whenever and wherever they want to.

Which also means you can develop wild ideas without having to invest months to years of development time on pieces you don’t care much about; instead you can focus on just the piece that you’ve got something new for, today.

Instead of every developer in one field all receiving the same feature requests, needing to rebuild what everyone else is building too, more developers can explore more deeply on their specific experiment, and users will still have access to all of the features they’ve come to expect.

Swappable views, along with some other concepts we’ll cover in the next few Lab Notes, mean fewer unending and duplicative feature requests for every developer, and more focusing on solving problems really well.

Being able to swap these things out quickly and freely, or system-wide and permanently, offers us an enormous amount of leverage with our systems as users, and an incredible new way to build better things for ourselves and others as developers.

Something spark a thought? Email me, or come chat on Mastodon or on Twitter.

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