Linked by David Adams on Fri 5th Aug 2011 16:08 UTC
Graphics, User Interfaces A couple of days ago I read a blog post by Stephen Ramsay, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a Fellow at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. In it, he mentions that he has all but abandoned the GUI and finds the command line to be "faster, easier to understand, easier to integrate, more scalable, more portable, more sustainable, more consistent, and many, many times more flexible than even the most well-thought-out graphical apps." I found this very thought-provoking, because, like Ramsay, I spend a lot of time thinking about "The Future of Computing," and I think that the CLI, an interface from the past, might have a place in the interface of the future.
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Unfortunately, it will always 'ls -l'
by whartung on Fri 5th Aug 2011 17:22 UTC
whartung
Member since:
2005-07-06

It may be some different switch, or some longer expression, but it's always going to be specific, nit picky and pedantic. It will also be equally "undiscoverable", which is the primary complaint against CLI.

GUIs are basically discoverable for most domains. Specific vertical applications (e.g. 3D modelers) have so many new concepts that outside training and information are required simply to understand what options might be available in the interface. Without that domain knowledge, discoverability isn't useful.

But with that knowledge, the GUI opens up many of the options by presenting them in front of the user. Click around and find what you want to do, or discover something new.

Most modern command lines don't have that, the Unix one especially. Not easily.

If I know a command, I can learn more about it via its man page. But I can't readily do "man commands" to get list and short summary of all the commands on the system. This could be done, it's just not.

But either way, regardless of how you learn about an action, representing that action to the machine will be a detailed request. There are always defaults ('ls' vs 'ls -l') but that last thing that you want to do with a computer is have a conversation with it. You don't want it asking you questions, validating your choices. That's what makes the command line efficient. It does what it's told. But to tell it correctly, you have to be very specific.

Consider examples from the real world.

I eat at "In-N-Out", which is a burger stand. I know exactly what I want, and I've honed my ordered to work within their system to make it as efficient as possible. "Double double, lettuce, tomato, grilled onions only." I've learned this, USUALLY, expresses exactly what I want with little interpretation. I could order it "double double, no sauce, grilled onions", which is the same end result, but they almost always came back with "you want ketchup or mustard instead". A needless question, but obviously I'm not clear enough.

Still, I occasionally get the the server who asks the ketchup question.

Similarly, with generic drive through, I follow a specific regimen for the order. I make the basic order "#1 please". Then I wait for the questions. Why don't I just say "#1, hold the cheese, large fries, and a coke"? That's what I want. But a combination of the order speaker, the noise inside, the skill of the server trying to work the machine (which is very specific) inevitably overloads them and they just ask these questions anyway. So, I let them pace the order. In-N-Out tends to have a simpler system and better training, most restaurants don't.

Finally, when ordering eggs, order them "scrambled well" vs "scrambled hard". "Hard" gets conflated with "over hard", you say "scrambled hard", and either server hears "eggs hard" or the cook misinterprets it and you get the wrong result.

The point of this diversion is simply that even when involved with human communication, you have to be very specific. And computers are a) much worse at interpreting people and, moreso, folks hate 'interacting" with computers more than anything (witness the general praise for voice response applications).

The command line is great when you know exactly what you want, as it's very precise and concise. The problems with "-l" etc. are really secondary, because folks in time want those abbreviations.

Most any user would loathe being forced to routinely type:

list files with full description sorted by modification date in descending order.

Maybe some context, maybe always doing what it did last time. Remember options all the time, having really good defaults and simple setting and reseting and overriding of those defaults. But then everyones experience becomes different. When your "ls" is different from my "ls", expect support to explode.

Computers are hard to use. They're awful. Truly awful. But, then, so is everything else. Communication is hard, ask any married couple. How can you expect better from complete strangers and machines?

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