Douglas Engelbart’s unfinished revolution


this pretty well buffers the post from yesterday about the girl in Texas that was disappointed at the adult world. completely different scenarios, but the “boy, i really am surrounded by primitive thinkers who will never get it” aspect is depressingly similar.

Englebart’s NLS plan was to have 10,000+ chorded keystrokes according to Markoff’s wonderful What the Dormouse Said. An example of chorded keystrokes is pressing Ctrl-C to copy selected text. Instead of requiring a few hours to acquaint oneself to using a word processing program it would take weeks or months to become basically proficient.

Unfortunately, Englebart’s ideas were also attached to the timeshared computing model. The user would have a chunk of system time for interacting with the system and other users. In the days when systems were expensive and needed a team of priests in white lab coats for maintenance, this was the closest feeling most users had to having a computer completely to themselves. However, there were drawbacks. A joke was that the computers ran faster at night because fewer users were absorbing computer time.

Because of his rigidity as a research leader in staying with old paradigms, when cheap graphic-user-interface personal computers appeared there was absolutely no reason to use any more of his ideas beyond the mouse.

While it’s well meant that Englebart’s ideas could have changed computing into something more magical, his ideas about how we should be using the computer would have been a hellish straight jacket of unusability. The user would need a manual to do even the most basic tasks. Mourn the passing of this pioneer but not his “unfinished revolution”.

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His inventions, or this one invention anyway, did “transform human beings”: they got carpal tunnel syndrome and wrecked shoulders from one the deadliest and un-ergonomic devices ever to be introduced into the workplace.

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Whereas with modern computers, even somebody who has never used a computer before feels perfectly comfortable with powering it up, using the Start menu to launch Microsoft Word, and use Ctrl-C Ctrl-V Ctrl-X and Ctrl-Z as any newborn babe would. Should the user prefer a 'nix command line, their experience is even more intuitive.

[NOTE: while the editor allows you to add markup to quotes, (some) markup in quotes does not render as markup.]

Englebart’s NLS was similar to emacs but moreso.

I agree that the current common interfaces are imperfect but are usable after a few hours of acclimation and assistance. NLS was unusable without weeks or months of training. Seriously, you would need a multi-hundred page manual and maybe a master’s degree to use the interface.

We can improve this situation but not with Englebart’s ideas.

When Xerox tested an early predecessor of Microsoft Word (Charles Simonyi’s Gypsy, the first modeless WYSIWYG word processor) at a book publisher, the publisher was able to train temporary workers in a few minutes and have useful typists/page arrangers that same day. Advances in usability like this are why typewriters and hot-type presses are no longer used. Advances like that are why computers are mass-produced by the millions and fit in your hand rather than needing a basement closet and only allowing direct access to a privileged group of businesses and academics.

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