Leopard “Stacks” Implement Ages-Old GUI Concept “Piles”



With all the excitement and, to be frank, disappointment that came with yesterday’s WWDC Stevenote, I haven’t seen anyone pick out the obvious with Apple’s innovative new GUI element Stacks, which allows users to cluster files that would otherwise clutter the desktop into a discreet pile of files that blow out into a scannable list with a simple click. It takes the super-janky right-click a folder in the dock movement we’re all used to now and replaces it with a sleek Dock launcher we can all get behind.
It’s really cool. It’s also a very old concept, one that Apple has had patented for 15 years. And this doesn’t look to be a great implementation of it. Way back in 1992, Apple called the Stacks content “Piles,” first demonstrating the new interface at the CHI conference. Gitta Solomon of Apple’s Advanced Technology Human Computer Interaction Group created the fascinating interview, which The Register mooted was finally destined for Mac OS X way back in 2003. Only four years too early — and 11 years too late. Click through to learn more about Piles.

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Former Apple interface guru Bruce Tognazzini is among the most ardent supporters of the old Piles notion, so I’m in the process of connecting with him to find out whether he think the Leopard version does Piles justice, especially since it seems rather feature limited. Here’s a classic “Tog” quote about Piles:

Apple holds a patent on this one. Developed by Gitta Salomon and her team close to a decade ago, a pile is a loose grouping of documents. Its visual representation is an overlay of all the documents within the pile, one on top of the other, rotated to varying degrees. In other words, a pile on the desktop looked just like a pile on your real desktop.

To view the documents within the pile, you clicked on the top of the pile and drew the mouse up the screen. As you did so, one document after another would appear as a thumbnail next to the pile. When you found the one you were looking for, you would release the mouse and the current document would open.

Piles, unlike today’s folders, gave you a lot of hints as to their contents. You could judge the number of documents in the pile by its height. You could judge its composition very rapidly by pulling through it.

Piles have been among the most-requested UI features among Mac-heads for more than a decade now. In fact, when I told a co-worker that used to work at a design firm with Apple ties about Stacks, he replied, “Oh, yeah. Apple’s had that patented for years.”
The future’s the past, people. Steve has finally been in the job long enough that he’s ready to re-examine technology that the company developed while he was at NeXT. If that isn’t news, I don’t know what is.


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6 responses to “Leopard “Stacks” Implement Ages-Old GUI Concept “Piles””

  1. Bill Olson says:

    Thank you Steve for calling it Stacks and not Piles.

    Can you imagine…

    “Hey look at this really cool new feature in OS X.

    What feature is that?


    Piles? You mean like piles of s**t?

    No. I mean stacking documents on top of each other in a live folder that changes as you add documents to it.

    Why did they pick the word Piles to describe that? It sounds like you got a colon problem.

    Yes, it’s a pretty bad name all right and does sound painful.”

  2. Not Oxford says:

    Ultralingua Said :
    • pile n. piles 1. A collection of objects laid on top of each other; 2. A column of wood or steel or concrete that is driven into the ground to provide support for a structure; 3. Informal: a large sum of money. 4. The yarn (as in a rug or velvet) that stands up from the weave.

    • pile v. piled ◊ piling ◊ piles 1. To lay or throw into a pile or heap; to heap up; to collect into a mass; to accumulate; to amass. 2. To cover with heaps; or in great abundance; to fill or overfill; to load.

    • pile up v. To arrange into piles or stacks;

    • stack n. stacks An orderly pile.

    • stack v. stacked â—Š stacking â—Š stacks 1. To arrange in stacks; “stack your books up on the shelves”; 2. To load or cover with stacks; “stack a truck with boxes.” 3. To arrange in a stack or pile;

  3. Not Oxford says:

    That exposed I agree about the No-no about the term “piles”
    wich in english is hardly connoted