Thursday, 14 May 2009

Turning the Tables

Back in 1983 Computers looked like this:

No mice, no colour, no internet and every interaction involving typing on a "command line". Then Apple showed their "Lisa" computer in 1983 which made the first attempt to turn the screen into a "desktop" or "GUI" (graphical user interface) to make accesssibility easier. This was later to become the first Macintosh.

The magazine Practical Computing held a competition in 1983 to imagine where five years of this radical new "Lisa" approach would take us by 1988 and one of the winners is re-published below. It is quite spooky, 26 years later, to discover how perceptive and brilliant this writer was!

Mabel : Personal Computing Takes a Quantum Leap!

Five years ago, the Apple Lisa system made a genuine attempt to open another route with its emphasis on interaction with the machine on a more practical and “real” level. Its approach did not divert other makers from their quest for miniaturisation but it did prompt two young designers from Cambridge – home of de Bono’s lateral thinking – to start work on Mabel.

They firstly renounced virtually every single design parameter passed down intact from the earliest Pets and Tandys and started from scratch to build a truly “user friendly” system. At its official press launch on Friday I say journalists visibly trembling with excitement at the greatest breakthrough in personal computing since the chip itself.

The first striking thing about Mabel is its physical appearance – a large, slate-grey metallic cabinet standing about three feet high on the floor and covering a rectangular area of six feet by three feet. No screen, keyboards or disc slots were in evidence and the only clue to the use of this monolith was the tunnel area in the centre of one long side where the user places his or her legs comfortably to operate the equipment.
The demonstration began and eyes began to widen as the really radical nature of Mabel’s approach became apparent. The flat top surface of the console turned out to be the central operational area, to handle in a flexible manner most of the input and output and centred on a moveable 12” x 8” plain white work area. Input involves a revolutionary cordless light-pen type implement designated the “Program Entry Module”. When the user places the Module against the white work area it physically deposits layers of graphite which echo the input exactly. There are no fixed pixel positions so the system is capable of virtually infinite resolution. Multicolour graphics are simply a case of changing modules.

So much for graphic input, but how on earth have the designers coped with alphanumeric entry without resorting to more conventional hardware? The answer is refreshingly simple: the revolutionary principle of Direct Handwriting Recognition. Whilst most micro designers have been struggling for years with speech recognition, Mabel takes the alternative but totally effective route of allowing the user to simply write on the white work area with the module. Every stroke, cross and dot is faithfully reproduced in the dark graphite with no hardware barrier between the user and the text.

Before the dumbstruck audience had time to draw breathe, the demonstration proceeded from data entry to data storage. Surely this totally unconventional computer would have to fall back on more traditional facilities for the permanent retention of data?

The designers ran quickly over the well known shortcomings of magnetic storage : vulnerability, degradation, rough handling etc – and explained that one of the chief micro aversions still restricting computer acceptance was that an inability to “see” magnetic information leads to an inability to believe in its complete integrity. The answer for Mabel is probably the simplest yet most devastating of all –visible storage.

The journalists held their breath when this was demonstrated. The designers simply peeled off a 12” x 8” wafer from the white work area and held it aloft, showing the previously entered text and graphics still intact. Then in one deft movement a large cassette like box slid from the main console to the operator’s right and in went the visible storage wafer, intact, visible and entirely non-volatile. Head crashes, disc errors and power cuts were not going to affect that data, and the most suspicious non-computer cynic would have total faith in data in his or her own handwriting.
At this stage in the demonstration it had dawned on everyone that Mabel is not merely another new computer but a complete overthrow of every tenet of conventional wisdom as we have come to accept it. Questions such as “Will it run CP/M?” suddenly become a complete irrelevance and larger issues such as Mabel’s repercussions on the information revolution began to come to mind.

The designers have not been content to leave any area of the machine unchanged in their quest for friendlier operation. For example they have taken the Lisa screen calculator and given it real substance in the form of a remote mumeric-pad-like mini-console which detaches from another storage cassette in the main console and on which a complete range of scientific and floating-point number crunching can be readily effected. A demonstration of a paperclip-type database was also given with another instance of total practicality, this time in the shape of a box-like container housing dozens of visible storage units, this time on thicker wafers, which could be grouped using small metallic clips to give ready access to sorted files.

Software for the new system was briefly touched upon, but it appears that virtually every item of alphanumeric text ever published in English will form Mabel’s software base and, by utilising the visible storage principle, access to that base is immediate. The price of the actual system at around £100 brought gasps of sheer disbelief from the assembled gathering.

Predictions and forecasting in the micro world of 1988 is normally an area best avoided but from what I have seen of this revolutionary new system I will go out on a limb and predict that Mabel may change our lives. It could well be that within the next five years every schoolchild in the Country from infant to student will have his or her mini-Mabel at which to sit and at which all teaching will be conducted.

It is also now a real possibility that every town and local authority will start central town database facilities using the new visible storage whereby any citizen can go along with a ticket and borrow visible files for consuption at home sitting at Mabel.

The Mabel revolution has only just begun!


Dave said...

Your press cutting was better than mine.

I'm typing this while sat at my own version of Mabel, hand-crafted in tree-grown pine.

KAZ said...

Does Mabel come with 2 sugars and a jammy dodger?

Sarah said...

Sorry that was just too much for my very small brain to compute, I gave up after the first paragraph. Sorry. What was your point?..... briefly..

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

I'm surprised you never mentioned the absolutely essential Equilibrium Modulation Unit (EMU) which in many cases was produced under licence in the form of a Pliable Malted Liquor Spilth Absorbtion Facility (PLIMSLAF), which I expect you will remember inserting beneath one (two if Mabel required increased elbow pressure) of the vertical columnar supports (LEG)to avoid plane irregularity (WOBL).

Rog said...

Dave: Tree grown pine is quite the best sort. I might see if I can loan some pine.

Kaz: How could you say that? Sugar? And you are a sophisticated Sauvingnon Blanc drinker? I bet Ikea have a "Mabel" next to Billy Bookcase and Roger the chair.

Sarah: I knew it was a big mistake not to put the end picture at the top. Have you ever thought of taking up Twittering?

Christopher: Now you're being ridiculous! Everyone knows that Bill Gates spilth millions trying vainly to perfect the PLIMSLAF for Microsoft. It was even les successful than Vista. (Is spilth a word? I could have beaten Dave on Scrabble with that!)

Vicus Scurra said...

You are very silly.

zIggI said...

oh byte me, like Sarah I couldn't be bothered to read all those words but if the comments are anything to go by it was silly anyway :)

Rog said...

Vicus: From you that's a compliment.

Ziggi: Have they got an ADD specialist at your school?