Our computers are inhumane. When they don’t work right, they can set us back days or weeks, cause frustration and anger, and even lose or destroy irreplaceable information. Even when they work properly, though, they don’t work well.
People just don’t naturally think in terms of programs (or even, for the Apple folks, documents). One task can easily span multiple documents and programs. Unfortunately, computers don’t work that way. Instead, they try to force you to think the way they work, which just causes the kind of grief we’re all familiar with.
If I’m writing an article and need to do some simple math (maybe I need to figure out how many pages my 1500 word article will be), I have to open up another program, wait for it to load and get the answer before I return to my original document. That kind of thing is a concentration-killer and is probably one reason why so many people are now multi-taskers. We have to be because that’s how computers allow us to perform tasks.
So what’s the alternative? Well, wouldn’t it be better if you could just type out a mathematical equation, select it, and tell the computer to find the answer? That way, you don’t have to switch contexts (concentration killer!), switch keyboard commands (why doesn’t ctrl-A work now?), or worry about which application has focus (oops, copied my document instead of the answer).
Jef Raskin thinks so. Raskin started out as an interface designer for the original Macs and later the Canon Cat (probably the closest thing to his ideal yet and it was released in 1987!). If you had to boil his design philosophy down into one sentence, it would be “modes are bad, from Caps Lock to programs.” Luckily, you don’t have to read just a sentence since his book, The Humane Interface, goes into so much more detail.
Unfortunately, it’s not likely that Raskin’s ideas will be realized in full anytime soon since it requires a total rethinking of computers from the hardware on up. The next best thing would be a set of software tools that imitates the semi-modal commands that Raskin promoted.
That’s where Jef Raskin’s son Aza steps in. His company, Humanized attempts to create applications that run on today’s computers and makes them… well… a little less bad. They currently have two products and a demo. The demo is a relatively straightforward RSS reader that doesn’t do much for me.
The other products are Enso Launcher and Enso Words. Both Enso products are semi-modal, which means that you access them by holding down the Caps Lock and typing commands while they key is down (in contrast to a fully-modal design where you tap a key to enter or leave a state like Caps Lock normally is). They include some basic commands including a four-function calculator. Enso Words is focused on writing and primarily includes a spellchecker, thesaurus, and word counter. Enso Launcher, on the other hand, is much more open-ended.
Enso Launcher allows you to run, close, and minimize programs (or files or directories) by typing. It pre-populates with programs in the Start Menu but you can add any file, directory, or program on your computer with a couple of keystrokes.
I got Enso Launcher a week ago and I love it. I’ve set up my commonly used directories and programs and can bring things up quickly, using muscle memory, and without any serious context-switching. You really have to see the videos to understand how useful it is.
Basically, Enso Launcher gets the highest praise I can give to a program: it makes my computer suck a little less.