January 15, 2015

How We Built Excosoft: The Importance of Keys

It’s worth taking a moment to pay tribute to the tools of the time, when EXCO was first coming into being. EXCO was developed in the context of a key-centric, terminal-based computer era— a stark contrast to today’s mouse pointing, screen-touching navigational approach. Let me paint a picture of what working on computers was like in those days.

The Terminals

In the 70s and early 80s people around the world were mainly sitting in front of "dumb terminals.” These terminals consisted of a screen and a keyboard, and were connected to a central host computer. They would function by simply presenting characters on the screen, and sending characters to the host.

The first terminal I used was the Alfaskop 3100, first developed by SRT (Standard Radio & Telefon AB) and later by Stansaab (my first employer).

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 9.41.15 AM

Alfaskop 3100

On the screen there was room for 15 lines of text with 40 characters each. After you had written the text you would hit the Send key and the characters were sent to the host. Actually, it was only the characters to the left and above the cursor which were sent. If you forgot to put the cursor in the lower right corner, you could lose a lot of work!

After a while the VAX mini computers from Digital Equipment came into use and the prominent terminal was the VT100.

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 9.44.21 AM

VAX Mini Computer VT100

The Facit Twist Terminal was launched in 1984 and became very popular since you could twist the screen between landscape (24 lines) and portrait (72 lines) positions.

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 9.45.59 AM

Facit Twist Terminal

A drawback with the Twist was the magnetic radiation. After a whole day of sitting in front of it, my eyes would be aching. I was told that the make-up from women’s faces ended up on the screen after a few hours of work. This inevitably lead to one of the early ergonomic discussions.

The VT100 further evolved into models like the VT30. It had a separate wide keyboard, including positioning keys and a keypad.

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 9.49.48 AM

Digital VT320 Terminal

The Keypad

So how did one edit text on terminals in those days without a mouse, without popups, menus, or toolbars?

It all came down to the keys: The arrow keys positioned the cursor, the Delete key deleted the character to the left, and the Return key created a new paragraph. For everything else you had to enter commands in a command line. For example:

CLEAR buffer
MOVE bol : eol TO buffer

These 2 commands would clear a buffer and move a text range to the buffer (from the beginning to the end of a line).

In another cursor position you could issue the command:

COPY buffer TO

In effect, it took 3 sequential commands to perform a Cut-Paste operation on a line of text. Not very efficient!

The terminal keyboards contained a so called keypad on the right side. It was primarily used by accountants for quickly entering numbers . However, it had 2 different modes: with or without num-lock. If num-lock was off, the keys generated other codes instead of the “013456789+-.,” characters.

EDT was Digital Equipment's standard interactive text editor. It was the editor I had used as a model for ExcoWord. EDT took advantage of the keypad and assigned 33 functions to them, as illustrated below.

The EDT Keypad

One of the keys was the GOLD key, a kind of a shift key. By first pressing the GOLD key and then another key you would gain access to the GOLD operations. For example, by pressing PF4 (Delete Line), moving the cursor and then PF1 (GOLD) + PF4 (Undelete Line) you could move a line. This was much more efficient!

My challenge was to find a place for the new ExcoWord functions. How? My solution was to add 2 new shift buttons, a GREEN and a BLUE button.


Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 10.03.45 AM

The ExcoWord Keypad Functions

Now the keypad contained 62 functions! We started to sell "cheat sheets" (lathundar in Swedish). They came in 2 flavors: one in hard plastic and one in the form of stickers which could be fastened to the keypad buttons. We sold many!

Learning the key combinations and making the editing process quick and comfortable took quite a while, but people didn’t mind that in those days. It was natural to attend a course before you could start using a tool, and it was natural to read the manual while working.

Then we got a brilliant suggestion from a FMV (Försvarets materialverk) user. He suggested we let some of the keys represent different objects, and other keys represent actions.

ExcoWord Keypad Functions Update

ExcoWord Keypad Functions Update

Copying the line would require the key sequence: LINE + COPY, moving the cursor, and LINE INSERT. If you wanted to copy a word you just replaced the LINE with the WORD button. This key definition was logical and clear and so much easier to learn.

The old EDT key style was soon replaced by the new Object key style. We produced new cheat sheets which fit onto different types of keyboards:

ExcoWord "Cheat Sheet" Keyboard Cover

ExcoWord "Cheat Sheet" Keyboard Cover

The XML Client editor in today's Skribenta still supports the Object style, although it has been refined and simplified over the years.

The Ex and Co Keys

Keys were important in those days. In the Object style, ExcoWord included 2 basic and very important keys — the Expand key, and the Compress key. We used them in marketing:

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 10.17.39 AM and Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 10.17.54 AM  along with the phrase, The keys you need.

In Australia our reseller produced a brochure that fit inside a little disk package. The cover pages looked like this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 10.18.02 AM

On my laptop today I don't have a separate keypad. To expand and compress I conveniently use the Ctrl + Down and Ctrl + Up keys.

The Mouse Enters the Scene

Somewhere around 1983 I visited Sollentunamässan and the Electronics fair. There was one booth getting all the attention: Apple, who was showcasing the Lisa personal computer.

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 10.18.10 AM

The screen was graphical and the user interface contained windows, fonts, buttons, menus and a mouse to control it — just amazing! However, Lisa was not a success (because of its high price), but the upcoming Macintosh would soon be.

We put some effort into trying to support Mac but gave it up — our typical customers did not use Mac so it was not important. Instead, we ported the software to Unix because the industry had started to use Sun workstations, and later on (in 1987) IBM PC and Windows.

The new user interface made keys and keypads less important. Clicking on something is so much more intuitive than entering key sequences.

Mouse vs. Keys

While the mouse is wonderful, it is also introduces some problems to the tech writer.

  • Moving your hand back and forth between the keyboard and the mouse puts a lot of pressure on some small muscles in your arm. After a while they can suddenly protest and cause something called Repetitive Strain Injury
  • The writing process is slowed down when the mouse has to be involved
  • You have to involve your eyes in an operation which is often not as accurate as your finger actions

People are different and range from extreme mouse users to extreme key users — tools of today must support them all. Let's take the example of moving a line.

You can use the mouse and click on the Edit menu:Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 10.18.22 AM

But as an alternative you can press Alt + E:Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 10.18.27 AM

This will lead you to the pull down Edit menu:Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 10.18.34 AM in which you can select a function with the mouse, or use the Up and Down keys and Return. You are also given a tip to use the hot key Ctrl + C for accessing the function the quickest way.

Although we are no longer navigationally limited to the complex keyboard of the computer terminal era, I still find key-based navigation to be the most efficient way to work in our editor. When I want to move a line in our editor today, I conveniently press Ctrl + X, move the cursor, and then press Ctrl + V.

The story doesn’t end here (nor did it start herebe sure to read Part 1Part 2, and Part 3). Stay tuned for next month’s edition of How We Built Excosoft. And in the meantime, feel free to explore our blog for more stories and insights from our techcomm experts!

About the author

JC Herlitz

Excosoft’s founding mastermind, JC, has a long history in technical documentation, and a perpetual zeal for making it as simple as possible.

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