Point and grunt

Posted July 28, 2005

Somewhat ironically, the inventor of the computer mouse, Douglas Engelbart, is still a bit critical of modern graphical user interfaces compared to the fuller vocabulary of, say, the command line. "Here's the language they're proposing: You point to something and grunt," he says.

From one perspective, he's exactly right. The point-and-click interface is really not close to the richness of human language, and whether it's a grunt or a click, it's about the same. However, knowing where to point and what to click on does actually engage the linguistic part of the brain to some degree: there's an awful lot on the screen of a modern GUI, both text and symbols, and interpreting it all to condense it down to the question of what to click on next is not always an easy task.

So I'm less critical, I guess, even though I use both a GUI and the command line all the time. Good, intuitive user interface design is no simple task, and designing something that would support even a richer language of interaction is almost certainly a Hard Problem. A fun one, of course, but a hard one.

On a related topic, these guys are going to make a fortune. How many times have you tried to debug a computer over the phone with someone who doesn't have a good idea of how to operate it or even how to describe what's on the screen? Instead, poof, you send them to this site, where for a small fee they get to install a Dummies-friendly, firewall-compatible, self-contained, secure remote-control client for their machine, which you can use to fix their problem in a tenth the time. Perfect idea, and the business model is just right too.