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Reprinted from Byte, February 1994, pp. 10.

Dennis Allen
The point-and-click paradigm is stale. We need a more human interface.

In an apparent effort to make computers easier to use, General Magic has developed a new user interface for its Magic Cap operating system. It doesn’t look anything like the file folders and program icons you are used to seeing; instead, the new GUI paints an office with a desk that has a telephone, card file, in/out boxes, and so forth. In other words, if you want to check your mail, you simply click on the in-basket on the desk. Need an address? Just click on the Rolodex-like file. You get the idea. You can also go to a file cabinet to take out a file, and a clock on the wall makes office clock watchers feel right at home.

You can even open a door and go down “Main Street” to one of the many office buildings. For example, you might go to the bank building to do electronic banking. It all seems very intuitive – if you’ve worked with a point-and-click user interface, that is.

This new interface is supposed to make computing more accessible to computer novices, which is a grand and noble idea. And surely every company has some people who would be more productive if computers were less intimidating. Let’s face it, Microsoft Windows and the Macintosh interfaces might be a far sight better than a command prompt, but many people don’t find either interface to be particularly natural to use.

To these otherwise capable people, ascending the computer learning curve is tantamount to scaling the Matterhorn. The problem is not trivial. Somehow computers must be made easier to use if we expect our enterprise-wide solutions to work. It does no good to restructure an enterprise based on technological solutions (as many large companies are indeed doing), if some people can’t use the technology.

For many of us, the problem is sometimes forgotten, because after all, we do not have any problems using computers. For that matter, neither would most of our close associates. But consider the nontechnical workers in your organization; will they be able to navigate through a maze of servers to find that information they need? We may be living in the age of empowerment with information at our fingertips, but so far, the only people who have been empowered are the technically elite.

That has to change. The wave of empowerment that technology creates must be driven down to everyone in an organization if that organization is to truly benefit from the technology. Information must be easily accessible across the enterprise, and systems must be easy to navigate. That’s the idea behind General Magic’s new GUI.

Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld, the inventors of the new GUI, are old hands at creating easy-to-navigate interfaces, and they have deservedly earned respect for their early work on the Macintosh user interface. This time, though, Atkinson’s and Hertzfeld’s work is not so revolutionary. Their new GUI is still based on a point-and-click paradigm. It not only fails to move beyond that basic point-and-click concept, the new GUI perpetuates point-and-click to a new level of complexity.

For example, say you want to access the services or database of another company using the Magic Cap interface. With point-and-click mouse or pen gestures, you would have to open the office door, walk down the simulated Main Street, and choose the building that represents the other company. If you’re an experienced point-and-clicker, the first time you see someone use the Magic Cap GUI that way it will seem logical. But it doesn’t really make sense. Neither does opting for pull-down menus or resorting to programming a macro to perform the tasks, both of which nullify the intent of the new GUI.

So why must you open a door and stroll down Main Street to tell a computer what to do? It seems that the Magic Cap GUI is one that force-teaches users how to converse with a computer, when what we really need are computers that better understand what users want.

It’s the computer that must be expected to do the work of understanding if we are ever to empower nontechnical workers. The point-and-click paradigm is stale and overworked, and it’s time to move up to the next level: We need user interfaces that listen more like humans and accurately – and automatically – anticipate what users want. Despite all the hype and hoopla, the Magic Cap GUI does not significantly improve user interfaces as did that of the Mac 10 years ago.

Dennis Allen, Editor in Chief (

Page added on 24th August 2005.

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