Recently, I was pointed at rotated Google. This is cool in a perverse sort of way, and it immediately reminded me of Morphic.
What makes Morphic interesting is that it is compositional. The basic building block is a morph, which is just a graphical entity. The key is that everything in Morphic is a morph - including not just the basic morphs like lines and curves, polygons, circles, ellipses but also text, buttons, lists, windows ... you name it.
All morphs support pretty general graphical combinators - translation, rotation, scaling, non-linear warping, changing color, grouping/ungrouping etc. It follows that one can interactively rotate, scale or non-linearly warp an entire window running a live application.
One of my favorite Squeak demos is a class browser that’s been animated so that it floats around the screen, rotating as it goes, coupled with sound effects (a croaking frog is my preference). Of course you can keep using the browser and add methods or remove instance variables on the fly while it’s doing that. It’s an amazing display of the power of compositionality in action. It’s also perfectly useless (like rotated Google).
When running Morphic, you can always interactively ungroup a composite morph and get at its pieces. So you can disassemble the UI and find out what its made of. You can also do the opposite and assemble a UI out of simpler morphs; in a sense, the GUI is the GUI builder.
The situation is quite analogous to the physical world. A real window (the kind used to let light into your house) is assembled from physical pieces, and can be disassembled as well. The window as a whole, and each of its components, can be manipulated in space in uniform ways.
Thankfully, the laws of physics are compositional, since they were not designed by software engineers on a standards committee.
Put another way, if the universe was built like most software, it would have crashed long ago; the big bang would have a different meaning.
As a demonstration of good computer science, Morphic is brilliant. However, as a working UI it is problematic. You don’t really want your windows to fall apart in the user’s hands because they accidentally pressed some control sequence.
Looking at how physical windows work, we see that when they are assembled, they are secured so they are not disassembled too easily. Things are held together with glue or screws or whatever, and you need to make an effort to take the structure apart, perhaps using special tools.
This points at the way morphic interfaces should evolve. It’s great to have the underlying flexibility that they give you, but we want mechanisms to prevent accidents. We don’t want our applications decomposing by mistake. We also don’t want loose windows rotating by mistake. We need the equivalent of screws to hold things in place. The nice thing about screws is that they can be be used to build things up from parts compositionally, and they can be unscrewed when necessary. That way, we can take advantage of the flexibility of the underlying framework and do cool things with it, while keeping it safe for the end-user.
As rotating Google and (more significantly) Lively show, the web opens up the possibility of such UIs reaching a broad audience. I am sure we will get versions of morphic that are more refined, usable, attractive and polished - all less than three decades since they were introduced in Self. Instant progress!
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