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CRITERIA FOR USEFULNESS OF
COMPUTERS IN OFFICES
Computer Science Department
Stanford, CA 94305
1999 Jul 8, 5:02 p.m.
The thesis of this lecture will be that there is no diﬃculty in getting people
to use computers in oﬃces provided the computer and its applications are
genuinely useful. However, the criteria for usefulness are often not what
one would imagine, and some further research is required before the real
computer revolution happens.
I became interested in oﬃce use of computers in 1957, and this was one
of the motivations for my research on time-sharing - the main one being use
in artiﬁcial intelligence research. The ﬁrst time-sharing system at Stanford
was a PDP-1 in 1964. For that we provided no oﬀ-line program preparation
equipment, and when we speciﬁed a display system, we insisted on both upper
and lower case with a view to using the system for preparing documents as
well as other applications.
A. Oﬃce Computing at the Stanford Artiﬁcial Intelligence Laboratory
The Stanford Artiﬁcial Intelligence Laboratory received its PDP-6 com-
puter in 1966, and it was planned to use the computer for oﬃce applications
from the beginning. All displays and the printer permitted upper and lower
case and a reasonable set of mathematical symbols, and we began improving
on-line editors. The ﬁrst PhD thesis written and printed on the computer
was in 1971.
Our progress in oﬃce use of the computer was mainly paced by hardware
acquisition. While we could print documents from the beginning, there was
no motivation to prepare them on-line as long as we were using uppercase-
only teletypes for terminals. When we acquired our ﬁrst display system, on-
line preparation of documents began, but until we installed our 60-terminal
Datadisc display system in 1971, the terminals were in a terminal room.
Putting the terminals in oﬃces, which included supplying the secretaries
with terminals, was a major step. Gradually more and more Laboratory
administrative ﬁles were kept on line, and the secretaries could help prepare
papers. However, since it also became easier for researchers to enter and
edit their own papers, there was less typing per secretary. People diﬀer in
the extent to which they work through typists and secretaries, and an oﬃce
system should provide for these diﬀerences.
Getting on the ARPA net gave a big stimulus to message sending inside
the Lab as well as over the net. The E editor permitted more eﬀective use
of the displays. The POX and PUB document compilers automated many
editorial aspects of document preparation. When Xerox gave us a Xerox
Graphics Printer, this made possible preparing multifont documents with
arbitrary character sets.
Many people work both in the Lab and at home, and their easy use
of oﬃce computing requires home terminals, of which we now have a fair
Donald Knuth’s TEX and the associated acquisition of high quality print-
ing equipment have substantially increased the documentation use. Knuth’s
vigorous publicizing of TEX including the book has been at least as impor-
tant as the program itself. Even mathematicians are beginning to use our
computers for producing theses and papers. They have always been among
the slowest to make use of computer facilities. This is because mathematics
is mostly done at a high level of abstraction, and we are only beginning to
develop computer programs that communicate this abstractly.
Besides the main programs associated with oﬃce use, many auxiliary pro-
grams for looking up data in ﬁles and even computing have been developed.
B. Conclusions from Our Experience
minals on their desks and that the computer be reasonably reliable.
Some amateur human engineers imagined that they might have a prob-
lem with a keyboard in which the top row of keys was displaced from
standard. Like almost all of the researchers, they never noticed. For
workload reasons, we have had to use many temporary secretaries from
manpower agencies. This has proved unexpectedly easy.
I saw one
temporary typing at a terminal twenty minutes after her arrival under
the supervision of a regular secretary working at another terminal in
the same oﬃce.
course, there needs to be a good accessible printer, but many people
print only daily.
shortly have a really good experimental test of this proposition, because
the Computer Science Department now has perhaps 75 terminals in
oﬃces and about 15 Xerox Alto systems in terminal rooms.
betting that people who have Datadiscs in their oﬃces will use them
rather than take their papers to a terminal room down the hall.
velop less noisy keyboards.
interactive documentation. If the program is written in a style familiar
to our users and its general capabilities are known, most people will
try to use it without reading the manual. For example, punctuation
of the arguments of commands must be standard: Don’t require a
comma in one place and a semicolon in another. ”?” should always
get information about the options available at the present point in the
Menus are bad, because as soon as a user gains the slightest experience,
he hates having the screen cluttered up with changing menus. The
information provided by menus and question-and-answer formats can
be provided by letting the user say ”?” whenever he needs to know
what his options are. Worst of all are interactive programs that clear
the input buﬀer before accepting a user’s command in a new situation.
The even slightly experienced user will want to type ahead, often totally
ignoring what is on the screen, in order to get the program into a desired
our interactive programs. This isn’t a tragedy; everyone has his own
appropriate balance of eﬀort between learning about new features and
using the old ones.
beginner. A person will invest considerable eﬀort in ﬁrst learning how
to use a computer, but if he has to learn all over again after a two-
month layoﬀ, he won’t put in the eﬀort a second time. Computer use
should not be like instrument ﬂying - requiring lessons if you haven’t
done it for six hours in the last ninety days.
10. The utility of many proposed applications of computers is limited by
the work required to put the information in the computer. The prize
example is the proposal to use home computers to keep track of items
in the pantry and warn the householder when to buy more. Even if
the terminal were in the pantry, it would be too much trouble and
people would forget. A bar code reader in the pantry might make it
reasonable, but the geneticists may have to breed hens that lay eggs
with bar codes.
C. Some More Controversial Contentions
I cannot claim that these contentions have been veriﬁed by experience,
because I haven’t enough.
ing about the real reasons. An executive will always be a casual user.
Therefore, the terminal must be unobtrusive and quiet; his secretary
must have one too, and if he works at home, there must be a terminal
at home too. In fact, the message use of a computer is most helpful
out of normal working hours.
I got out of bed last night, because I
remembered a message I had been intending to send for a week, sent it
and forgot the matter till I received the reply this morning.
Usefulness for executives will depend on how many of the people with
whom they must communicate also have terminals.
Anyone who does much work at home should have a terminal at home.
user as an idiot who must be prevented from making all kinds of mis-
takes. Indeed the books and papers on interactive programming take
this attitude. In fact, the people who write about supervising program-
mers take that attitude towards their charges. However, it has several
First it must concentrate on the kinds of mistakes that can be detected
and prevented by bureaucracy - whether it be the programmed bu-
reaucracy of a ﬁeld that allows only numeric input in a certain range
or the administrative bureaucracy that requires a comment for every
statement in a program. There are many situation in which the bureau-
cracy spends its time preventing trivial errors, while major substantive
errors are ignored, because the input embodying them is ”grammatical”
according to the lights of the system.
Second, idiot-prooﬁng takes time, and it often happens that the idiot-
proof programs are insuﬃciently debugged. There is nothing as annoy-
ing as trying to get a program to accept input that it is rejecting for
Third, idiot-proof programs are usually extremely inﬂexible and are
diﬃcult to modify to take new data into account.
Let me describe an experiment that unfortunately was never carried
out. A certain university found its on-line registration system terribly
late, full of bugs, and expensive of computer resources. The exper-
iment was to have the clerks prepare the registration material using
an ordinary editor - labelling the items in the text of the record. The
ﬁles prepared by the clerks would then be processed by programs to
get it in the desired form. Unlike on-line input-receiving programs, the
processing program could be written while the input was taking place,
and if bugs showed up, they could be corrected after the fact. Even
last-minute changes in the information to be included could be accom-
modated. The results of the data-entry could be printed and checked
by supervisors or the supervisors could examine them on line. However,
the university took the ”safer” path of buying another computer.
Unfortunately, the task of writing a computer program for others to
use seems to bring out the latent tyrant in many people.
D. A Step Further Out
There are many opportunities for expanding the usefulness of comput-
ers in oﬃces, but many of them require the development of standardized
ordinary dial telephone network have not yet been fully exploited. That
network has the advantage that it already connects all the oﬃces in the
The Stanford Artiﬁcial Intelligence Laboratory is developing the Dial-
net system. This consists of a telephone dialer and suitable modems
connected to our computer and software implementing the Dialnet pro-
tocols. Anyone else in the world can similarly equip his computer and
users of any computer equipped with Dialnet can communicate with
users of any other.
Sitting at my terminal I will be able to type ”MAIL MIKESMITH@202-
666-6666 Mike are you free for lunch on Thursday?” Once I have done
this, I can use my terminal for other purposes. My computer calls a
computer at that number and tells it that it has a message for a user
called MIKESMITH. He gets the message immediately if he is logged in
available? Dialnet can also be used for transferring ﬁles between com-
The 1200 baud limitation of present Dialnet is important for some
applications but not for messages and transfer of medium-size ﬁles like
reports. If one speciﬁcies NIGHTMAIL the telephone cost for a 9000-
byte message will be only a little more than the price of a stamp.
computer to another. This is done now but it almost always involves
speciﬁc technical arrangements between the managers of the computers.
In order to transfer ﬁles freely (except as restricted by password fences),
a national ﬁle-naming system is required.
them and compile programs that use them. However, no one such
system will conquer the world and indeed, if progress is to continue, it
is not even desirable that a single system be adopted. Therefore people
will always want to refer to other people’s data structures.
This can be made possible by a universal system for describing exist-
ing ﬁles which can be developed using the techniques for describing
grammars and data structures.
/@steam.stanford.edu:/u/jmc/w80/oﬃce.tex: begun March 1980, latexed July 8, 1999 at 5:02 p.m.