June 22nd, 2004


Behold The Eye

There's an interview with Jef Raskin in a recent edition of MacUser. Of course, this isn't Wired, but when it's Solstice morning and you're wide awake and it's what you're reading.

Aside some sniping at Steve Jobs, possibly merited, Raskin also makes a few digs at the current Mac OS: Instead of interface architects, Apple has been infested with decorators.

I wouldn't know one way or another, but I'd agree that my level of satifaction with the current OS is related to the fact I like the look of it. Regardless of Windows' operability, I just don't like the way it looks. I customised the appearance of the PC I used in my last office job, but I always knew it was Windows underneath. And it always behaved like it.

I don't disagree with Raskin that Apple does not appear to be pushing the boundaries of the human-machine interface, but there are a number of differences between Raskin's time at Apple and now. When he introduced the Mac, the nature of this relationship was not so established. The clear advantage, for some, of the Mac system was that it made an attempt to reflect how a human worked with pen and paper. An operation we were all familiar with. In the end, this approach won. As he notes, it's not exactly difficult to swap between Mac and Windows these days. So what's the difference anymore? Aside from the surface. Well, an amount I think, but that's for another day.

The language of the interface has been established. When I pick up an electrical product, I do so in the expectation that nothing I do is going to endanger either myself or the integrity of the object without some sort of prior warning being issued. I expect that there will be a series of symbols on the object and these will refer to various functions and procedures that it can perform. With some of these objects, there will be a display of some description and I know that I'll be able to access various submenus. I'll scroll back and forth though these somehow (press, roll, touch, etc) and I'll expect some sort of change (ticket, cold drink, light, hello). So far so good, I did tell you it's not Wired.

This is what I mean by language. I've never really used Linux, but I'd hope that it wouldn't be that difficult to work out how to, say, send an email. There'll be something that looks like or alludes to communication of some sort, I'll click that and something will happen. There might be something that says New Message or similar. I'll try that, etc... Mind you, I'm always amazed that people can fly alien spacecraft (à la Independence Day), never mind infecting their computer systems with viruses. You'd think that cracking inter-stellar travel would require the establishment of a better set of protocols. Maybe those aliens just never thought of disabling each other's computers. Would that mean they were more civilised? Anyway.

During Raskin's time at Apple, these standards were not around. Things have become operable at this idiot level only through the realisation that many people don't want to spend their time gathering arcane knowledge about operating at a deeper level of structure. Or rather, they want things to be evident. Someone was asking me how to repair some disk problem they were having. I didn't have a clue. Nothing has gone wrong yet...of course, the moment I had that thought, the computer emitted a kind of beep not heard previously over the last year... I use this computer to perform various functions (post to this journal, send emails, look at the web, listen to music, make sounds, watch films), I'm not particularly interested in what occurs under the bonnet. The computer is a very useful means of travel, but it's not the destination.

In this same issue of MacUser, there are some useful shortcuts for various features. Some of these I know, others might be useful, but I wouldn't use them regularly enough. What exactly could Raskin, or anyone else, do to achieve a shake up of the interface?

Well, one area to address would be the physical means of communication. Raskin wasn't keen on the mouse after all. There have been attempts to replace QWERTY, but how much faster do you need to type? Removing the physical keyboard would be a start. We do need to establish another data entry standard, as the bulk of the keyboard is rather a bind to any number of portable technologies. I may be able to pick up email on my mobile, but I can't write a decent reply. I'm wordy. Rather than phase out the mouse/touchscreen in favour of keystroke alone, I'd tend towards a richer vocabulary of movements to define both entry and operations. Something like a sign language and quite possibly in three dimensions. The flatness of the interface seems an unnecessary restriction to me.

However, the keyboard-bound method of Raskin has the advantage that the keyboard is already here. You won't have to fight a protracted war over its replacement. He designed the Canon Cat after leaving Apple which some label the real Macintosh. No mouse. Similarly The Humane Interface (THI), a text program available for download, which I haven't tried as yet. Generally, I use TextEdit to write and then I'll import it into Word if and when necessary. All I do on this is type. There are no other distractions. Word is top-heavy with functions I hardly ever have need of. THI might have advantages, but it's not clear what these are from Raskin's site. My frustration, if any, is with the keyboard. I agree the mouse/keyboard cohabitation isn't a perfect one, but do people use mice because they actually like them or because they feel required to? It's certainly true that a large number of things can be achieved far quicker through keystrokes rather than the mouse.

I wonder whether we might well be stuck with this mouse/keyboard option. We've all got the hang of it. It's an imperfect solution, but then so are many other human technologies. We stick with them because of habit, familiarity, convention. It might make sense to redesign the human-automobile interface, but you don't want your friends to take the piss as you drive down the road using only your buttocks for control. It might be too late to force an adoption of more radical solutions. So Raskin's keyboard ideas might prove more acceptable. You're using a keyboard. Only you know that the way you're using that keyboard is giving you some advantage. Then again, the growth of handheld devices is crying out for something better than the standard QWERTY keyboard. Graffiti maybe, or son/daughter of... I remember a little device in the New Scientist when I was young that was a single handed typewriter. You could use it on the train and then upload the stuff once you got to work. Actually I'm not sure what you did with it once you'd entered the text, but the speed of entry claimed at the time seemed impressive. Although Denis Norden advertised it, according to memory.

Texting/SMS has created a generation that is adept at non-QWERTY entry. I imagine it would take a new technology to encourage the adoption of a non-keyboard interface. We're not so adventurous. You get older. There are more important things in life than this interface. How do you work this thing, son? I'll be in my own video-programming hell one day. I guess I'm imagining something that fights against the word in the classic Burroughs viral sense. It would still be language, but it would not be so tied to the written form and it could be operated in something approaching internal silence. The means used to enter data in the interface could gradually phase out the representation of the data itself. So cow would no longer be c-o-w, but some sort of shorthand/Hangul hybrid that described sound through descriptive body movement (hand, eye). System operations, akin to the three-finger salute, would be achieved through the same means. Those movements might then become the popular means of expressing that action and would no longer be verbalised. You can imagine that the sound shape of language may once have been more closely tied to the physical world it tried to represent. In Chinese derived writing systems, the shape of a character did once more readily refer to the appearance of its object. Perhaps we might one day have a system that similarly refers to the written word, the result of which wll be that over time the orthography, and even perhaps the sound, will make their way towards the city museum. I'm not sure. Thinking aloud, as always...

But the adoption of a new interface, of whatever form, is dependent on any number of contigencies. It's quite possible that we'll settle for a client system dependent on the spoken word, should that become viable at some point. It will the robots or some pesky nanoware that will instead abandon the word. Yup. And a monkey called Daisy will fly to Jupiter with a large black monolith stuck up its arse. Adios, humans.