Monday, June 1, 2009

Lisa's folder and your folder, part one

lisa-computer by Ballistik Coffee Boy (spaceageboy) used under a Creative Commons License

I previously ruminated on how the Project Natal advances that were announced earlier today might eventually find their way into business applications. In an effort to consider the need for some sprucing up in the business user interface category, I figured I'd drill down into something on our computers that is over a quarter century old - the folder.

You wouldn't have a folder without having a desktop metaphor. And the desktop metaphor is pretty old itself:

The desktop concept was invented in 70s by a group of researchers at Xerox’s high-end computer science lab in Palo Alto. Originally multiple windows used to compete for space on a screen that wasn’t much bigger than a sheet of paper. The breakthrough came when a researcher named Alan Kay began thinking of the screen as a desktop. "People in offices got around the same problem of too much paper and not enough room by piling pages on top of one another." Kay simply transferred this real world solution to the computer and overlapping windows were born. No-one looked back from there.

Optimal Usability, from which the above quote was taken, goes on to say

Part of the reason for the staying power of this particular interface metaphor was that it was extendible. It is not a huge mental leap to incorporate other familiar office concepts such as a trash can and files.

Fast-forward a few years, and you'll find that two guys named Dan Keller and Frank Ludolph are working on some new ideas for the desktop metaphor. Their employer was a company that was then known as Apple Computer. Their project was a project that would render the Apple II obsolete and revolutionize computing - the Lisa. When the Lisa computer debuted in 1983, Gregg Williams of BYTE Magazine explained some of the new concepts, including something called the folder:

When you turn on the Lisa system, the screen is empty except for the presence of several icons.

While you read this, I suggest that you carry yourself back to that time, a time in which screen resolutions were expressed in terms such as 80 x 24 (the number of characters that could fit on a line, multiplied by the number of lines). Words such as "icons" were strange to most of us - frankly, in early 1983, I had decided that perhaps I DIDN'T want to type my 100+ page undergraduate thesis on my typewriter, and perhaps I'd better learn some macros for nroff to make the process easier. So bear this in mind as you read BYTE's description of this strange new interface.

The Lisa computer depends on the metaphor that the video display is a desktop, while the icons are objects on the desktop. Each peripheral connected to the Lisa (floppy and hard disks, printers, and other peripherals connected by interface cards) is represented on the desktop by either an icon (if it is not in use) or a rectangular area called a window (if it is available for use).

Here's this other new idea - the window. Now people in certain areas had run across windows before, but I certainly hadn't run across the concept yet, and wouldn't encounter it for a couple of years until Lisa's successor, the Macintosh, came on the scene. Back to BYTE.

The Lisa computer normally replaces the conventional file directory with a collection of objects displayed in the window of the associated mass-storage device. Each file is represented by an object of some sort - usually a report, a tool, or a document - and objects can be grouped together in folders, which are also treated as objects....

The folder was the new concept introduced by the Lisa team - as far as I can tell, no one had put a folder on a user interface before. BYTE describes how the folder works, again introducing the relatively new concept of opening an object to see its contents:

An example of the Lisa file system will illustrate how useful this metaphor is. From a cleaned-up desktop with nothing but icons on the right of the screen, I use the mouse to point to the Profile (hard disk) icon and click the mouse button twice; this has the effect of “opening” the Profile and displaying its contents. The Profile icon changes to a white silhouette and its original black-on-white shape expands to a window named “Profile.”...To view and then work with the contents of the Tools folder, I put the cursor on the folder and click the mouse button twice. The icon expands, leaving a gray silhouette and a window named “Tools”....The symbols on the margin of each window are points from which the cursor can direct several operations on the window. For example, when the cursor points to the small folder icon in the upper left-hand corner of the Tools window and the mouse button is clicked twice, the folder “closes” and the video display reverts to the image it had before the folder was opened.

This whole idea of folders, which not only involved opening and closing folders, but putting items into folders (including other folders) and taking them out, obviously influenced user environments well beyond the Lisa, and well beyond Apple. Chances are you're using an operating system, or perhaps even a cellular phone, which supports the folder concept.

A concept which has remained pretty much unchanged for the last quarter century.

To be continued...
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