Time to take back “task”

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Shawn Minto, one of the Tasktop team and long time Mylyn contributor, recently got shock from seeing the following dialog while programming in Eclipse.  Mylyn users rely on the Task List to bring sanity to their workday, so it’s understandable that an ominous message like this can make your heart jump.  Especially if you routinely put four shots of espresso in your caramel macchiato as Shawn does. 

Eclipse dialog

When Shawn showed me the dialog I imagined myself in his shoes and was overcome by a strange sense of calm and conclusion, as I realized that this would be a perfect epitaph for me.  Our initial surprise quickly turned to laughter when we realized that the dialog came from ThinkPad update software malfunctioning and not from Mylyn.  This turned out to be just another reminder of the mismatch between in how the word “task” is understood by users and how it has been defined by operating system developers.  Consider the following Windows Vista screenshots.

tasks implementation detail

To a user that has access to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a task is a usually assigned piece of work to be finished within a certain time.  But as with so many bits of user interface design legacy, an implementation-centric perspective has surfaced too much of the programmer’s point of view.  To an operating system programmer, the word “task” makes sense because they spend a lot of time seeing the world from the system’s point of view.  But most of us are not operating systems programmers.  As a user I care about scheduling the tasks that make up my workday, not the CPU’s. So when I see a billboard like this one from AMD that I came across in Bangalore, it makes me wonder why the industry seems to care more about my CPU’s ability to multitask than it does about mine.

“Task” is such a nice four letter word that it’s a shame to waste it on implementation details.  With Mylyn’s Task-Focused Interface, we made the conscious decision to reclaim it for the user.  Mylyn connectors are very happy to let you call your tasks by more specific names such as bug, issue, ticket, user story, defect, action, case, or whatever you like to define your workday by.  But what you get by bringing your tasks into Eclipse is much truer multitasking.  Unless you are an operating system, multiple cores alone are not sufficient to make you significantly more productive.  So when we see the word “task” abused in an implementation-centric way, we should keep in mind this difference in perspective.  But we can look forward to seeing fewer of the implementation details that have crept their way back since PARC’s creation of the user-centric desktop environment.  New Eclipse-based tools like Lotus Symphony and Tasktop Dev will mean that we spend less of our day in the operating system and more in Eclipse.