What’s the KEYBOARD SHORTCUT for Delete?! Look in a contextual menu, fool!

In Spacebar, no one can hear you scream

Lotus 1-2-3 was TERRIFIC. Stop sniggering at the back

Lotus 1-2-3 was the first software app I could ever claim expertise in. As an editorial assistant in 1987, I was sent out to write up a review of an IT training centre where I sat through a 1-2-3 introductory course. Six months later, I was responsible for management accounts reporting using 1-2-3 for my employer.

Unfortunately, the quantity of data was too big to fit on the tiny bit of free space left on the squeaky, bad-sector-ridden 20MB hard disk in the IBM clone I'd been given, so I had to keep each month's data on individual 5.25in floppies.

I then wrote a precariously crazy macro that prompted me to swap out the diskettes one by one as it calculated YTD against budget and updated year end forecasts for each business unit, then printed out report sheets, charts and graphs for the monthly financial meetings.

The only time I came unstuck was when running the reports through the woeful Lotus GraphWriter, which applied its own fiercely dogmatic rounding logic, producing pie charts whose percentage-labelled slices invariably added up to 102 per cent.

But Lotus 1-2-3 was terrific. This was under DOS on a green-screen monitor, no mouse and nothing but keyboard commands. I can’t think of any software program I encountered since that was more usable, easier to learn or faster to operate. Yet this was a program that had no on-screen menu and no universally accepted standards for program commands: anyone else remember Slash File Retrieve, followed by a relative directory path, to open a file?

The conventional history of software user interfaces tends to depict the pre-mouse years as something like the Dark Ages. But if anything, the introduction of the computer mouse became a distraction rather than an aid. Instead of getting on with doing stuff, you spend lots of time clicking the mouse until you locate some part of the on-screen user interface that will let you do the stuff you wanted to do. Only after a long apprenticeship with the program wielding a mouse do you begin to learn some keyboard command equivalents to make your job quicker.

It’s not for nothing that what we once called "keyboard commands" are now referred to as "keyboard shortcuts". But some 25 to 30 years ago, such "shortcuts" were simply the way the program worked. In the pre-mouse days, you learned the fast, efficient and expert way first.

Sure, Lotus 1-2-3 back then was a pretty rudimentary program compared with Microsoft Excel today...but not that many users are able to appreciate the difference. Apart from pivot tables, tabbed spreadsheets and a bit of font support, who cares? It also helped that software publishers used to supply manuals for their customers to learn from, rather than forcing users to wander aimlessly around freakishly arcane graphic user interfaces while right-clicking on things and hoping for the best, like some fucked-up business edition of Riven.

With all software being so mouse- and touch-centric, it’s inevitable that familiarity with key-entry input is on the wane. So I guess I’m being too harsh on my poor trainee who can’t find the Spacebar. But I think I’ve found a solution: I call up an on-screen keyboard that he can click on with his mouse.

I bet you think I’m joking.

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He promises to bring his current roundup of "things were better in t’old days" to a close and return to the present next weekend. Just for added spice, he may wade into #GamerGate and revive some much-loved themes of columns past, before The Reg’s sub-editors notice what I’ve done. (yes, we spotted the thing which is no longer here - Vulture Central's backroom gremlins) ®

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