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Computer Programs and the Sense of Wonder

This message has three major sections: 

   First comes a discussion of the real reasons for the allure 
of Hypercard, during which I propose that the documentation plays 
a role as critical as any other feature of Hypercard. 
   Second is a discussion of the impact of even inferior online 
documentation on product utility. 
   Third is a discussion of documentation's importance to our 
upcoming products, ending with a proposal that our software developer's 
toolkit is the most critical target for online help.

What is it that makes Hypercard and Hypertalk so alluring? What 
makes it so "easy", so straightforward to go in and do something 
and be thrilled by how wonderful your own efforts have been?

Most people would point to the english-like structure, the interactivity, 
the fast turnaround, and the nifty graphics that Hypercard makes 
possible. And that is about 50% right. 

But the other 50% is the DOCUMENTATION. It's not just Hypercard 
itself that is interactive: the documentation is interactive 
too. When you encounter a problem, or can't remember how to do 
something, or don't know if you can do something, you are almost 
always within 4 mousclicks of the answer.

The hypertextual representation of the Hypercard's documentation 
is crucial to its feeling of wonder. If you doubt this assertion, 
you do not have far to look to find a striking contrast: try 
using Supercard. 

Supercard is a straight superset of Hypercard. It is more powerful, 
more flexible, just as english-like, just as fast in the turnaround, 
and the graphics are niftier. There's a certain clunkiness to 
the user interface due to the 3 "modes" of operation in Supercard. 
But that only partly explains why Supercard has only a fraction 
of the sense of wonder that Hypercard has. The other clunky problem 
with Supercard is even more fundamental: before starting Supercard, 
you carefully lay the paper manual next to your keyboard. When 
you turn Supercard on, you brace yourself for long periods of 
thumbling around. No mouseclick magic here!

Going to a paper-based manual is so painful that I usually just 
use Hypercard, trading away the product's power for the speedy 
documentation. When I do use Supercard, I keep Hypercard turned 
on at the same time--so that I can use the Hypercard Help system 
for the subset of Supercard features that Hypercard Help covers.

Even poor hypertextual help systems make a world of difference. 
I have hated Microsoft Word ever since Release 1. I have never 
learned to use it, for anything. Well, Word 4.0 has somewhat 
effective online help. In doing my recent research about online 
documentation, I spent an hour with Word 4.0 to find out how 
much of a difference it made. 

The difference was striking: by the end of the hour, I was able 
to do things in Word that I've never been able to do on a computer 
before. I still don't like Word, but I can use it, and do amazing 
things with it. And learning how to do them was pleasant despite 
my horror at many of Word's characteristics.

Small differences are important, however: Word 3.0 also had online 
help, I'm told--but I never found it. I'm told it was hidden 
in the About box, and the rest of the program was deactivated 
while the help was running. This made it quite irrelevant, at 
least for me.

Anyway, lively documentation can make the difference even for 
products that are otherwise awful, like Word. It lifts good products 
into a special class of wonderfulness, like Hypercard.

This has something interesting say about all the Xanadu-related 
products we're doing: Montage, Tapestry, and the programmer's 
toolkit. The product that's most immediately important--and the 
one for which I believe the big payoff is biggest, is the programmer's 
toolkit. Montage's language is planned to be easy to learn; Tapestry 
is point-and-click in every nuance; but the tools for C and C++ 
programmers are going to be, at best, strange and alien. 

How are we going to imbue the developer with a sense of wonder 
when he's faced with a hundred pages of subroutine calls and 
interface specifications? How can we thrill the ordinary programmer 
with the thought of working with ideas so alien that even we 
ourselves have trouble with them from time to time? The only 
possible answer the first time we enter the marketplace is to 
supply wondrous online documentation. The only possible answer 
with our later, even more powerful (and thus more complex) 
tools will be even more wondrous online documentation. Learning 
Xanadu will always need to be joyful; sitting down to program 
it after a month away needs to be alluring, not frightening.

The next message in this series discusses some concepts behind 
wonderful online documentation.