Tesler, who has worked with Xerox, Apple and Amazon, among other tech giants, had a simple philosophy — “no modes”.
The computer is more personal than ever, the user experience almost infinitely customisable. Larry Tesler, who died at 74 last week, was the icon behind the icon and deserves more than a little credit for the simplicity with which computing has become so personal and intimate a part of our lives.
Tesler, who has worked with Xerox, Apple and Amazon, among other tech giants, had a simple philosophy — “no modes”. In the early history of computing, modes allowed users to switch from one function to another (like, say, a caps lock key). This increased mode or function errors (like, say, leaving the caps lock key on) and more importantly, made computing a specialists’ game. Tesler was staunchly against modes, running against the current of the IT industry in the 1960s and ‘70s. His most famous innovations — “cut-copy-paste” and “find-and-replace”. Steve Jobs hired Tesler for Apple when he saw the latter use a mouse to point and click at icons on a prototype — earlier, every action/function had to turn into a laborious typing exercise.
The story goes that Tesler came up with cut-copy-paste based on old, manual editing techniques, where blocks of the written word were literally cut and pasted. But what he did was not merely an adaptation of an older technique, and its impact has been far-reaching. In essence, the computer has gone from being a tool in the hands of well-trained experts to a nearly species-wide prosthetic, which has changed the way memory, recall and skill work. Modes are increasingly a thing of the past, as software runs hardware in nearly every aspect of human life, including at times the body itself. The pointer and the finger now inhabit a world of images and emojis, where unlike in early computing, the trains of language and logic that makes various functions possible are invisibilised and automated. Perhaps even more than the printing press, the innovations that Tesler helped pioneer have changed the way people create and consume knowledge.