At Comdex I got a chance to ask Terry Opdendyk, president of VisiCorp, to help lift the shades on the window issue. The interview follows:
Creative Computing: Windows, windows, windows, Terry. What makes the windowed approach better than any other?
Terry Opdendyk: When you have the capability to do multiple applications simultaneously, you make better use of the computer and your own time. And if can view multiple applications simultaneously, you make the best use of a concurrent system. There is where the power lies.
But that only is helpful if those applications are designed to be useful in that fashion. Taking an application that is designed for a large window and putting it into a tiny window doesn't do you much good. We have run standard applications the same way everybody else does. But to run in a window, you need something more. You have to design the application to take advantage of windowing power.
When we sat down at the (Visi-On) system, you were into the depths of the graphics product and the calc product in less than ten minutes. And yet the capabilities of those products is a generation beyond those of existing packages. The fact that you can get at it so easily, so intuitively, so painlessly, is what makes windows the word.
CC: But in a way you are making a point Barry brought up earlier. That is that the mouse is really a training peripheral, and once the user has learned a system, he is ready to move to keyboard commands.
T.O.: Yes and no. Yes, when you are at the keyboard entering away, you don't want to lift your hand off the keyboard and grap for that mouse. Always you want the fastest and most efficient approach. That's the difference between "easy-to-learn' and "easy-to-use.' You can have a system that is easy to learn, but a real pain to use, or vice versa. We have all seen examples of one or the other. The easy-to-use system is the one that takes four weeks of training, and then you say to yourself, "wow, I finally got it.' Then there is the ultimate easy-to-learn system, and after you have gone through the pedantic motions, unfortunately you can't do anything with it.
CC: Not to mention feeling partronized in the process.
T.O.: Exactly. Now when I am in the entry mode, I want to stay on that keyboard. When I'm in the basic mode of contact selection or positioning, a pointing device is the single most natural device for doing it. For me to use cursor keys to get it up, for me to type a cryptic command, is difficult and time-consuming. With a single button mouse, the eye and hand get to do what they are really great at. All you have to do is say "I want that there.' On that score the mouse will always dominate, and the more you use the system, the more the mouse will dominate.
CC: Even if you have been reared on cryptic command codes?
T.O.: Even if you have been reared on cryptic commands.
CC: Even to open and close windows.
T.O.: You'll do it with the mouse.
CC: You know, I'm not sure in my case getting the screen to look like my desk would be a big advantage. My desk is usually a mess.
T.O.: A quick tangent. A profile of all of our field trial users--hundreds and hundreds of people--has shown a correlation between what their desks look like when they work and what their windows look like. We have some people who had things all over the place and some accountants with one neat little window on the righthand side of the screen.
CC: You have your anal users and your non-anal users.
T.O.: Let's get back to opening and closing windows. I'm not anal, and I have five windows on the screen. I just want to put one aside. I need to identify that window, either by position or by name. Point and click, and you've got that window. No multiple cursor keystrokes, no names to remember.
CC: It's intuitive.
T.O.: You got it. That's why windows tested out at Xerox. They had the tile approach and threw it away. It didn't test. To give this three-dimensional feeling, you do not want to be bothered with increasing and decreasing lines that partition the screen. You want it to work the way sheets of paper work.
CC: That's why it can become second nature in a very short time.
T.O.: It's a metaphor--that's why it works.
CC: Okay. Multiple applications are obviously useful, and a pointer peripheral may be too. But does the typical user need so many levels upon nested levels?
T.O.: Let's take the most pathological case--the dedicated spreadsheet user. He's sure he wants to continue using VisiCalc IV. He's a CPA or a member of one of the big eigth accounting firms, and he is skeptical about windows.
Then he realizes what he can do with two or three spreadsheets on the screen and the ability to move information between them.
CC: What about help levels?
T.O.: The system is seamless. I don't know if you're familiar with the old concept of Hypertext, from work ten or eleven years ago.
CC: Ted Nelson. You know, wherever I go, his name keeps coming up.
T.O.: Ted Nelson's work. There is, in essence, a Hypertext system at work in our package. When I'm at a very high level, and I want help, I get high-level help. If I'm nested deep and stuck in something, I get very specific, detailed items. I can traverse that help structure, across products, and across the system. I can even ask for an overview of help, to see the very tree structure that composes it.
CC: And then bring it up in a window.
T.O.: Windows are just one element of a complete system. Here's a virtual memory system. Here's an automatic, contact-sensitive data transferring capability. I don't have to care whether "this' is text, and "that' happens to be columns and rows. Or that "these' are poxels off in a graph and "those' happen to be numbers. The program in effect says "point to what you want, and I'll go ask the system what it can interpret, and I will make the appropriate transformations between the particular items.'
And if you know one product in the system, if you spend 15 minutes with Visi-On, you will be able to dive into the depths of any other product--because it will operate the same, it will handle things the same, and it can work simultaneously with the other products.
Dan (Fylstra) has a saying that "windows are mirrors.' If you try to say "Gee, we got windows,' and you try to sell a system simply on the flash and dash of that, you are doing it with mirrors. If you have a total system, with superior functionality, seamless integration, and data transfer, as well as ease of use, then maybe your windows are worthwhile. They will be a tool for the rest of the system.