February 17, 2019

.comment: Luddite Linux - page 2

The Role of the Modern GUI

  • July 5, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Before Windows, millions of PC users did productive work without ever seeing a command prompt. Indeed, many used floppy-only systems without seeing a command prompt, because the office computer maven put applications on bootable floppies with an autoexec.bat that launched whatever application the floppy contained. When I got my first hard drive, the first thing I installed was something called Power Menu, from Brown Bag Software, which provided an application launcher and a really good file manager. I used it for years. With it, it was possible to perform just about all command prompt tasks under DOS without resorting to the command prompt itself. It might have been documented--I don't know, because after about an hour I had it figured out. It served me well for years.

It launched applications like the great Procomm 2.43 and, later, Procomm Plus. It launched Microsoft Word (back when it was a quick and tight word processor, despite its weird esc-Transfer-Load interface). It launched Lotus, when that word meant Lotus 1-2-3. And when it did so, the application would appear and run and, when I was done with it, I would be returned to Power Menu.

A friend was in love with a thing called 1-dir-plus, which had a way of leaving the hard drive full of discarded batch files and which when running made even a monochrome screen look like the control panel of a nuclear power plant. But somewhere in its bowels it, too, launched programs and made arrangements to be returned to when those programs were closed.

Were these things difficult to use? Well, I ask you: Have you ever seen a thick book on Power Menu? Anybody who bought such a book would have been gullible or thick-headed, because there was nothing for such a book to say. To launch Procomm Plus, you would use arrow keys or, yes, the mouse, to get to the line that said "Procomm Plus." Clicking that line or hitting Enter would start the program, which was no more difficult to use for being text-based. This stuff all worked when a 386 was shipped with a meg and when RAM was $200/meg, which you mostly couldn't use anyway. And it was as fast as anything we have now.

How did it all come about? People were interested in making computers easy to use long before there were graphical user interfaces. They succeeded. You did have to know some things about how computers worked if you wanted to, say, to save a file and find it later. You still do.

The route Linux took was far different. It wasn't designed to be a consumer product. The people who used it from the beginning already knew a whole lot about computers, and the things that were added to it were things that knowledgeable computer users thought were neat. Adding the X Window System was neat, too.

Users? Oh, yeah, them. Well, okay, making it available to users (lusers in the vernacular) might be okay; pretty soon it was a goal for some but not for all, and there are serious Linux gurus who even today don't do much in X.

That whole text-based phase of development never really took place. Yeah, there's emacs, which for all its power has never been called easy to learn. There are Pine and Lynx, which do make some sense to the moderately experienced user, and Midnight Commander. But the broad range of console productivity applications never appeared, because the jump from guru command prompt was directly to X. Why? Because Microsoft said that was where users wanted to be. Programmers and users believed Microsoft.

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