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an unbelievable tale of a printer

Coming to work every day, starting from Monday and ending on Friday, Maria a manager, opens the office door, turns on the coffee machine, sits down at her desk, shifts the ballpoint pen from the left edge of the desk to the right, and finally presses the button on the system unit of her work computer.

For Maria nothing out of the ordinary happens on this ordinary day. She has ten to twenty seconds until her standard working tool turns on. After that, Maria will send about twenty letters, write a chat to seven of her colleagues, calculate a couple of numbers on a calculator and print thirty sheets on a Xerox brand office printer.

For Maria, this is commonplace.

Meanwhile, in the office corner is the same printer, the same company that started it all.

Forgotten Heroes

If you ask Maria about the printer, she will raise an eyebrow in surprise and say that it is a Xerox of some model, it prints quite well, and it has many useful features. And this company itself produces printers, scanners and other office printing equipment, and in general it inspires confidence. And then she will ask you not to go in with stupid questions.

Meanwhile, without the invention of Xerox, Maria would not have sent twenty letters, would not have written to seven colleagues, and all the other things that she would do during a day.

Imagine that you turn on your computer, but instead of the usual desktop, you see this:

It's scary, incomprehensible and absolutely not clear what to do with it.

Until the 1970s, computer interfaces looked like dark backgrounds with symbols. No double clicks, usual windows and trash cans with deleted documents. In 1973, Xerox invented the first graphical user interface. Yes, yes, these are the ones that produce printers.

Now it seems normal and understandable, but for the 70s the GUI was a big breakthrough. For their interface, they used the metaphor of the office: the file turned into a document icon, the place to store them in a folder, into a place for deleted documents in the trash. It used to be just a line of text on the screen. And now the interface has become clear, intuitive and ready to meet with the mass user.

Then professional designers got involved, and the icons became more elaborate and detailed:

And then the design:

And design, and design, and design:

While typing this text in MS Word in 2019, I still see the floppy disk icon that will save all changes when clicked. Floppy disks went out of use more than fifteen years ago - will they soon come up with another metaphor for saving a document?

Why is the cursor crooked?

Things we don't understand seem monolithic, whole, and obscure. When turning on the computer, the standard user does not think that this black box contains a million parts, each of which is responsible for its own little business. It's just a thing that works. Or doesn't work. The computer is not a magic box. Rather, a watch with millions and millions of gears.

The same goes for operating systems. We don't even need to think about what it is. We press the button, wait for the download and do our thing. We don't care that every mouse move we make runs a huge number of algorithms that sometimes run and sometimes throw errors.

In fact, we don't even need to think about the fact that the operating system and the computer are not directly related. In the store they will sell us a ready-made monolithic system, which will only have to be turned on. And if something goes wrong, then a friend who is smarter in this matter will come to “reinstall Windows”.

Operating systems are diverse. And they are as similar as they are different. But every graphical operating system has a cursor. It somehow happened that the cursor is an arrow tilted at 45 degrees.

We are used to seeing an arrow like this:

Douglas Engelbart, the inventor of the computer mouse, first sketched the cursor as an up arrow.

And it had to look like like this:

This cursor seems foreign, unfamiliar and alien. But such it should have been, if not for technical limitations.

At the time of designing the first computer with a graphical interface, it turned out that the resolution of the screens is so small that it does not allow drawing an exactly vertical arrow in a sufficiently miniature way. The pointer was enlarged and tilted 45 degrees. And the guys from Xerox came up with it. As we found out, these are the guys who make printers.

Now it is possible to draw a vertical arrow, but it is no longer necessary. Everyone is used to it.

GUI metaphors

In some variants of operating systems, the shredder played the role of the usual basket. The icon was very similar to a printer and was abandoned.

The computer desktop is a metaphor for the desktop. Windows, folders, documents and a calculator - all this seems familiar to us in a computer, although it is not at all what we are used to seeing. A Word document is not a paper sheet at all, but it makes it clearer to us. Even the usual dragging of elements around the screen has a metaphor - rearranging things on the table.

There are also strange metaphors. Have you ever wondered why the menu on some websites is hidden behind a hamburger icon?

Norm Cox invented the "hamburger". Norm is an interactive and user interface design consultant. And he came up with this icon for Xerox. If it seems to you that Xerox is something like Freemasons in the field of interface, then it may well be.

Great restrictions were imposed on the design conditions of the "burger": the icon had to be as simple as a road sign, functional, easy to remember and like a list. And most importantly - very small.

And then this idea was born.

Then the “burger” icon disappeared for a long time and returned as an element of the mobile menu, for which it was ideal: small and functional. But is it intuitive? Each modern user will answer the question of what will happen if you click this icon - a menu will open. But, if you think about it, this metaphor is not so successful: it's just three lines in a row, and for an unenlightened user, they mean nothing.

And here's another question: did Norm know what modern "burgers" would become, what his concise icon of three lines in a row would turn into?

Instead of afterword

The interfaces haven't changed much since the first Xerox Research Center documentaries. We still recognize things familiar to us in the sketches of the 70s. This is either a sign of the stagnation of the field of interfaces as a whole, or the genius of the original metaphor.

In any case, Maria, the manager, does not have to remember dozens of console commands to send mail, but simply press a button. Dragging elements around the desktop is as familiar as breathing, clicking on a button is ordinary and understandable. But, in fact, this is a huge work and a brilliant idea from Palo Alto.

And, it would seem, just a printer in the corner.

And at the end of a little parable:

Once a sysadmin asked:

— Teacher, would you like a beautiful picture for your desktop? I have a good collection of desktop wallpapers with starry sky and moral law.

Why do you think my current wallpaper is worse? Yin Fu Wo asked back.

I don't know what picture you have now. I have never seen your desktop. You always have many windows open.

“I never saw it either,” Yin said. - I am working.

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