Sam, Acme and Help

Joe Gregorio

Rob Pike:

The decade that moved menus and windows from the research lab to more than ten million PC’s, that changed computer graphics from an esoteric specialty to a commonplace, has barely advanced the state of the art in user interfaces. A case can be made that the state of the art is even backsliding: the hardware and software resources required to support an X terminal are embarrassing, yet the text editor of choice in universities on such terminals continues to be a character based editor such as vi or emacs, both holdovers from the 1970’s.

Of course, that article was written in 1991. 16 years ago. I've been spending some cycles reading up on Sam, Acme and Help. The look of the interface for Acme is old and will probably assault those of you with delicate sensibilities, but I spent a whole 15 minutes learning the interface and now, well, I wish I hadn't.

Let me explain.

Did you ever read The Design of Everyday Things? In that book Don Norman does a great job of explaining how, and more importantly, why certain interfaces are hard to use. Things like drawers with no handles, and those glass doors on fancy buildings with no affordances as to which side to push or pull on to get them to open. Great book, but after reading it the whole world is just more annoying because now not only do you notice all the bad designs, but you also know how they could have been done better. Well, using Acme was like that, now every interface that doesn't have tag lines and middle clicking to activate commands is annoying.

Oddly, the only thing I really liked about Oberon was the UI. Odd, since it was designed by Nicholas Wirth (and I imagine some other coworkers of a similar vein). Hardly the one component you'd expect them to do interesting things with. Now that I think about it, it wasn't that unlike a wiki. And kind of like a wiki, it really has (at least on Oberon, assuming Acme is the same) a single dominant metaphor, with the point and commands, like a wiki has wiki markup and wiki links. You don't change focus, you don't have different kinds of widgets, just lots of malleable text. Could you write Acme for the browser?

Posted by Ian Bicking on 2007-09-19

Hey, where'd my newlines go? I miss them. Anyway, the other feature I came to really like was the scrolling. It was great for reading -- since it was explicit where the top of the screen would be (you click on the line you want at the top) you'd never lose your place while scrolling.

Too bad it's all so mouse-dependent.

Posted by Ian Bicking on 2007-09-19

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