vim7Here’s a fresh look at the age-old tension between those who prefer the Command Line Interface (CLI) to the Graphical User Interface (GUI), by way of an example from my favorite text editor, Vim 7.0. Writing in the Free Software Magazine, Terry Hancock argues that user interfaces should teach, not hide.

“The key concept here is that we should view GUIs not as an opaque layer to separate the digital classes, but as a convenience to make learning easier”.

Probably the best essay on what some call “Interface Zen” is still Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning was the Command Line, although it’s officially dated (written in 1999). Stephenson’s favorite operating system at the time was BeOS (now nearly extinct), but in a 2004 Slashdot interview, Stephenson wrote:

“I embraced OS X as soon as it was available and have never looked back. So a lot of ‘In the Beginning was the Command Line’ is now obsolete. I keep meaning to update it, but if I’m honest with myself, I have to say this is unlikely.”

In 2004, Garrett Birkel (with Neal Stephenson’s permission) republished Command Line, interspersing his own notes and comments, in an effort to bring the essay up to date, at least as of 2004.

Stephenson is being modest. Some of the inconsequential particulars of In the Beginning was the Command Line are dated, but most of the essay is a timless meditation on capitalism and the man-machine interface. Also, assuming that Stephenson embraced OS X because of its Unix Command Line, the essay still holds true: In the beginning was the command line, and in the end it’s still the most efficient tool for interacting with an operating system.

Richard Dooling

User Interfaces Should Teach, Not Hide