Turning inner space into outer space

May 19, 2024

Why do we put wallpaper on our desktops?

Have a look at the top of your real-life desk. You might see some papers scattered or in piles. There might be a folder. There might be a portable hard drive.

The equivalent on your Mac is the desktop. Most people have at least a few icons representing files and folders on it, and maybe one for a hard drive. Macs even allow you to put your files in the equivalent of stacks.

Let’s get back to your real-life desk. Supposing you were tired of how it looks. Maybe it’s just your basic brown wood.

So you go down to the wallpaper store, find something you like, and glue it down on the desk. Right?

I don’t think so. So why do we ruin the computer desktop metaphor by using the term “wallpaper”?

There was a time when wallpaper on a Mac was known as a “desktop picture.” That made more sense. You were putting a picture on top of your desk. It would be rare to do something like that in real life, but at least it jived with some kind of reality.

Wallpaper goes on walls. Your desktop is not a wall.

But it looks like Apple, which did so much to popularize the graphical interface, has given up.

If you go to Settings in macOS 13 Ventura, and type in “desktop picture,” you’re taken to a section called Wallpaper.

One of the top results of a search in Ecosia for “desktop picture” is “Customize the wallpaper on your Mac”.

If you want to download a Lord of the Rings desktop picture for your Mac, you’ll have to browse one of the many wallpaper websites.

It’s a case where Windows won. Despite using the desktop metaphor like macOS, they have always insisted on using the term “wallpaper”.

I can see why Apple caved. They were probably tired of wasting time supporting new users who couldn’t figure out that desktop picture was the same as wallpaper.

How about we compromise and call it “tablecloth”?