Monday, 22 August, 2005

WordStar's commands were mnemonic?

While pondering mnemonic devices again this morning, I remembered WordStar's (in)famous command set.  Depending on who you talked with, WordStar's command keys were either the greatest thing since the invention of the microchip, or they were cumbersome, non-intuitive, and generally the worst possible user interface ever devised.  I tend to lean towards the former opinion.  Wikipedia has a reasonably good discussion of WordStar and its user interface, including the mnemonic nature of commands.  It's helpful to look at your keyboard and envision the "diamond" when reading about the command set.

I contend that the cursor movement commands served as mnemonics for physical memory.  Ctrl+D moved one space to the right.  Ctrl+S one space to the left.  To move an entire word, the commands were Ctrl+F and Ctrl+A.  Keys further from the D/S "center" moved the cursor a further distance.  No, Ctrl+E to move up a line doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the mind, but it makes perfect sense to a touch-typist's fingers after only an hour or so of practice.  To this day, I can navigate a document faster using the WordStar diamond than I can by taking my right hand off the home row to find the cursor movement keys.  Ctrl+Q, Ctrl+C goes a whole lot faster than Ctrl+find the End key wherever it is on this keyboard and then relocate my right hand on the home row.

While I'm on the subject of WordStar, I've heard a story that I haven't been able to verify.  When Phillipe Kahn was asked why he chose to use the WordStar command set in the first version of Sidekick, he said that he asked a lot of people for their editor preferences.  Almost everybody had a different first preference (back then it could have been Emacs, vi, Word Perfect, WordStar, Brief, Leading Edge Word Processor, or who knows what else).  But almost everybody he asked knew WordStar and named it as their second preference.  I don't know if it's true, but it smacks of truth.  Certainly every microcomputer programmer I knew back in the late 80s was proficient with WordStar.

If it is true, it's a great bit of applied research:  the command set might not be everybody's favorite, but everybody in the target audience would be able to use it without having to learn any new keystrokes.  Pretty darned effective if you ask me.