Engelbart profile in Wired and tools for knowledge work

The Click Heard Round the World. Fifteen years before the Mac, Doug Engelbart demo'd videoconferencing, hyperlinks, text editing and something called a 'mouse.' He tells Wired magazine writer Ken Jordan about his part in the point-and-click revolution. [Wired News]

Great overview of Doug Engelbart's work from Wired. Alan Kay once told me that you could explain most of the history of personal computing as people trying to work out the implications of what Engelbart demoed in 1968. Here's Engelbart on how they framed their approach:

Our approach was very different from what they called “office automation,” which was about automating the paperwork of secretaries. That became the focus of Xerox PARC in the '70s. They were quite amazed that they could actually get text on the screen to appear the way it would when printed by a laser printer. Sure, that was an enormous accomplishment, and understandably it swayed their thinking. They called it “what you see is what you get” editing, or WYSIWYG. I say, yeah, but that's all you get. Once people have experienced the more flexible manipulation of text that NLS allows, they find the paper model restrictive.

We weren't interested in “automation” but in “augmentation.” We were not just building a tool, we were designing an entire system for working with knowledge. Automation means if you're milking a cow, you get a tool that will milk it for you. But to augment the milking of a cow, you invent the telephone. The telephone not only changes how you milk, but the rest of the way you work as well. It touches the entire process. It was a paradigm shift.

One key notion of Engelbart's that I don't think has been sufficiently investigated or thought about is the time investment in learning to use new and powerful tools for working. The industry, by and large, has gone down the path of initial experience and ease of use out of the box. Very often this is at the expense of long term ease of use.

Take something as seemingly simple as outlining software, a category “Dave Winer” contributed to greatly. The earliest outliners like ThinkTank and More devoted considerable thought to using the power of technology to let you do things with outlines that weren't possible on paper. But the marketing forces driving software led mostly to the vestigial capabilities for outlining left in Word or Powerpoint. There are some promising developments such as MindManager for the PC and OmniOutliner for the Mac, but they are niche applications. Few seem prepared to invest the time to learn how to make effective use of these tools to think. Engelbart assumes that you will invest considerable time to learn to use the tools. For those with well defined work worlds (think AutoCad or Excel or programming), there is an expectation that it takes time to become effective using new tools. Not so in the world of general purpose knowledge work. There's opportunity there still to be exploited.