Keyboard navigation in a GUI world

August 4th, 2011 3:38 PM
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Computers have come a long way since the Apple II, with important improvements to both hardware and software. But along the way, a few valuable computing aspects were lost.

A recent ITworld.com story looks at features that lost the evolutionary war: "… there are some things they don't do that the old, slow, often command-line-intead-of-GUI-oriented applications did." The first page of the story focuses on the losses associated with the transition from a command-line interface (CLI) to a graphical user interface (GUI). One consultant laments the loss of programmable function keys and other shortcuts that extended keyboards once offered. These features were never available to the Apple II user, but I can commiserate with the need for shortcuts that don't require a pointing device.

My first six years as a Macintosh predominantly took the form of a laptop (a PowerBook 1400cs) with an external trackball (an ADB Kensington TurboMouse). That trackball had four buttons that could be programmed for a variety of custom functions, such as right-clicking or switching applications. My right hand rarely strayed from that device, as it was impossible to use Mac OS Classic without it.

After switching to Mac OS X on December 7, 2003, I began to rely less and less. I found this reinvention of the Macintosh operating system featured keyboard-based shortcuts that I'd previously used the TurboMouse for. Now, I could switch windows, applications, and more while keeping my hands on the keyboard. In this way, OS X is actually a bit more similar to the Apple II with which I grew up. Navigating Microsoft Word will never be as intuitive or efficient as using AppleWorks, but it's a bit closer.

With all my Macs having always been portable, it's important for such power to be inbuilt, though I imagine those with desktop computers might enjoy the options such a stable position brings. For example, Andrew Plotkin, in an interview with The Setup (the same site that previously interviewed Bert Kersey), recommended the Matias Tactile Pro 3 keyboard, saying, "If your typing doesn’t sound like a hailstorm on a tin roof, you’re not typing." (This is despite the keyboard being connected to a MacBook Pro; says Plotkin, "I essentially never move it — I’m not a laptop person at heart.")

As a former or current Apple II user, by what input device or method do you prefer to navigate your modern computer? Is there particular hardware you favor or recommend?

VisiCalc demoed today in 1979

May 12th, 2011 11:42 AM
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I love VisiCalc. The world's first electronic spreadsheet was also one of my first computer games. Although an Apple II booted without a floppy still had access to Applesoft BASIC, that environment expected precise input, rewarding creativity with SYNTAX ERROR. Cursor movement was also limited, with text appearing on consecutive lines only. VisiCalc, by contrast, not only let me type words and numbers, but I could put them anywhere on the screen! It was a great introduction to the power of personal computing.

The world was introduced to that potential 32 years ago today, when VisiCalc received its first public demonstration at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco. It set the accounting world on fire and is often considered one of the first "killer apps", warranting the Apple II a place in business. Reports I Programmer: "People bought personal computer simply to run VisiCalc. At its peak, it sold 2 million copies at $150 per copy in 12 months."

VisiCalc

Image courtesy Apple II History

Although not viable as a modern business tool, VisiCalc continues to be used and discussed. A Windows-compatible version, available as a free download from Dan Bricklin's Web site, allowed me to introduce this revolutionary program to a new generation when I, as a high school teacher, spent an hour teaching a class of 16-year-olds how to use it. There were many utterances of frustration as they struggled to understand why the mouse — which didn't exist for the Apple II when VisiCalc debuted — wouldn't work.

Aside from the program, the man behind the machine, Dan Bricklin, also remains a visible entity. His history is as fascinating as the modern insights he offers on the evolution and changes in personal computing. In this recent ITworld follow-up to Susan Lammers' 1986 book Programmers at Work, he offers several reflections, such as on the evolution of programming:

People are writing their own programs. Anybody who uses a spreadsheet is writing their own programs; it's just that the language is different now…. We're just making the users do more and more of the programming themselves, but they don't know it. Using different style sheets with Microsoft Word is doing programming; using spreadsheets is doing programming.

Those interested in seeing where Dan Bricklin has taken software development in the last 32 years can check out his iPad application, Note Taker HD, courtesy his company, the Software Garden, or watch him on Triangulation tonight at 7 PM EDT.

(Hat tip to Mitch Wagner)