BumpTop: Software toy or useful desktop replacement?

The video demo was a YouTube smash three years ago. Is BumpTop still relevant now?

Nearly three years ago, a video demo of a new desktop user interface, the BumpTop, captivated YouTube viewers. A year later the creator, Anand Agarawala, was called to the august TED conference to present. Now the BumpTop software is here, ready for you and your Windows PC. I gave it a spin.

It's certainly very cool. In many ways it is a better desktop than the one that comes with Windows (even Windows 7) or OS X. But as cool as it is, it feels like a toy. That's because the locus of modern personal computing is not the desktop. People live in apps and in the browser.

BumpTop makes the desktop better, but so what? It won't make you more productive in your e-mail app, and it currently doesn't touch the Web browsing experience. BumpTop doesn't go deep enough into Windows to replace the way we work with information. Instead, it adds yet another interface to use in addition to the Windows utilities (like the file manager), your apps, and your Web browser.

It's your desktop, but in 3D and messy.

(Credit: Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET)

With that curmudgeonly view on the table, let's look at the cool stuff that BumpTop does. Because even though it's a toy right now, you're going to want to try it.

Bumptop releasing 3D Windows desktop

BumpTop makes the items on your computer's desktop more manageble and more like their real-world counterparts. You can fling folders (and icons) around, and they have weight, which is related to size, which indicates importance to you. Items grow when you use them more, or you can grow or shrink them manually. You can stack items into groups, view them as if they were pages in a book, spread them out along arbitrary paths, or show them in nice square grids (boring).

To work with items, you lasso them together. And instead of the typical, squared-off interface of a PC, where selection boxes are all rectangles, everything stays upright, and all icons are the same size, BumpTop lets you select items by drawing vague circles around them, and the icons can fly all over the place, change sizes, and flip around. Things can be scattered around in a way that more closely resembles the real world. It may not be square and clean, but thanks to subtle visual cues, like angle, size, and proximity, you'll probably find a BumpTop desktop easier to scan.

For photos that you have on your desktop, you get a nice viewer, complete with a vertiginous zoom in to pictures on your desktop when you click on them. Everything else opens up in its native Windows app.

BumpTop uses "pie menus," circular wheels where the options are arrayed like pie slices. It's an easier system for your muscles to remember--you just flick your mouse or pen or finger in the direction of the option you want.

You also get "walls" on your desktop on which to pin things, a UI concept that works very well for reminder notes, photos, and destination apps. For example, you can fling a picture to the Facebook app that's pinned on a wall and it will post it to your account. There's also an e-mail icon, and a Twitter/Twitpic icon you can fling to.

BumpTop uses the 3D accelerator in your PC. And in addition to giving your icons an imitation of physicality, it's gorgeous. However, while a 3D-accelerated desktop was new for Windows in 2006, today some of the Aero effects in Vista (and even moreso the effects in Windows 7) also use the graphics power of your PC to create spectacular visuals.

The interface works fine with a mouse, but is clearly better suited to a touch interface. Lassoing and gesturing, and particularly the pie menus, seem created for touch controls. A multi-touch version will come when Windows 7 ships. BumpTop would be killer on a Surface computer.

The business
BumpTop makes for a great gee-whiz demo, and a cool desktop for a PC.

Beta testers have already created dozens of visual environments for BumpTop.

(Credit: BumpTop developer JasonJ)

I'd like to see the technology under the covers of BumpTop migrate to desktop OS interfaces and apps, and it'd be really interesting if developers started to make bumpable apps and widgets for the platform. Will that ever happen? That's the challenge for Agarawala. He is talking to hardware manufacturers (he wouldn't say who, but I think the touchscreen laptop he used in the video demo gives a hint). He says, "BumpTop gives OEMs an ability to differentiate." And that's true, but you don't get broad developer adoption by releasing a product that runs on only one vendor's line, or that's on several but customized and different on each. For BumpTop to take off with developers, it needs broad distribution. It belongs in the operating system. Apple has filed a patent on concepts very similar to BumpTop.

The basic product will be available as a free download, fortunately. There's also a pro version for $29 that has some extra features, such as the pile flipping function and support for unlimited sticky notes. The first 200 people that click here get the pro version free. Update: the free passes are all gone, sorry. Try the Download.com link at the end of this story.

A future version may have some form of a Web browser built into it. Webkit (the same technology used by Chrome and Safari) is embedded in BumpTop, just not exposed to the user yet. When a BumpTop malleable interface starts to work directly with Web pages, I will be much more interested in it.

Meantime, BumpTop is worth a try. It's a lot of fun.

On Wednesday, BumpTop is exclusively available for download courtesy of Download.com. Download BumpTop 1.0.

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