The Canon Cat and the Mac that Steve Jobs killed

The Canon Cat and the Mac that Steve Jobs killed

A software design framework for humans, distilled from Jef Raskin's Humane Interface.

Imagine an original Macintosh, a beige box with an oversized chin and offset floppy drive. A friendly little machine. You sit down to draft a letter, tap the keyboard to rouse the Mac from its slumber, and discover the Mac is running a word processor.

That was Jef Raskin’s dream for the original Macintosh. “Apple’s products were, in many ways, difficult machines to explain to customers,” wrote Raskin after starting his career at Apple writing user manuals for the Apple II. He dreamed in his Book of Macintosh of a computer for “the Person In The Streets,” someone who could use a computer and still take “perverse delight in being able to say: ‘I don't know the first thing about computers.’” Your average person walking down 5th Avenue, a Kramer or Costanza, that’s who Raskin had in mind.

It’d be as easy to use as a toaster, this computer Raskin wanted to build. “When you want to set down an idea, you should be able to go to your computer… and just start typing: no booting, no opening the word processor, no file names, no operating system,” Raskin reminisced years later in The Humane Interface.

Such a computer would be a black box, an appliance the average person would never open. “A predictable, documentable system must be entirely under Apple’s control,” Raskin envisioned, “one which will be profitable to sell, service and provide software for.” A widget, the simplest device possible. “You get ten points if you can eliminate the power cord,” an early design exploration suggested. It would be a break from the Apple that Woz designed with its freewheeling, expandable, breakeven past, to the walled gardens and consistently-high profit margins for which Apple became known.

“Computer problems are not like the weather: We can do something about them,” said Raskin, and did.

And the solution was a word processor.

The Mac that never was

Computing may be powered by 1’s and 0’s, but that’s on the inside. Words are how most of us interact with computers; even coding, today, is telling computers how to run, with words.

“An interface (which Raskin defined as ’The way that you accomplish tasks with a product’) is humane if it is responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties,” wrote Raskin in The Humane Interface, his manifesto on how an ideal computing system should work. To Raskin, our human needs revolved around text. We want to write (in text), crunch numbers (text, again), communicate (yup, text), and code (esoteric text, but text all the same). That was the most you could expect of computers in the ’80’s. Three decades later, it’d still be the rarest of days if you touched a computer and didn’t interact with text at all.

Computing for the rest of us, that’s what Raskin set out to build. If text is how we compute, he’d build a computer for text.

Better computing, defined

Yet how do you define better? New doesn’t necessarily equate with better; the shine wears off after a while. Productivity—getting more done in less time—is what separates the good tools from the great.

“Productivity is improved by our being able to spend less time doing a task,” surmised Raskin.

Software design often approaches productivity from the opposite perspective, from that of the computer. “Since humans are more pliable than computers,” Raskin quoted novelist Karla Jennings, “it can be easier to make a human fit the computer's limitations than to design the computer to fit the human's needs.

“When that happens, the human becomes a prisoner trapped by the computer rather than liberated by it.”

So we spend our days tweaking settings, backing up data, switching contexts, and getting distracted by our shiny digital overlords. The very tools we bought to boost our productivity would sap us of it.

Raskin reached back to science fiction to dream up a better computer, borrowing Asimov’s laws of robots to define laws of computing:

“The first law of interface design should be: A computer shall not harm your work or, through inaction, allow your work to come to harm.

“For a second interface law, you could do worse than to insist on this one: A computer shall not waste your time or require you to do more work than is strictly necessary.”

A computer built to help humans accomplish their needs in less time, that will not harm your work or waste your time. Not a bad place to start. That core theory, combined with a focus on the singular need to edit text, led Raskin to build features that today’s software would do well to replicate, features to:

  • Auto-save changes: Raskin lived in fear of losing his work, so on traditional computers, he said he’d “use a keyboard-operated save command every time I complete a paragraph or a few sentences.” He’d then back up his work to a floppy every couple of hours. “These elaborate procedures should be unnecessary,” he surmised, as an outtake of his first law. “The system should treat all user input as sacred.” His ideal computer took that so far, it autosaved characters you typed in the few seconds the screen was waking from sleep, and kept a log of commands so you could undo anything, anytime. Even deleting text and files, he declared, “can be undone and redone.”
  • Restart where you left off: “It takes about 10 seconds for a person to switch contexts or to prepare mentally for an upcoming task,” surmised Raskin from research, even more if you’re trying to reorientate yourself in a long document. Jumping to the top or bottom of any document is easy enough; even today, CMD+ or will do the trick. Jumping to the last line you typed, though, that’s more tricky. When you opend a document in Raskin’s ideal computer, “you should be returned to the place where you were working when you last closed or saved it.” It was his way of helping you build a digital sense of place. Imagine how nice that would be in, say, a lengthy email thread today, to re-open a message right at the line where you last stopped reading.
  • Never make a person wait: “When you want to set down an idea, you should be able to go to your computer … and just start typing.” That was the cornerstone of Raskin’s vision, why his computer was built around a word processor and that alone, why it never fully shut down but instead stayed in a low-power sleep mode much like our smartphones today. “If you had a sudden inspiration or had to take a note during a telephone call,” explained Raskin, “you could just start typing without worrying about the state of the [computer] or even looking at the display.” No waiting to boot, no thinking about what app to open before you could start typing. When you tap an Apple Pencil on a sleeping iPad and can start writing a new note right away, you see a bit of Raskin’s vision shining through, decades later.
  • Make commands accessible everywhere: In an envisioning of, perhaps, what we’d come to call the command palette, or of tools like Spotlight, Alfred, and Raycast, Raskin wanted a way to find a command in any application, no matter where he was working. “What is needed for invoking commands is a method that is as fast and physically simple to use as typing a few keystrokes and that also makes the commands easier and faster to find than does a menu system,” he dreamed. “The humane interface views the software as a set of commands,” said Raskin, and you could almost imagine APIs and today’s ecosystem of integrations and automations that let you, say, automatically email new customers, as another fulfillment of his dreams.
  • Use words instead of icons: Hate clicking on icons to try to see what they do? So did Raskin. “Icons violate the principle of visibility: It is their meanings that are not visible,” he surmised. So in his software, he determined to “use icons only in the few situations where research has shown them to be advantageous. Otherwise, words are better.”
  • Always act consistently: You could design an interface to work however you want, set your own defaults. But you have to stick with the defaults you pick, for consistency is what matters above all. “If the computer behaves unexpectedly while you are using an interface,” said Raskin, “you become less likely to see hints, help messages, or other user aids as you become increasingly agitated about the problem.” You’ll do the wrong thing accidentally, get frustrated, and won’t even see the computer’s warnings flash before your work disappears into the ether. Thus the problem with function keys: “If their functions are unchanging, the labeling is unmnemonic. If their functions change, you cannot use them automatically. In either case, they are a poor design.”
  • Never allow customization: Consistency, though, led Raskin’s perhaps most controversial idea, prompted by the trouble he saw customers have with documentation. “Customizations are software design changes that are not reflected in the documentation,” and as a documentarian, this could not stand. The designer knows best—something that comes through strongest in Apple’s products—and “allowing the user to change the interface design often results in choices that are not optimal, because the user will, usually, not be a knowledgeable interface designer,” said Raskin. “Time spent in learning and operating the personalization features is time mostly wasted from the task at hand.” Better a consistent, well-designed interface than one you could fiddle with forever.

Building habits for good

Habits tied his dream interface together. For “humans cannot avoid developing automatic responses,” said Raskin. We’d learn an interface, no matter how terribly designed, thanks to repetition. We remember weird keyboard shortcuts and the paths through our car dashboard’s confusing UIs by repetition; change them, and we’re left stranded. Worse still, “you cannot undo a habit by any single act of willpower,” said Raskin. We’ll keep pressing the wrong thing we’ve memorized until, with time, the new habit slowly overtakes the old one.

“We must design interfaces,” he deduced, “that (1) deliberately take advantage of the human trait of habit development and (2) allow users to develop habits that smooth the flow of their work.”

Raskin’s ideal computer would do this with two dedicated Leap keys, dedicated to search. Type something and hold the left Leap key to jump back to the previous mention of the term; tap the right Leap key to go to the next mention.

You could highlight a math equation or bit of code and tap the Leap key to calculate the results. Or, in an early version of tapping a word in Kindle, you could highlight a word on the Cat, tap Leap, and get the definition.

Raskin asked designers to think through the habits they were helping users build. How can you make humans productive, help them accomplish their tasks in fewer steps? Simpler computing would make everyone more productive, and the effect would be multiplied once we turned those simpler steps into habits.

“No matter how complex the task a product is trying to accomplish, the simple parts of the task should remain simple.

“Complex tasks may require complex interfaces, but that is no excuse for complicating simple tasks,” said Raskin.

Humans might turn those complicated steps into habits already, but we have better ways to use our time.

“The best way to differentiate your product’s interface,” wrote Raskin, “is to make it work.”

An Apple versus a loose Canon

Raskin’s “articulate vision of an exceptionally easy to use, low cost, high volume appliance computer got the ball rolling,” wrote Andy Hertzfeld in his Folklore stories about the early days at Apple. But the Macintosh was destined to greater things. Where Raskin wanted a better device for text, Jobs imagined a “bicycle for the mind,” a computer that could introduce itself, a tool to create anything you could dream up. The Macintosh, as envisioned by Raskin, was “just a machine that wouldn’t have sold,” Jobs told author Stephen Levy for his book Insanely Great years later.

“It was just going to be a word processor initially, that was Jef's original concept,” recalled Jobs. “But by the time you really got it to be a good word processor, it was very little more money to make it a great whatever you wanted to do” machine, a computer that could do anything you wanted.

So the everything machine won out over the information machine and thus the Mac was born.

Steve Jobs “would have made an excellent King of France,” opined Raskin to Time Magazine, frustrated by Jobs’ dictatorial rule and his insistence on a new direction for the Macintosh. The two men wanted to create something great, but they each defined greatness differently.

Raskin decamped to Canon and built his ideas into the Canon Cat, complete with a built-in keyboard so the only thing to connect was the power cord. And, true to his vision, it was built around an all-in-one writing app—an early Notion or Coda or OneNote, of sorts—with documents and tables and computation in one continuously expanding file. You’d tap a key and start writing where you left off, even if you were writing something new. You could always search and find the stuff you wrote yesterday, later. “The Cat represents an eye-opening new approach to data storage and retrieval; it will surprise anyone who thought that interface design was a dying art,” wrote Ezra Shapiro in a BYTE magazine review.

And it bombed.

“The Canon Cat was popular with professional writers,” shared Hanhwe Kim, who worked with Raskin in the early 2000’s to try to resurrect some of the Humane Interface ideas. “10,000 Canon Cats were sold the few months it was available;” hardly an insignificant number, to a startup at any rate. Maybe Canon gave up too quickly, put too few marketing resources behind it.

Or maybe, the world wasn’t ready for yet another interface. “One of the difficulties we had is overcoming established ‘standards’ that have become familiar,” recalled Kim. “So when a device implements an interface that is radically different like the Canon Cat, they have to be really REALLY good to convince people to take the effort to learn to use.” That was too high a bar for a machine that cost $1,459 (in 1987, no less), no matter how thoughtfully it was designed.

Convergence devices—computing tools that’d do whatever you could dream up—were what made Jobs and Apple rich (the iPod aside). And yet. It’s hard to read Raskin’s ideas and not see his influence in Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, to see his vision and not wonder if it could have taken off if the Cat had come a bit earlier, or if it’d been built as a dedicated writing app instead of a full operating system. His ideas are reminiscent of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, of Vannevar Bush’s 1945 dream of a tool to help us think. Bush, Nelson, and Raskin were ahead of their times, in their own ways. They envisioned today’s multifunctional notes apps, personal zettelkastens, and reimagined wikis, decades earlier when the world was happy to play with MacPaint.

And they’re a reminder that today’s computers and software aren’t perfection, that computing in another timeline, a different future, could still be different. That Raskin’s computing rules could still make software better today.

There are, there can still be, better ways to compute.

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