Computer de-evolution: Features that lost the evolutionary war

Today's tools may be more powerful, but many lack some useful features of their forebears.

Today's computers offer processing power, speed, storage, Internet connectivity, display size and quality, and other capabilities that few even dreamed of ten or more years ago, certainly not at prices affordable for any developer or even consumer.

And many of the applications that run on these machines cheerfully consume these cycles, network megabits per second and gigabytes of RAM and storage.

But there are some things they don't do that the old, slow, often command-line-intead-of-GUI-oriented applications did.

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I've got my own pet peeves, of course. Two of the text editors I used to use -- PC-Write, the old DOS text processor I used to write my freelance articles with, and also PEN, a Unix screen-oriented text editor that was at BBN when I worked there, which I used for writing computer documentation and other projects -- could split the screen window as many times as I wanted (e.g., I could have five or six slices of a file showing). For editing long, complex documents, this was a great convenience. By contrast, Microsoft Word can only split the screen in two.

And when I moved my landline phone from Verizon to Comcast (going digital in the process), I lost one feature that was often useful: Remote forwarding. With remote forwarding I could set call forwarding from a phone other than my home phone to a phone other than my home phone.

Here are some thoughts from developers and users who have been in the biz long enough to have used a variety of tools. Not surprisingly, the features they miss mostly center around productivity and efficiency.

Shortcuts and keyboards

"I have been typing on a computer since 1981," says Eric Loyd, President and CTO of Bitnetix Incorporated, a small technology consulting company located near Rochester, New York. "What I miss most are keyboards that have some 'omph' to them, and software that makes use of keyboard shortcuts. I really miss the 'clicky' IBM Model M keyboards from the mid and late '80s, for instance. I can type 150+ words per minute and I can move my fingers across a keyboard faster than I can move my hand to a mouse, move the cursor, click, and put my fingers back on the keyboard. I really really really miss customizable keyboard shortcuts."


John Hedtke, a consultant, author of 27 non-fiction books, and president of JVH Communications, says "The main feature I miss on today's keyboards is having FUNCTION keys (F1, F2, etc) on the left of the main key area, and a CONTROL key in the middle of the left-side column of keys (so it goes from top to bottom: ~/TAB/CTRL/SHIFT/ALT). There are a number of CTRL+F-key and ALT+F-key combinations that can quickly and easily done with one hand in this configuration without looking, whereas having the CTRL key at the bottom and the function keys at the very top requires you to use two hands to create a combination and you have to look at the keyboard. If you're a touchtyper like me, you loathe anything makes you stop looking at the screen and moving into a real-time mode. The flow is broken and it's slow."

Fortunately, reports Hedtke, "There is a programmable keyboard available -- the CVT Avant Stellar, which has the F-keys to the left AND the top. It also lets you reprogram the locations of the CTRL, ALT, and CAPS LOCK keys. (They ship their keyboards with keycaps for those keys, in fact. They know their audience.) The keyboards have that deep stroke and click that the old IBM AT keyboards had. The tactile and auditory feedback adds 20wpm to my typing speed when I'm really cruising."

This keyboard isn't cheap, Hedtke concedes: "They were nearly $200 when CVT was making them directly, and the current Avant Stellar keyboard is around $325. But for many of us, it's more than worth it."

(If you've got one of these keyboards, you may want to have it reconditioned at some point, notes Hedtke.)

Termination, terminating, terminated

Ken Greenberg, owner of Krypton Neon LLC, has done programming in PERL, Visual Basic, and PBASIC for some of his neon scenic and environmental art and what he misses is the convenience of DOS's CONTROL-C and CONTROL-Q "which could kill an accidentally triggered program, along with the Unix Control-C and kill -9 <pid> for command line Unix. I'm not sure if anything exists that can do that as quickly at the GUI level. Windows TaskManager takes a few clicks to do it, for example... but by then the unwanted program is already open."

Bill Cattey, a senior analyst programmer with a Computer Engineering degree from MIT, says "There are two features I REALLY miss whose loss powerfully impacted computer usability for me:

"One, moving 'Destroy Window' -- usually indicated by a square icon with an 'X' in it -- from the opposite end of the title bar where I'd only click on it when I MEANT it, to right next to 'Iconify' and 'Maximize.'" This window control problem is now universal, according to Cattey: "It's on Windows, Linux and MacOS, as well as Solaris."

Even today, says Cattey, "Every so often I DESTROY a window I really wanted to inspect more closely. Somehow the popular 'Let's group the controls together' won out over 'That control is dangerous, keep it away from the others.'"

Paging, paragraphing, and scrolling

Another feature Cattey misses is in the scrollbar. "I'm disappointed in the direction scrollbar behavior has evolved," Cattey laments. "In the early days of user interface toolkits (think back to the X Window system, Sun Open Look and the CMU Andrew Toolkit of the early 1980s), Windows, MacOS, and UNIX Workstation platforms explored many possible aspects to scrollbar action beyond just dragging the bar to move the text."

"The CMU Andrew Toolkit had very complex scrollbars that took a while to master," say Cattey. "Once mastered, they provided two features I miss very much: left-click to bring this line to the top of the window and right-click to bring the top line of the window down to here. I could comfortably read online documents by paragraphs and other logical groupings by positioning the mouse appropriately in the scrollbar and doing a quick left-click or right click. It quickly became a habit that required no thought."

This complex scrollbar behavior "looked like it was becoming accepted," according to Cattey. "I remember being pleasantly surprised to find it available in Emacs built against the Athena Widgets. It was there for a while, but then it was gone. The more popular Mac and Windows platforms evolved very different ideas about whether to offer the ability to support a right mouse button, and what behavior it should have. Scrollbars got simpler. Too simple for my tastes."

"To this day," says Cattey, "Whenever I read an article online, be it in Adobe Reader, a text editor, or a web browser, I try to get an uninterrupted paragraph on the screen, fail, curse, and move on, knowing that online reading used to be a far less turbulent and far more graceful experience before popular and simple displaced complex and useful."

Before there were scrollbars, command-line interfaces to Unix and DOS would paginate output and pause when the screen was full, until you requested the next screenful with the "more" command -- which required being included in the command line, e.g., "grep fnord * | more" ("search for the character string 'fnord' in all files in the current directory, and pipe the output through 'more').

Dan Franklin, senior developer at an educational publishing company, fondly recalls from when he worked at BBN during the 1980s: "The BBN version of UNIX had a page-at-a-time output mode in its terminal driver that would stop the current program's output after each screenful, enabling you to scroll through long output without having to remember to pipe it through a 'more' command (with a "|more") which you had to do in Linux and other UNIX variants.

"You simply set the screen height in your startup script, such as .profile (or .cshrc), that would run each time you logged in, using stty," says Franklin. "For example -- assuming I remember the syntax correctly, it's been a while --

     stty height 40

and chose the control character to type to allow the next screenful of output (and chose another character that would allow all the rest of that program's output without pausing it."

"As a developer, I found it very useful for when I ran scripts that produced a surprisingly large amount of output or a lot of error messages," says Franklin. "I did not need to run the command over again in order to see it all. This feature has never been in another version of UNIX or Linux since."

Mainframe editors, Turbo Pascal and memories of the Commodore

Jochen Heyland, a developer at Members Only Software, which provides enterprise software for non-profit organizations, misses an editing feature of the old IBM mainframe XEDIT text editor, which ran in non-GUI environments. "XEDIT had the ability to restrict the file to a part, and have all editing commands, such as 'go to top/search and replace/select to bottom,' only work on that part of the file."

Heyland has been using mostly NotePad, but, he's happy to report, "I just found a Pc XEDIT

Embacadero Delphi XE."

Closer to the hardware side of things, Heyland misses the Commodore 64's memory model. "It could overlay hardware, firmware and regular memory as needed, and had no reserved memory sections. This let me write macros that were globally available." When he switched to PCs, he used DOS's TSR (Terminate and Stay-Resident) feature. "Now, I'm using Windows. There's nothing like this old feature there."

Steve Silberberg, software contractor and owner of Fatpacking, recalls, "Almost 30 years ago, there was a "see" program for the IBM PC -- I don't recall whether it was a .com or .exe file -- that allowed users to view, search and subsequently edit the bytes comprising executable images." (Editor's note: there also was a pervasive see.exe virus, so be careful if you go looking for a copy of "see" to try out.) "'See' was typically not all that useful, except in blocks of stored text, which you could then change to say whatever you wished. I used it some, but Windows essentially killed it for me. I imagine there are ways of doing this now, but I'm not much of a hacker."

Not everybody has to miss long-standing features, notes Dan Ritter, a sysadmin at a financial services firm. "I started using Linux in 1993 when my Windows box crashed in the middle of an important document and wiped out hours of work. Software need not go obsolete -- since that time, every program I have ever used has continued to be available to me. In almost every case, the programs have been improved, and in no case does the "old program mysteriously stop working."

* * *

What features do you miss?

This story, "Computer de-evolution: Features that lost the evolutionary war" was originally published by ITworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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