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Ease of Use


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background information

    To understand ease of use issues, it helps to have an understanding of the history of operating systems.

    The very first computers had no operating systems. The scientists and mathematicians who were experimenting with computers did all of their own programming, data entry, computer operation, and computer repairs. Because these early computers cost millions of dollars, it was considered of utmost importance to keep the computers in continual use. So those select few allowed access to these early computers would sign up for time at all hours of the day or night. During their alotted time period, they would have complete control of the computer, loading up their software and data and doing their work.

    A great deal of time in programming is spent on debugging new work. In the early days, this was even more extreme, because computer programming was a new art and the large body of knowledge on software design and project management did not yet exist. So the vast majority of the time, these very expensive computers sat idle while the person signed up would slowly work through a memory dump trying to figure out what went wrong.

    This led to the development of the first operating systems. These were batch processing systems. Instead of running the computer themselves, the scientists and engineers would put their programs onto paper tape or punched cards and turn them over to a computer operator. The computer operator, a semi-skilled laborer, would load up each successive program, run it, and collect the results (either successful computations or a memory dump of what went wrong) and return them to the programmers. This approach is known as batch processing, because the computer handled jobs in “batches”. Many of the older mainframe-based operating systems have very intricate and sophisticated batch processing operations, with multiple queues, each batch queue having different priorities for jobs of varying importance, as well as all kinds of commands and utilities for monitoring and controlling batch queues.

    As computers moved from science and military to business use, it became important to be able to have data entry personnel and others be able to access the computer simultaneously. This led to the first terminal-based interactive computing operating systems. The amount of time that a computer took to respond to a command, request, or data entry was extremely small (fractions of a second) compared to the time it took for a human to simply type, much less think about whta he or she wanted to do. So, operating systems would multiprocess, giving each connected terminal a small time slice for processing and then move on to the next terminal. As long as the number of connected terminals didn’t get too big, the response time was such that each user had the illusion of having the computer all to him or herself.

    Because the cost of the computer and the cost of programmers was so large compared to the cost of the time of data entry personnel, programs were written for the convenience of the computer and the programmer, rather than for the data entry person. The data entry persons were taught obscure one and two letter commands and were expected to conform to the computer and its software.

    This approach of having the end user conform to the computer and programmer lasted long after the price of computers had dropped to the point that individual hobbyists could have a computer in their home. What had at one time made a lot of economic sense was continued long after the economic model had reversed.

    During the 1960s and 1970s several researchers, notably Alan Kay, had been working on the idea of a personal computer. Kay’s work at IBM in the mid-60s involved building a multi-million dollar prototype of a personal computer. Although Kay’s hand built computer was well beyond the price range of any individual, he was looking at ideas about how computing would change when personal computers were affordable. Kay came up with the graphic user interface, including windows, menus, and many of the other ideas now common in computer interfaces.

    Kay continued work at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) labs on groundbreaking ideas such as object oriented programming and graphic user interface in the SmallTalk environment. This work continued for more than a decade in obscurity, as it didn’t fit into Xerox’s business. Then Steve Jobs of Apple Computers saw the work while on a tour of the lab with other leaders of California’s Silicon Valley. The next day, Apple Computers purchased the rights to the concepts and the right to hire key members of the SmallTalk team.

     This led to the Lisa, the first commercially available personal computer to incorporate these ideas. The Lisa flopped because it was simply too expensive. Apple reworked the Lisa into a lower cost all-in-one computer known as the Macintosh.

     The Macintosh completely revolutionized computing. For the first time, an operating system and its application software recognized that the economic reality was that the human oeprator, even a secretary or clerk, was more expensive than the computer system.

     The Macintosh sought to have the computer adapt to the human being rather than forcing the human being to adapt to the computer. This concept is at the heart of the whole ease of use issue.

     Since then, just about every operating system available has copied the idea of a graphic user interface. Bill Gates of Microsoft became one of the richest persons on the planet by successfully marketing Windows, a very poor imitation of the Macintosh OS. Even older mainframe and UNIX-based operating systems had to hammer on at least a cobbled together graphic user interface, even if it was just a clumsy one.

     So far, there are only four operating systems with an excellent graphic user interface: Apple’s Macintosh, Amiga’s AmigaOS, IBM’s OS/2, and Be’s BeOS. There are several other operating systems with fairly decent graphic user interfaces (Windows, NeXT, Solaris, IRIX), although they have problems that show up all over the place in regular use.

ease of use issues

    “Ease of configuration and being able to configure a server without causing downtime is yet another aspect of functionality:” —John Kirsch, “Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 versus UNIX”w51

    “It takes more than a graphical user interface to make a computer easy to use. It takes tight integration between software and hardware. It requires an operating system that’s graphical “from the ground up,” so that users don’t have to deal with character-based code. And it requires a company that focuses on the user, and helps guide software developers to make the user experience more consistent.” — Christian Greenw31

     “It’s true that Windows 95 makes the PC more usable by insulating users from some of the complexity of DOS. But make no mistake: DOS is still there in Windows 95—and users still need to know how to live by its rules. The Macintosh interface is graphical from the ground up, so users never need to deal with the inherent difficulties of a system like DOS. In addition, the Macintosh hardware and software integration makes it easier to add peripherals, use applications, and troubleshoot and maintain your computer.” — Apple Computersw49

text based command shells

    OpenVMS provides DCL as a scripting language or native “shell”. The OpenVMS DCL command set resembles conversational English, is very easy to learn and use, with no cryptic abbreviations to remember, and allows fast learning of the command set by novice users. This provides using constant English commands access to the operating system and its utilities. For new users, they can type HELP and get information on how to get specific help on different components of the operating system. While the view from the DCL shell is different from UNIX compatible systems, there is much in common between the two operating systems.” —John Malmberge85

graphic command shells

    A major characteristic of graphic command shells is being event driven, responding to a wide range of user input rather than being driven by scripts, lists, or other stored commands.

     “On an innovative system like the Macintosh, programs don’t look quite the way they do on other systems. For example, instead of carrying out a sequence of steps in a predetermined order, your program is driven primarily by user actions (such as clicking and typing) whose order cannot be predicted.” —Inside Macintosh, Volume I, page I-4b4a

     “The Macintosh User Interface Toolbox provides a simple means of constructing application programs that conform to the standard Macintosh user interface. By offering a common set of routines that every application calls to implement the user interface, the Toolbox not only ensures familiarity and consistency for the user but also helps reduce the application’s code size and development time. At the same time, it allows a great deal of flexibility: An application can use its own code instead of a Toolbox call wherever appropriate, and can define its own types of windows, menus, controls, and desk accessories.” —Inside Macintosh, Volume I, page I-9b4b


     “After two decades of supplying boring beige boxes, PC makers have begun to add a bit of color and style to their lines, following the runaway success of Apple’s iMac line, a candy-colored machine designed for consumers that was not simply a repackaged business box. Industrial design isn’t the only selling point. A fundamental shift in computing has occurred. For business users and consumers alike, what matters is being connected to the Web, not the raw processing power of the desktop computer. The most intriguing new technologies aren’t spreadsheets or word-processing programs, or the latest updates to Windows. Digital photography, digital music, desktop video editing, and high speed internet access are where the action is. A top-flight desktop computer or notebook is nice to have, but what makes that technology really rock is all the gear that goes with it. Computer manufacturers have altered their product lines in recognition of that trend. Apple’s top-end consumer model, the iMac DV Special Edition, comes with a stellar sound system, high-speed FireWire ports for transferring video, and the company’s iMovie software for editing movies. Sony has a similar strategy with VAIO desktop models configured for video editing that sport a huge hard drive, high-speed i.LINK [FireWire] ports, and dual CD/DVD drives.” —Fortune Technology Guidem2

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    Last Updated: February 5, 2002

    Created: June 4, 1998

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