If you time-traveled back to 1995, and asked the leading futurists of that time where our machines were soon to take us, you might well have heard just as much rhapsodizing about document-centric interfaces as that about hypertext and the World Wide Web.
The first generation of software interfaces forced the user to think too much about the tools, the story went, and too little about the task. If you wanted to write a memo, you had to think, "First I must launch Microsoft Word, my tool, and then create a new document."
If you wanted to embed some piece of information that Microsoft Word wasn't optimized for, you had to launch another application, create and modify a new element there, and then move back to your original application environment, where you could deposit the alien data object.
A number of proposed interfaces - most famously, Apple's failed OpenDoc initiative, shut down shortly after the company acquired NeXT - promised to reverse the priorities: our desktops would prioritize the tasks over the tools, the documents over the applications. The user wouldn't launch documents inside an application.
They'd just create a document on its own, which would lie there like a surgical patient, and if you needed a specific tool - a little word-processing here, or some video-editing there - you just grabbed that tool and started working on the patient in front of you. In the application-centric model, you were constantly lugging organs into other operating rooms and then dragging them back.
The weird thing about the iPad is that it has landed us 180 degrees from where we thought we were heading. The iPad interface - like the iPhone's - tries to do everything in its power to do away with documents and files. There is no Finder or root-level file navigation.
It's apps, apps, apps, as far as the eye can see. According to the demo last week, the main way to launch iWork documents is by an internal document-selection process after launch, where your files are presented to you in a gallery format. (See pictures of the iPad's unveiling.)
I truly don't know how I feel about this. It might be genius. Maybe most users are more confused by Finders and File Explorers than I've realized. But I can't help thinking that if the iPad really wants to be a device that you might take on a business trip instead of the laptop, it's going to need a little more document-centrism.
By a wide margin, the most disappointing element of the user interface, or UI, is the home screen, which is virtually unchanged from the original iPhone UI. (The iPad is far, far more than a blown-up iPod Touch, but you can't tell from the home screen.)
Surely there's a better way to exploit multitouch and that extra screen real estate for navigating all the information that will be stored on these machines.
I have no inside information on this, but given the inventiveness of the iWork user experience, I can't help thinking that an iPad-native home environment was a project that didn't make the ship dates, and that they slapped on the old iPhone screen for continuity at the last minute. But time will tell.