Reprinted from Byte, February 1994, pp. 10.
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
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.