While it’s great to draw inspiration and ideas from the past, recreating the past in the hope that it becomes the future seems like a futile idea. Does anyone really want to return to a command-line interface to manipulate documents? It’s designing for a past that never happened, one where we all became computer scientists and enjoyed manipulating documents via arcane commands.
A better, more productive, use of time would have been to say, what inspiration can still be gained from Engelbart’s ideas? There’s still a lot to be gleaned from his 1962 (!) paper Augmenting Human Intellect. How might some of his thoughts on collaborative intelligence be implemented in our world now, in 2006, within the technology we have now? That’s the question waiting to be solved.
Allow me to engage in some Devil's Advocacy here - although I really am an Engelbart sympathizer:
Consider a program like Microsoft Word, with all its ribbons and toolbars and menus and animated assistance. When you first started working with it, you probably spent time navigating these visual and guided parts of the user interface to get your job done. But, after awhile, you probably discovered keyboard shortcuts and accellerators - CTRL-s to save, for instance. These have likely been invaluable in speeding up your work and helping the application get out of your way. So, having reached this point, do you ever really have a use for the "user friendly" bits anymore? Or, have you graduated to "manipulating documents via arcane commands"?
What if this application had never sugar-coated things and had instead optimized for efficiency and ergonomics in daily expert operation, trading an "intuitive interface" for an offer to incrementally train on its necessarily complex functionality? After awhile, you'll have it all down, and be ready to shed the training wheels.
What if - instead of a maze of menus and toolbar icons - your mouse just had dozens of easily-accessible buttons? You're used to only having a left and a right click from which to choose. If you've splurged, you might have the more expansive choices offered by a fancier pointing device. But, what if you had a chording keyboard under your off-mouse hand, offering an order of magnitude more mouse pointer actions?
For example, how about a "delete word" mouse button? Or a "copy sentence" button? Or maybe even a "jump to the selected link with a custom view filter" button? The important part is that these commands act immediately, just like a mouse button, upon whatever's under the pointer. There's no left-click then CTRL-x to Cut - no, you just point at a word, and say "cut that". There's a lot of power and efficiency here.
These "what if" scenarios are not just wishful thinking, though. They're what Doug Engelbart and crew implemented. These are things I picked up after being invited to try a hands-on self-guided tour of Augment. I only wish I'd had a chording keyboard to get the full experience. The interface was like a mouse-heavy VIM, with verb-object command patterns and structured document interactions. (Or, rather, VIM is like a mouse- and outline-deficient derivation of Augment.)
The basic core of this facet of Augment is this: Computers are powerful tools with great potential to augment human intellect. As such, they offer a lot of complex functionality. But, human beings are trainable, and can assimilate this functionality. Once assimilated, it's best to squeeze out all the performance you can. You don't see today's degree of computer "user friendliness" in chainsaws, tanks, jack-hammers, semi-trucks, or fighter jets. These things are necessarily complex and require training. Why should the most powerful of intelligence enhancement tools offered by computers be any different? Of course, you generally won't lose a limb to a computer, but you might be mentally impaired or lose valuable work in the process.
This is, I think, one of the still-relevant central facets of Doug Engelbart's ideas that could use some re-examination today. It could just be because I'm an übernerd who thinks it's fun to self-train on things like VIM and Augment, but I also think that there's a lot of potential to be unlocked once you clear away expectations of "intuitive interfaces" that are decidedly not nipples.
And, since I've admitted my recently acquired semi-addiction, consider World of Warcraft as an expert application. Advanced players could never succeed by navigating a complex yet "friendly" UI to invoke various spells and skills and in-game actions. Just take a look at some of the customizations and UI revisions being offered at this site. Some configurations of this game smack me as eerily similar to the principles of Augment. In fact, just this weekend, I was considering blowing the dust off this keyset controller I used to use with Everquest, years ago.
Then again, maybe it's a matter of intensity. Coordinating with a 40-player guild to slay something from the molten bowels of the earth is a slightly different activity than composing a memo or even a few-dozen-page report. On the other hand, I really would've liked to strip away most of the Word interface while writing my two books. And someday, who's to say that online interpersonal collaboration in the general case won't more closely resemble a World of Warcraft raid? Having just read Vernor Vinge's latest book Rainbows End, he makes a lot of intelligence augmentation and collaboration tasks look just like WoW.