I always thought that content-centric was the easiest for people to deal with, i.e. "I want to change this document", and not "Let's run this app so I can then change that document".

It seems that the popularity of iOS (as opposed to say Windows or MacOS) proves otherwise, everything is an app. Windows 8 is also becoming app-centric, and MacOS is also moving in that direction (LaunchPad shows apps, not your documents.) Perhaps using tools is in our genes?

  • Sjoerd, could you elaborate? I think that the relationship between this and iOS is not as self-evident as you assume :) Also - the popularity of iOS as opposed to what alternative? Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 19:35
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    It's an interesting question. OpenDoc (the doomed pre-Jobs-return Apple Technology) was being pitched as a document/content centric model of software and may be an interesting read: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenDoc
    – DA01
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 20:05
  • Very wild guess without any fact-checking whatsoever: I want to {1} change that {2} document - i.e. might be related to language.
    – peterchen
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 14:40
  • User_channel/p_100011702767270/sap/1
    – user82177
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 2:27
  • Don't forget about the "activity-centric" model. I think that's the more realistic description. Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 2:44

8 Answers 8


I'm not sure that these are two competing models.

I remember some online discussion over the merits of FAT vs. NTFS, and then some Apple guy came by and said something like "Apple users don't even know they have a file system". I think this made the Digg front page. The point is that MS and Apple are indeed trying to get away from the file system, especially on mobile. Folders and files are perceived as being too technical and the approach is "Open your image editor and edit your images, you don't need to go turning your computer upside down to look for them among all the other stuff". So the content became very strongly coupled with the app and not so strongly associated with a file type, not as much as it used to be. People are talking about "opening that Word" or "sending that Powerpoint" (maybe in English not so much, but I see it constantly in other languages).

Since most people use a single app for each type of content, the app becomes their "channel" to that content, so it becomes very strongly associated with it. Also, content-centric means going by files, and we have thousands of files - as opposed to about a dozen frequently-used apps, tops. So it makes a lot of sense to first choose the app and then the file. Which is why apps inevitably get to the front of the work process.


I think we are task-centric, and the first step in most tasks is to find the right tool (aka app) to get the job done.

  • I'm not sure why this was downvoted. I think there is something in this. Having said that, I don;t think it is completely correct. We often think "what documents do I need to process to complete this task" Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 21:00

Note than Microsoft seems to believe that this is not the reason why iOS became popular, and tries to position Windows Phone 7 as a platform where you don't need to use apps, and are only a glance away from the content.

I wouldn't call Windows 8 more app-centric than previous versions of the OS either. If anything, the new touch UI provides more content at a glance, without the need for a separate app, than was available in the past (without the use of an alternative shell or Rainmeter).

Also, I believe that the renewed interest in NUI (again, mostly at Microsoft, but not only) proves that the general tendency in the UX community is still to blur the barrier between the user and the information as much as possible.


I would posit two reasons:

  1. Apple did a brilliant job of marketing "There's an app for that". It is not about how people think, so much as the way it was marketed. The fact that people have downloaded a pile of apps and can now do things does not necessarily mean that they are app-centred in their thinking.

  2. The way that computers have been used and marketed for years has been app centred, and so those who use them have become app centred so as to use the existing tools. It takes a long time - and some very good software - to change that attitude, even if a document-centric approach is more natural.

People, I think, have been forced to think "I want to change this Word document" and so open up Word to do it. I think there is a very long way to go before people think differently, because we have had to think in this way for so long.

  • One of the reason for 2. may be that different apps are made by different companies and so it makes much more sense marketing-wise to promote an app, rather than the content that app operates with. The same content can be used through different apps and so you'd inevitably market competing products if you'd concentrate too much on content. Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 21:23
  • @Phiilp Absolutely - and it is far easier to market "this app is better than any others you have" than "we can help you manage your documents" - the former can be done with flashy features. And so often, the IT people have been given a very specific problem to solve, not an environment to improve. Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 9:51

I'm not sure why, but this is one of the only meaningful discussions I can find for this. My take on this is that the app-centric approach is a symptom of efforts to lock users into a company's ecosystem. The app-centric framework makes it difficult to take content to a different platform, thereby forcing users to upgrade within the company's eco system. In other words: to push apple users to buy new apple products instead of making it easy for them to move to another platform.


Managing "stuff" on a computer is cumbersome for many. There are inherent complexities introduced when exposing the file system. Especially considering how poorly the experiences have been on most popular desktop operating systems.

The idea of files and folder-structures isn't completely faulty and I think when it's executed well it can provide a good experience. Think about Dropbox. It's not a huge hurdle for folks to understand that "Dropbox" is where you can put and manage stuff. This is in contrast to Windows where its a wild west of organization. Both Windows and OS X have tried to make file organization usable but have failed.

From an Information Architects article on Mountain Lion's New File System:

The folder system paradigm is a geeky concept. Geeks built it because geeks need it. Geeks organize files all day long. Geeks don’t know and don’t really care how much their systems suck for other people. Geeks do not realize that for most people organizing documents within an operating system next to System files and applications feels like a complicated and maybe even dangerous business. Remember that autoexec.bat file?

Having an app-centric model really simplifies things:

App Model vs File Model

That is a rough diagram but the point is that having shallow hierarchies is fundamentally easier to comprehend and remember.


I think there's something wrong with your premise:

It seems that the popularity of iOS (as opposed to say Windows or MacOS) proves otherwise, everything is an app.

You seem to be saying "Apple mobile devices are more popular than Windows or OSX desktop devices, which proves that app-centric mental models are more intuitive than content-centric mental models".

This is patently an absurd claim.

But, if you're asking "why are mobile operating systems tending towards app-centrism rather than content-centrism", I would guess that it's less about "intuitive mental models" and more driven by the logistics of architecting an open platform with a wide variety of apps, while guaranteeing a good UX.

For example, say you have two apps installed that can both open a given document. Starting a task from the document leads to an awkward UX (asking the user which app they want), whereas starting from the app is consistent.


I know this is an old question, but I believe I can offer a few insights.

You’re correct: content-centric is more akin to how humans think. Using tools is in our genes, but apps are not tools: they’re silos of tools.

In the real world, we have tools like a paintbrush; in the digital word, we also have tools like a paintbrush. In the real world, you can take your paintbrush out of your studio and use it anywhere you want. In the digital world, the paintbrush tool is stuck inside whichever app you’re using. If you want to use it in some other app, you better pray the app has a similar tool.

If our operating systems were designed around content instead of apps, the humans using them would never have to think about apps. Instead, you’d have the stuff you care about (the content), and you’d manipulate it with tools that you could use anywhere, on any document. Then our digital world would match how our human brains evolved to work in the real world.

So, why don’t computers work this way?

The first graphical operating systems were document-centric: Douglas Engelbart’s NLS, Xerox PARC’s Alto/Star, and Apple’s Lisa. None of them exposed the concept of a program or application to the user. Instead, users worked with documents, and the computer handled how to display and modify them.

I believe the first operating system that exposed the concept of an app to users was Apple’s Maacintosh. I don’t know why such a change was made. I can only speculate. I suspect it was easier to program. Perhaps Steve Jobs imagined a thriving market of applications for his new platform. No matter what the reason, we’ve been forcing humans to deal with this new concept ever since, for better or worse.

Having to manage both documents and applications—two separate and very different paradigms—can get confusing for ordinary people. So, to make things “easier”, operating systems started to emphasize apps over documents. Now, people only have to manage apps, leaving document-management to be reimplemented by every single app. This started with mobile devices, such as Palm and the iPhone, but now desktops are imitating this way of thinking as well.

People have forgotten about files. Their stuff lives inside apps, and they have no idea how to get it out of there. Want to organize everything related to a single project all together? Your computer won’t help you. It may not even be technically possible, depending on the apps that you use.

Experts have been making these points since the beginning. Jef Raskin (the father of the Macintosh—until Steve Jobs took over the project), wrote about it in the Humane Interface. His son, Aza Raskin, gave a talk about it. And even Edward Tufte made this point:

Interfaces have been made inconvenient by computer companies selling applications and operating systems; their economic needs play out on our interface, by giving us apps and operating systems instead of documents.

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