Of Modes and Men

Larry's Lexicon: A number of words now commonly used to refer to computer attributes or actions were first used in the computing arena by Larry Tesler.

Browser: When Tesler was developing his page-paste-up system at Xerox PARC, researcher Alan Kay would repeatedly complain that no one had found a good way to browse on a computer, in the way that you can browse through books at a library. One day another researcher, Diana Merry, quoted Kay to Tesler, "No one has ever come up with a good way to browse." Tesler responded, "I am so sick of hearing that. I'm going to implement a browser." And that was the first use of the term. Tesler developed the Smalltalk Code Browser to solve his frustration with Smalltalk's development. The word browser eventually migrated to the Web world.

Cut-and-paste: In 1969 Tesler volunteered to help create a catalog for the Bay Area's Mid-Peninsula Free University. He and Jim Warren, founder of the West Coast Computer Faire, did the paste-up for that catalog. Around the same time, Tesler saw a demo of a computer command that allowed you to bring back something that you had deleted. The command was called "Escape P Semicolon" (or something similarly arcane). Several years later, when Tesler was at Xerox PARC writing a white paper about the future of computing, he drew on the memory of those two experiences to predict that you would be able to "cut and paste" within computer documents.

Modeless: Computer scientists when writing code typically worked in different modes; you might have an insert mode, a delete mode, or a replace mode. You would first select the mode, then select the point on the screen at which the action was to occur, then perform the action. Tesler, in user experiments, proved that modes were confusing for nonscientific users and championed the "modeless" interface.

User-friendly: In 1974, a Xerox Corp. salesman, assigned to sell the company's new product, a word processor, came to PARC complaining about how hard the devices were to use. Tesler's colleagues sent the salesman to talk with Tesler, who had a reputation for being passionate about ease of use. The salesman said to Tesler, "It's really hard to sell this stuff, the software is just so unfriendly." "Unfriendly?" Tesler responded. "That's an interesting way to think about it. So you want friendly software, software that is friendly to the user." From that day on Tesler started to throw the word "friendly" into every report he wrote, and it moved into the lexicon, hitting Time magazine in 1975, when a Xerox executive said the goal of PARC was to make software friendly to the user. Tesler came to regret this coinage in the 1980s, when every software advertisement used the term user-friendly, whether appropriate or not. But these days he thinks it's cool.

What-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWIG): At Xerox PARC in the 1970s, Tesler and his colleagues often complained that when they printed out documents, the documents looked nothing like what they had seen on the computer screen. Tesler recalls saying, "What you see on the screen should be what you get when you print it." A listener, he recalls, said, "You mean 'What you see is what you get.' " So while Tesler is credited by history for first using these words to refer to computer documents, it was the now-anonymous listener who coined the phrase. "It was, however, in response to my complaining," Tesler says. It became widely used at Xerox PARC, in spite of objections from one researcher who pointed out that because the phrase originally referred to houses of prostitution, it was inappropriate. Around 1980, John Seybold, another computer typesetting pioneer, shortened the phrase to WYSIWYG.

--T.S.P.

Advertisement
Advertisement