How do you navigate your computer?
Navigating your computer’s controls, applications and documents is the most basic activity we do on our computers and handheld devices. Most of us do not think about how we navigate until a device misbehaves and does not allow us to type or click as we expect.
An industry term-of-art for input devices people use is Human Interface Device or HID. This term is to distinguish our input from input that enters the machine via another device such as a network card. The basic types of HIDs are keyboards, pointers like a mouse, touchpad or joystick, or microphones using speech to control a device or enter data. Speech input is rarely used except with voice dialing on cell phones. Most of us use a combination of keyboards and pointers.
HIDs allow us to control our devices with key or button clicks and pointer gestures. The QWERTY keyboard originated with typewriters. It was adapted for computer use early in the development of digital computers. In 1948, the BINAC used a typewriter to input to magnetic tape and to print results. The mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart in 1963. It did not become popular in computer use until the 1980s.
A recent development for keyboards and mice is to go virtual. There are wonderful scenes in the movie “Minority Report”, based upon the Philip K. Dick short story, where the main character controls his computer using virtual controls projected into the air in front of him. This is reality. The $170, I-Tech Virtual Laser Keyboard does this for your computer or mobile phone now.
Xerox PARC is credited with inventing the graphical user interface (GUI) in the 1970s. It is also where laser printing, Ethernet, and many other things we use daily, were invented. Before the GUI, we accessed applications by typing long commands at the command prompt. This method taxes one’s memory, is tortuous especially for hunt and peck typists and prone to errors. If you make a mistake, you must try to retype the command correctly and pray you get it right. Before the GUI, some application/file managers allowed you to navigate the file system by using the cursor arrows and the Enter key.
Apple’s appropriation of Xerox’s GUI, later re-appropriated by Microsoft’s Windows operating system launched a point and click navigation revolution. Most of us use this method to navigate the computer’s file system, to launch applications or control the computer, e.g., to turn it off. This method has limitations. Pointing at icons requires us to understand what the picture symbolizes. Some icons are easily understood. Many are neither intuitive nor logical. If hieroglyphics, a picture-based written language, were so wonderful, why do we use an alphabet to read and write? Interface designers deal with this issue of unidentifiable picture shortcuts by adding a small amount of text above or below the icons.
Navigating by typed word is often superior to clicking on a picture. This is a recent way to easily navigate. Apple introduced Spotlight in OS X 10.4 (Tiger). It is a marvelous way to launch applications and find documents. You can click on the menu bar’s magnifying glass icon or press Command+space to launch Spotlight and type what you want. For example, if you type “word” the Mac suggests applications or documents that fit your search.
The results are accurate and instantaneous. I find it a superior method to pointing and clicking because my fingers never leave the keyboard. Microsoft added a similar feature in Vista, the Start button Search Bar. You can click on the Start button or press the Windows key and type “word” to get similar results.
If you have Windows XP and want something similar, you can download and install a free application, Launchy, at http://www.launchy.net/.