Tom Pittman's WebLog

(or something like that)

2005 March 11 -- Macintosh "Founder"

The news these days are all eager to mention the passing of Jef Raskin, the self-described designer of the Apple Macintosh. Actually, Jef left Apple before the Mac was released -- probably in a snit over the fact that it wasn't the computer he had in mind. It was far better. In his book, The Humane Interface, you can get a clear notion of the kind of keyboard-based system Raskin wanted to see. This book has a lot of good ideas, and a lot more self-promotion with inadequate scientific testing. The testing might yet happen: Raskin got some funding last year and started up a non-profit to promote his ideas. Or maybe they will just fritter away their capital and disappear into well-deserved obscurity.

A mutual friend recommended Raskin's book to me, which I carefully read then engaged in a long email dialog with the author. I'm afraid I am not easily persuaded by dismissive remarks which assume I do not understand the author's point. I usually get this particular kind of criticism when I do understand the author and some of the implications that the author missed. No matter, Jef is now gone, and nobody will be quite as persuasive of his ideas second-hand as he was. On the other hand, maybe they can be less self-absorbed and therefore get a better hearing.

There's a lesson in there someplace, I think.

Full disclosure: I think the Macintosh that Apple actually sold to the public was far superior both to the idea pictured on Raskin's website obituary and described in his book, and also better than the 30-year-old Unix system with a thick layer of pancake makup which Apple currently sells under the same moniker. So I'm writing my own Mac-like OS; I guess that puts me in competition with the Raskin project -- except he has funding and I don't.

The Raskin "Leap Key"

Jef Raskin's book, The Humane Interfacedevotes a lot of space to extolling the virtues of his keyboard-based editor ideas. Here you can see a photograph of a model of the kind of computer he really wanted to use (see the whole photo). Although Raskin claims to be a proponent of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get, pronounced "whizzy-wig") computer graphics, the screen on this model is too small for that to be practical. But I want to concentrate here on the keyboard issues.

In the picture you see a diminutive spacebar and four other rather large keys on the bottom row. The book describes these other keys, with the focus of attention on the "leap key" (one on each side, respectively for leaping forward and backward in the text). I cannot deny the benefits of something like a "Do What I Mean" (DWIM) key, which on the Mac is the Enter key (not to be confused with the Return key just above the right shift key, which is data), which functions a lot like his LeapKey in the editor I use every day, but Raskin is obviously not a strongly visual person like me, and a specialized LeapKey is a benefit only to good typists editing text. I guess that makes sense; Raskin was reportedly a musician, not necessarily a visual artist. The (real) Macintosh was a great tool for artists of all types, but especially in the visual arts. The PC (Windows) and Unix are both counter-productive for the arts, but that's another story. The Mac is gone; all we have left are Windows and Unix.

A competent professional typist doing plain text can average maybe 50-60 words per minute; the average computer user does only half that. But that's with continuous text. Using specialized punctuation and control keys (including Raskin's convenient LeapKey) takes considerably longer, for two reasons: First, (LeapKey arguably excepted) these keys are not in the normal reach of your fingers, so it takes longer to get to them, but most importantly, you have to separately think about each specialized key. When typing connected text, you think words, not letters, and your fingers "know" how to spell the words. Typing editing commands (or any kind of commands) on the keyboard requires you to mentally translate the command idea into the keystrokes required to effect it, then to find those keys, all of which take separate mental steps. After you do a lot of some particular operation (think of Raskin using his LeapKey on his prototype "Cat" computer), reaching for the key no longer requires separate thinking, but stopping to spell the word fragment you are searching for still requires separate cognitive effort, which a visual person can actually do faster with a mouse. Raskin's book (and others) cite the research on these times; I don't know why Raskin himself was unable to draw the correct conclusions, unless it was fixation on his own idea. In the industry we call it "Not Invented Here." It is curious that for all his citation of keyboard and mouse research, Raskin never mentions any research support for his LeapKey; perhaps now with funding they can actually run the tests. Or maybe he did run the tests and they were not supportive. I don't know.

Another problem with the LeapKey is placement. Looking at the picture again, you see these very prominent LeapKeys on the front corners of the keyboard. Now look at the keyboard on your own computer: there are other keys there in those positions. Raskin would (perhaps did) argue that those keys don't belong there. We really don't know unless somebody does the research. There is nothing on the lengthy website other than a vague Mission Statement to suggest that they are actually running the research. Mostly it is a very long document explaining how to install and use their software. If they really believed, as Raskin claimed, that computers should be easy to use, then all that text would be totally unnecessary; just run the program and do the obvious thing. The problem with LeapKey placement remains: keyboards are not built to Raskin's specifications; they are not even particularly well designed for ordinary computer usage. The so-called "New Economy" drives all limited-usage products out of the market, leaving us with few real choices and universal mediocre quality. sigh

Tom Pittman
2005 March 12+
[sorry, links to are broken; I guess they ran out of money, or else they figured out that his system doesn't work]