The surface of a secretary’s desk is not the only possible metaphor for computers—or necessarily the best. Engelbart’s demo in the early 60s introduced many of the basic ideas of visual interfaces without it. The Alto itself was based on a concept called the Dynabook, which creator Alan Kay envisioned as an educational computer for kids who had never seen the inside of an office. During Lisa’s development, interface designer Bill Atkinson was inspired by MIT’s Spatial Data Management System, a customized computing environment known as “Dataland” with a map that users could fly around using a joystick. In the 80s, the Amiga released an operating system based on the desktop utility metaphor.
But until then, the mainstream PC players were pitching their products to an audience of administrative assistants and other office workers. Hansen Hsu, a historian at the Computer History Museum, says: “Engelbart’s idea was that the computer is a tool that enhances the human mind, allowing us to solve the big problems in the world, in society.” It introduced the idea that knowledge workers could significantly increase their capabilities with a better interface. At Xerox and later at Apple, this idea became the creation of the desktop of the future.
The benefits were not only practical but also cultural. In computing havens like MIT, typing was an accepted part of coding. But in the business world, it was associated with secretarial—or women’s work—not something executives should worry about. When PARC held demos for Xerox executives, the Alto’s graphics allowed him to create a visual program called “SimKit” that allowed him to simulate running a business without ever touching a keyboard. “It was mouse-pointing and mouse-clicking,” said PARC researcher Adele Goldberg. Lightning dealers. “We knew these kids wouldn’t write. It wasn’t macho back then.”
Even without the Lisa or the Xerox Star, the idea would have been obvious. As Lisa’s team worked to refine its design, they came across a 1980 IBM research concept called Pictureworld. This concept envisioned a powerful computer that was not available at the time and was as close to the desktop as possible. send in an email — you’ll put it in a virtual envelope and drop it in your outbox. But the IBM report described Pictureworld in theory, and clearly made computers attractive by describing their behind-the-scenes value for banking or flight booking. “If living with computers makes you nervous, consider another frustrating possibility. Living Without Them,” warns one early ’80s ad above some clipart of a man hiding from a bank of mainframes.
And without testing, Apple’s vision of the “desktop” might look like what users expect today. For example, the original Lisa design did not use the now ubiquitous file and folder system. He found this idea ineffective and settled instead on a text-based filer that asks increasingly specific questions about how and where to create, store, move, or delete a file.
Filer was considered the best system on paper, but as the team watched people use it, they realized it wasn’t fun at all. The constant promotion, designers Roderick Perkins, Dan Smith Keller, and Frank Ludolph wrote in a 1997 retrospective, “made users feel like they were playing a game of Twenty Questions.” They raised their concerns with Atkinson, and the group discussed an alternative sourced from Dataland and Pictureworld, which Lisa then brought to Lisa’s engineering manager, Wayne Rosing.
But there was one problem: twenty questions had already been closed to Lisa, and the deadline for submission was approaching. Rosing didn’t want other teams to start adding new systems and According to Herzfeldhe also had a bigger fear: if Apple co-founder Steve Jobs learned about the idea before it actually went live, he might delay the entire schedule for making it happen.
The result was a gimmick that wouldn’t sound out of place Stop and fire. Atkinson and the interface team spent two weeks creating a prototype in secret, then hurriedly quit when they heard Jobs was approaching. Jobs realized they were hiding something, forced them to show it off, and immediately fell in love with it – but luckily for Rosing, only after they had removed most of the kinks.
Tabs and folders, the team learned, didn’t make creating or moving files more efficient. But users universally preferred them to playing Twenty Questions. They invited people to explore the interface with the kind of familiarity that physical space can provide. “The screen became real in a way,” Lisa’s creators later wrote. “Interface started disappearing.”
To look at Lisa now is to see a system that still defines the limits of her metaphor. For example, one of its unique features is that it ignores the logic of applications. You don’t open a program to start writing or drawing up a spreadsheet; you look at the pads with different types of documents and tear out a sheet.
But the office metaphor also had more specific technical limitations. One of Lisa’s guiding principles was that it should allow users to multitask like an assistant can, and allow people to be constantly distracted while moving between windows. It was a sophisticated idea taken for granted in modern machines, but at the time it pushed the limits of Apple’s engineering — and dramatically raised the price of the Lisa. While Apple was assembling the Lisa, it was already working on another machine: the cheaper, simpler Macintosh.
“The problem that both Xerox and Apple have with a $10,000 machine is that the users are secretaries, and no company wants to buy a $10,000 machine for a secretary,” Hsu said. “It really took the Macintosh to cut those costs down to a quarter.”
After all, Hsu says, the real breakthrough for GUIs wasn’t making the virtual world more familiar — it was that you could push things around more easily. physical one. “It didn’t really happen until desktop publishing came along with PageMaker, PostScript, and a laser printer. [you got] A compelling use case for a graphical user interface based computer – something you can’t do with a command line based computer.
Non-graphical interfaces never completely disappeared. At Apple, modes have been resurrected in the form of keyboard shortcuts, a system that is incredibly powerful but mysterious enough that even the most experienced users will be surprised from time to time. Of course, engineers regularly enter the command line 40 years after Lisa’s launch. But for most people, a graphics system is all they know.
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