Tuesday 22 December 2009

Blast from the Past

Another in a continuing series...

Microcomputer(as PCs were called before the IBM PC) veterans of a certain vintage well remember that most counterintuitively productive of productivity tools, WordStar 3.3 (and earlier). The hegemon of its day, WordStar used what at first (and usually fifth) inspection appeared to be whimsical, arbitrary key combinations for commands. Ctrl K-H for Help was invariably what new users first memorised. All through the 1980s and well beyond, any word-processing software that came onto the market had some degree of WordStar-compatible commands, either as their main command set or as a bolt-on to wean folks onto the "new" way of doing things. This was even true for the first several releases of WordPerfect and of Microsoft Word. (Word today has several available add-ons to add WordStar command compatibility.)

Why was this so popular? As noted in the Wikipedia article:

...the "diamond" of Ctrl-S/E/D/X moved the cursors one character or line to the left, up, right, or down. Ctrl-A/F (to the outside of the "diamond") moved the cursor a full word left/right, and Ctrl-R/C (just "past" the Ctrl keys for up and down) scrolled a full page up/down. Prefacing these keystrokes with Ctrl-Q generally expanded their action, moving the cursor to the end/beginning of the line, end/beginning of the document, etc. Ctrl-H would backspace and delete. Commands to enable bold or italics, printing, blocking text to copy or delete, saving or retrieving files from disk, etc. were typically a short sequence of keystrokes, such as Ctrl-P-B for bold, or Ctrl-K-S to save a file. Formatting codes would appear on screen, such ^B for bold, ^Y for italics, and ^S for underscoring.

Although many of these keystroke sequences were far from self-evident, they tended to lend themselves to mnemonic devices (e.g., Ctrl-Print-Bold, Ctrl-blocK-Save), and regular users quickly learned them through muscle memory, enabling them to rapidly navigate documents by touch, rather than memorizing "Ctrl-S = cursor left."

Why is this relevant (or even interesting) today? Besides the lessons to be learnt about interface design, it's interesting to note how many editors out there still pay homage to WordStar. I stumbled across joe again this morning; it's available on essentially all Linux and BSD distributions, with versions built for other systems as well (e.g., Mac OS X and Cygwin/Windows), and source freely available if your platform isn't yet supported or you just like to tinker around on one that is.

What makes this fairly scary for us old-timers is just how quickly the old finger habits come back. If you had more than a year's experience beating your head against the original WordStar, I dare you to work with joe or its ilk for more than a few minutes before "how do I do...?" completely falls away from your thoughts and you're just typing as fast as you can think.

For that's the real beauty of this type of "primitive", what-you-see-isn't-what-you-get interface: you're not distracted by the ephemera of making your work appear "just so", and can actually focus on the work of writing. And that, in our click-and-drool modern interfaces, is what we've lost -- and no amount of clever code wizardry on the part of the interface designers can bring us back to that. Why? Because of basic human nature - if we see a button, at some point we'll want to push that button - "just to make things look better." And, all of a sudden, we notice that the entire morning has flown past while we were focusing on the first three paragraphs of a major report that's due this afternoon. Oops.

There's a reason why almost every tool aimed at professional writers -- people who make their living at x cents per word -- have "stripped down", minimalist interfaces, at least as an option. It's the same reason that far too many truly "old-school" writers give for writing on paper and then typing (or having someone type) their words into a computer: the fewer distractions you have, while still being able to do what you're trying to do, the more productive you'll be at it.

That concept extends far, far beyond the writing of prose -- and has too often been lost or forgotten in those other areas as well. Pity.

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