Jef Raskin’s Canon Cat

Few things in technology excites me more than an amazing computer I have never heard of before – especially one with pedigree.

Many people take a casual glance at this machine and say, “Isn’t that an overgrown word processor?” And one could certainly think so, in part because of its keyboard-centric operation, but mostly from the utterly uncomprehending way Canon advertised it in 1987. Canon dubbed the Cat a “work processor” because of its built-in telecommunications, modem and word processor even though Jef Raskin, its designer, had intended it as a “people’s computer” that could be inexpensive, accessible and fully functional — all things he had hoped to accomplish at Apple after first launching the Macintosh project, prior to departing in 1982.

Canon, however, never fully grasped the concept either. Apart from the tone-deaf marketing, Canon sold the device through their typewriter division and required the display to only show what a daisywheel printer could generate, limiting its potential as a general purpose workstation.

↫ Cameron Kaiser

Wait, wait, wait. You mean to tell me there’s a unique, well-designed computer that seemed ahead of its time, sold by a printer and copier company, that failed in the market due to botched marketing and grotesque misunderstanding among management of what the device is supposed to be? What are the odds this happens twice?

The Canon Cat was designed and built by Jeff Raskin’s – of Macintosh fame – company Information Appliance, Inc., and licensed to Canon. It’s an all-in-one 68000-based computer with a bitmap display, an operating system stored in ROM, and a comprehensive Forth environment easily accessible despite the device autostarting to a word processor (because Canon).

Much like some of the predecessor machines Raskin had worked on before licensing the Cat to Canon, the Cat has an intriguing input method that I’d never seen before. Instead of a mouse or even cursor keys, it has two keys labeled “Leap” that are used for manipulating the text cursor.

In fact, there aren’t even conventional cursor keys. The Cat has the same “leap” keys as the Swyft and SwyftCard, in a bright but tasteful pink, and they work the same way to jump to portions of the document or into other documents. You can also use them to scroll with the SHIFT key, or move by single letters, sentences or paragraphs. The LEAP keys are also how you highlight text blocks to manipulate by LEAPing to the beginning, LEAPing to the end, and then pressing them together.

↫ Cameron Kaiser

The Forth programming environment is also very interesting. It was hidden in that Canon didn’t really want you to use it, but Raskin’s company made no secret of it, and it was easily accessible. It uses a special dialect of Forth, which can be used at either a traditional OK prompt, or just by typing Forth code into the word processor, highlighting it, and executing it with a keyboard shortcut, after which any output will be displayed in the word processor as well.

The Canon Cat was a market failure, and hence it shouldn’t be a surprise it’s exceedingly rare. The article further details the internals, some fixes that were required and performed, and much, much more. A follow-up article will delve deeper into the software, too.


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