THE Key to User-Friendly Computers?


By Alex Salkever If you're working on a Mac today, you can pretty much thank Jef Raskin for the interface. Raskin headed the Macintosh project at Apple back in the early '80s and helped guide the design and information structure of the first production graphical user interface (GUI). His work was obviously pretty good, since Apple's current GUI is still largely based on that same system (Microsoft seems to like Raskin's work, too, since Windows borrows heavily from it).

A restless mind and an inveterate tinkerer, Raskin has since become a vocal critic of the old GUI system that both Mac and Windows use. Among his beefs: Pull-down menus are slow and hide information that users might want to see. Text editors require too many keyboard movements. And shuttling between a keyboard and a mouse wastes too much time.

"FUNDAMENTAL FLAWS." And what about the errors that can happen because current desktop-command conventions create gaping pitfalls that are just waiting to swallow big chunks of text. Witness the old "paste-and-forget" problem when you cut a chunk of text with the intention of pasting it but erase it by mistake when you cut or copy a second chunk of text.

These problems are magnified by handheld devices, where cursor placement is less exact and pull-downs even more cumbersome. "We have learned that the GUI concept has fundamental flaws that cannot be corrected by small changes," Raskin writes on his Web site. "These flaws have to do with incompatibilities between the designs of both GUIs and command-line interfaces and the way our brains are wired."

Unlike most Apple critics, Raskin is actually doing something about his gripes. He and a band of volunteers are building a new type of command structure that combines the old GUI's strengths with the flexibility of command-line systems still commonly used in more complex software, where hundreds -- even thousands -- of commands might be used and pulldown menus would prove disastrous.

INCREASING VISIBILITY. Raskin calls this new effort "The Humane Environment," or THE, a nod to his book, The Humane Interface. The initial fruit of this effort is a freeware text editor available for download on Source Forge that runs on Mac Classic OS. This prototype presents a fascinating alternative to the current generation of text-editing tools. Having interviewed Raskin and followed his work, I downloaded a copy to see how it felt.

My conclusion in a nutshell: Cool but weird. At its heart, THE is a command-line system, but it adds a key element: visibility. The user should see information only when needed. Raskin accomplishes this simply. The cursor is represented by a flashing blue block. Within the blue block sits a single letter or text command such as space (indicated by a black dot) or a tab (indicated by an arrow).

Why is this useful? Think of all the times you've chased phantom paragraph commands with the backspace key in an effort to realign sentences and eliminate shortened lines. There's also the havoc wrought by a forgotten tab. In THE, you see the tab by mousing over the space without having to flip back and forth between viewing modes.

UNFAMILIAR LEAP. This visibility extends to the command mode. Any commands you type flash in opaque blue text on the screen background. So if you type a command to bold text, the screen will flash the command in visible blue text. It's a nifty trick because it allows you to easily spot any key pressed by mistake and undo it quickly.

Where I ran into difficulty was with LEAP. That's the trademarked name Raskin assigned to THE's way of moving about a page. Basically, you depress the shift key and then hit and release the space key. That puts you in the command mode, and a flashing blue "Command" prompt appears beneath the text. Next, hit the ">" key to begin a LEAP forward. You select your LEAP destination by typing in the set of characters you want to leap to. LEAP can recognize periods and commas as well as text, so you can pretty much pick your pattern in a manner similar to the standard "find" command.

Raskin claims that using LEAP in place of the right-hand scroll bar can save four seconds per action. Using LEAP can also save time over the find command because it performs the search without waiting for a separate dialog box. If used regularly, LEAP could add up to an enormous time savings over the course of a digital day.

BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. I had two problems with LEAP. It felt far less intuitive to me than simply moving a mouse or a scroll arrow. Second, holding down the shift key aggravated my wrists a bit over time. Raskin advocates using a special keyboard with a dedicatd LEAP key, one I have yet to try.

Overall, after trying THE for a day, I found myself wanting to switch back to the old tried-and-true interface. No surprise. Raskin himself admits that any significant change in the way humans interact with computers requires some learning (we don't emerge from the womb with a QWERTY-keyboard imprint on our brains, after all). I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

More important, some of Raskin's suggestions would work very well even without LEAP, such as the idea of highlighting hidden commands as you scroll over them. If Apple wants to think different, then improving its basic interface might be a strong selling point and a key differentiator in the hypercompetitive computing market.

Right now, I can't say THE is the answer, but I'll be eagerly watching it develop and trying it out as Raskin adds more depth to the collaborative project. The guys at Apple's One Infinite Loop HQ should be watching, too. Salkever is Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online. Regular "Byte of the Apple" columnist Charles Haddad is on temporary leave.


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