Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The alternate universe without a computer mouse.

Consider the de facto standard user interface for computers and computer software. It is what we call the Graphical User Interface, or GUI. Comprised of a mouse cursor and windows, sliders, buttons, scrollbars and such.

I remember seeing my first computer mouse on a trade show. I'm going to venture that it was a Macintosh mouse. And it seemed magical to me. All I knew was 8-bit micros from Sinclair, Commodore, Acorn and the like. And suddenly there was this element on the screen that somehow was moved in sync with the movement of a little device. I seemed from the future!

The computer mouse may have been popularized by Macintosh, but its way was paved by Xerox Parc.

Personally, I'm more at home with command-line interfaces, with text based commands. As I've put it earlier: How reproducible is a mouse click? I use the Visual Studio IDE to port my games to windows. But because I use it so intermittently, I tend to forget my work flow. Where do I click, in which sub-sub-sub-menu to solve this issue with the compilation? I spent too much time wrestling with the GUI, wishing I was back in the command line environment with Makefile, as I do under Linux. If I need to reproduce something, I can just examine, and re-run the script.

While taking a shower, a thought struck me: what if the GUI was never popularized, or even invented? What if the text based interface, on a command line, would have persisted from the 70s into 2016. Let's visit this alternate universe, where the computer mouse, and the GUI, never evolved.

What would this alternate universe look like? I'm going to make a bold statement here: I think it would have been more technologically advanced than our current society.

Without a computer mouse, and without the GUI, we would still have an Internet. And we would still be ordering pizzas over the Internet. Just not with clicking buttons, but by typing in a command:

$ order-food -restaurant=marios -cheese=gorgonzola -meat=proscuitto -size=m

...or something similar.

The real kicker here, is that all these internet-based services would be text based, thus so much easier to extend and compose into more complex services. Maybe in a script, you want to combine the pizza-order with another command send to your fridge to chill the wine. If there is a text based API for service A, and one for service B, anyone (not just programmers working for the corporations behind A and B) would be capable of layering new services on top of these. No source-code of the web-sites would be needed. Extending a GUI based application typically cannot be done with no access to the source code. Even if source code is available, it is pretty hard. Extending a command line based application is much easier, and does not require source code. We could invoke services in scripts, sequence them, layer them, schedule them, whatever we desire.

This means that in our alternate universe, software applications will be far easier to extend. Developers can build on top of what others have made. Being able to extend third party GUI applications tends to be impossible, or at the very least hard, and would require things like plug-in infrastructures, and SDKs. Of the gazillion services available on the Internet today, very few are customizable, extensible. In our universe we spend a lot more time reimplementing the 'full stack' over and over again, instead of building on top of what others have made.

To conclude, I think the invention of the computer mouse was a curse, that just looked like a blessing. Sure, it may make the life of creatives easier. Producing digital art is so much easier with it. But in terms of computer technology, I fear that we are poorer for it, not richer. The GUI killed the command line, and that may very well not have been a good thing.

Did the computer mouse doom the technological progress in our society?

1 comment:

  1. John McCarthy came up with the concept of common business language, which was very much along the lines you described.