You may not have heard the name Larry Tesler, but his contributions to modern computing are impossible to deny, and his work has shaped the way that we use computers today. The visionary computer scientist who served with Apple for almost two decades passed away today earlier this week at age 74.
Tesler, who started out with Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1973 working on earlier graphical user interfaces, was recruited by Steve Jobs to join Apple in 1980 and became one of the driving forces behind the Macintosh user interface. During his time at Apple, Tesler served as a VP of AppleNet and Apple’s Advanced Technology Group and was also a key contributor to QuickTime, Lisa, and the Newton tablet. Tesler rose to the position of Apple’s Chief Scientist in 1993, succeeding Steve Wozniak in that role, where he served with the company until 1997.
Perhaps Tesler’s most well-known contribution to the field of computing is the very concept of cut, copy, and paste—something that was first introduced on the 1984 Macintosh that we now take entirely for granted today. However, Tesler’s work went far beyond that, as he was also a well-known champion of the concept of “modeless” computing, which referred to the idea that the user should never be “stuck” in a single mode.
Modeless computing is also something that we simply accept at normal in today’s computer interfaces, at least to the point where it’s jarring when a system departs from this. In his own tribute to Larry Tesler, John Gruber points out how his recent observations on the failings of iPad multitasking are fundamentally about it being a “modal design.”
Tesler first pioneered the cocnept of modeless computing back in 1974, during his early days at PARC, while working on the Gypsy text editor, and in its most basic application, the goal was to create a common interface design where users could expect the same interactions to work the same way regardless of what app they were using.
It’s an idea that seems completely obvious today, but those of us who are old enough to remember the early days of computing can attest to the fact that there was once a time when learning a new app was as complicated as learning a whole new operating system. Even things like keyboard shortcuts often did entirely different things depending on what “mode” an app was in, and the very idea that CTRL-C or CMD-C should be a common shortcut for “Copy” was a completely foreign idea to computer scientists before Tesler came along.
In fact, Tesler was such a strong proponent of modeless computing that he had a vanity license plate on his Dodge Valiant that read NOMODES, which was also his Twitter handle.
Steve Jobs first discovered Larry Tesler when visiting PARC in the late 1970s, after Xerox had approached Apple to try and work out a manufacturing and distribution deal and Jobs agreed on the condition that he get to know about “everything cool going on at Xerox PARC.”
In a 2011 panel discussion, Tesler describes how during one of the demos at PARC, Steve Jobs got extremely excited, telling the researchers that they were “sitting on a gold mine” and weren’t doing the kind of revolutionary things that Jobs was envisioning for Apple.
Tesler has also been credited for first describing “friendly user interfaces,” along with coining the word “browser” in his 1976 Smalltalk Browser, as well as inspiring the acronym WYSIWYG, for “What You See is What You Get” based on his insistence that printed output should mirror what users see on the screen—an idea that later became a key selling point of the Lisa and Macintosh after he joined Apple.