Wallowing in GUI

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Video-on-demand is off and…crawling. Nobody’s happy about that. But at least now we have a culprit. It’s the interface, stupid.

On-screen interactive guides tacitly have been fingered as the impediment that stands between a fabulous video technology and a curiously indifferent public. A committee of powerful MSO and program network executives, operating under the umbrella of CTAM, is now officially in business to try to come up with some gentle suggestions about improving the way on-demand television is presented to customers. Guide developers must now know what it’s like to be a Yankees rookie fielding fungos from Mr. Steinbrenner.

Still, history shows the committee may be onto something. Cracking the code on the human interface can propel nascent technologies, and there’s no better example than the personal computer.

Computers, you’ll recall, were largely ignored by mainstream consumers until IBM introduced its first consumer-market computer in 1981. The IBM PC was a hit, inspiring a parade of copycat clones. But despite their growing appeal, PCs remained notoriously difficult to use. Pulsating lines of green type glowed ominously against somber grey backgrounds, and the words appearing on the screen were themselves unfamiliar menaces: CONFIG.SYS, or COPY/A.

What got the PC from zero units to 100 million units in 20 years was a combination of better applications and more powerful processors, to be sure. But the biggest leap of all came from the graphical user interface. The GUI was the glue that gummed the gap ‘twixt geek and guy.

It’s easy to take the modern-day GUI for granted. Originally developed as what interface design wizard Jef Raskin called a “visual metaphor for an operating system,” GUIs today are as common to modern computing as the mouse that sits astride nearly every PC. Words like “file” and “double-click” now tumble effortlessly from the mouths of first-graders.

The idea of replacing complicated on-screen type instructions with pictures and a pointing device was a near-religious cause for devotees working at Xerox’s legendary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s. But neither the mouse nor the GUI had been given much commercial credence until the apocryphal visit of Apple Computer’s 24-year-old chairman, Steve Jobs, to the secretive PARC laboratories in December, 1979. In the 1996 PBS documentary series “Triumph of the Nerds,” Jobs recalls being transfixed as PARC engineers showed off three ahead-of-their time technologies, including a GUI demonstration, object-oriented programming and networked computing. Jobs ignored two of the three. “I was so blinded by the first thing they showed me,” said Jobs, “which was the graphical user interface. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life.”

Apple became (briefly) the world’s biggest personal computer seller by rigging an entire product line around the twin staples of graphical computing – the screen interface and the mouse – and changing both the technology and cultural perceptions surrounding the PC. Raskin, who had joined Steve Jobs as Apple Computer’s 31st employee, developed Apple’s GUI-centered Macintosh computer under the theory that “to reach a larger marketplace, future computers had to be designed from the user interface out.” Microsoft, slower to the GUI market, ultimately adopted many of the PARC and Apple GUI features in the debut release of its Windows DOS-overlay software in 1983.

The GUI changed everything. PCs no longer were cold, industrial instruments. Overnight, they became friendly. Consumers found the icon-style pictures that decorated new computer screens to be downright cute. Document lists once summoned only by typing out lengthy lines of code (c:\officefiles\documents\may1985*.*) were tucked into colorful folders from which they would willingly spring forth with merely an electronic tap on the shoulder from the mouse.

The PC GUI has been around for 20 years now, but it’s still the object of intense study. Raskin, who deserves as much credit as anybody for popularizing the GUI, is still working on ways to improve the interface between people and machines. In his 2000 book, The Human Interface, Raskin preaches the merits of “automaticity,” the idea that interface features should be so easy to learn that they quickly become habitual – so much so that users hardly register a second thought in applying them.

There could be worse goals than that for present-day developers of VOD user interfaces. If getting to the “select” button for a VOD program one day becomes as easy (and as habitual) as changing channels – or pulling up a Word document – the cable industry will have fostered itself one very profitable habit. And, like the PC industry, will owe a gob of gratitude to the GUI.

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