Back to UI basics

I'm writing this column on a Mac-based imitation of a 1970s green-screen terminal. Hog Bay Software's WriteRoom, a free program for Mac OS X, advertises "distraction free writing" as its principal virtue: Less is more.

In WriteRoom's default full-screen mode there are no menus, toolbars, or ribbons; no extraneous windows inviting me to check e-mail, read RSS feeds, search the Web, rearrange my virtual desktop, or otherwise shirk the task at hand. There's nothing but green text, a black background, and a cursor.

The blogosophere has given WriteRoom an enthusiastic thumbs-up, and I don't think the accolades are merely nostalgic. After all, a lot of bloggers are too young to have used primordial word processors. To them the experience of focusing on just one task must come as a revelation.

My writing tool of choice will surely remain emacs, that faithful companion of two decades and counting. But thanks to WriteRoom's built-in support for some of the basic emacs key bindings, I'm immediately productive with the program. And as a result, I'm reminded yet again how cruelly oxymoronic the phrase "productivity software" can be.

Recent research has shown what common sense always should have told us: Computers multitask way better than people can. As we perform the intellectual work that powers the information economy, our ability to achieve focus and flow is constantly challenged by distraction and interruption.

The paradox, of course, is that interruptions are vital, too. We are all required to be interrupt-driven in ways that vary according to the circumstances of our lives and our work. The trick is to find the right balance. Sadly, by inviting us to interrupt ourselves more than necessary, our software tends to contribute more to the problem than to the solution.

Consider the effects of the graphical user interface. At hospital admitting desks, in accountants' offices, and at video retail stores, I watch people perform tasks for which the desktop metaphor -- with its cluttered surface and overlapping resizable windows -- is at best a distraction and at worst an impediment.

With the emergence of the Web page as a preferred application style, the pendulum began swinging back toward simplicity. There were only a handful of core widgets to work with, but that constraint turned out to be profoundly liberating. The page refresh model was clunky, to be sure, but its minimalism made applications easy to create and easy to use.

Now with AJAX, the pendulum is swinging back again. As the new generation of so-called rich Internet clients arrives, let's be careful what kind of richness we wish for. We don't need Web recreations of the feature-bloated monsters that our office suites became. What we need instead, and what's starting to appear, is a breed of lightweight single-purpose Web applications for basic tasks: writing, communicating, spreadsheeting, charting.

As the reaction to WriteRoom proves, there is enormous pent-up demand for applications that do one thing well. When the platform for those applications is the service-oriented Web, the office suite can be reinvented as a loosely coupled set of communicating parts. The individual parts can and will grow richer over time, but the new software ecosystem happily lacks the perverse incentives that created the baroque monoliths we're abandoning. As Unix culture knows, the richness that matters most is an emergent property of simple tools that combine in flexible ways to produce network effects.

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Jon Udell

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