Nothing beats textual user interfaces

GUIs are important, but text is vital, says Tom Yager

After more than two decades of searching, I've finally come up with my million-dollar idea. It's the ultimate in user interface technology. It is genuinely resolution and device-independent, fitting everything from cellphones to plasma panels. It adapts effortlessly to internationalisation and Unicode, and a rookie who's never used my UI can learn to write code for it in less than a day. The internet is already thoroughly seeded with client software for my UI, and brand new client hardware is available from several sources for free. In my tests, rendering speed is phenomenal, filling a high-resolution screen in a fraction of a second even with embedded CPUs. It is platform and protocol-agnostic and fully compliant with all accessibility standards. When used over a network link, my UI optimises itself based on connection speed, and I've already plugged it into several types of network acceleration technology. And lastly, it's the only UI I've found that actually saves energy. You can look online for my patent, but to save you the trouble, I'll share my invention with you. I call it TUI, the Textual User Interface, and trust me, it's going to be hotter than SOA. Think I'm just putting you on? Hear me out. Everything I've said to this point is accurate except for the "my idea" part. Allow me to present a compelling case for rediscovering — or for younger developers and administrators, discovering — the old way. I might have a few angles on text UIs that you haven't considered. First, let's compare text against rich media. Text, unlike video and audio, is a randomly-accessible stream. You can vary its playback speed and jump forward or back to any point using multiple levels of universally understood visual cues: punctuation, spacing, emphasis (bold/underline/capital letters), chapter and section numbers, tables of contents and indexes, and so on. Nobody's come up with search technologies for visual or aural navigation that rival the speed and consistency of text indexing and pattern matching, and it isn't for lack of trying. There are situations in which the use of a TUI springs from technical necessity. PC BIOS (basic input output system) firmware is a good example. Vendors did take a swing at GUI BIOS configuration front-ends, and all users got for vendors' trouble was a really slow graphical rendering of a text UI. The TUI is compact, simple and non-demanding of system resources, qualities that firmware needs — and fortunately, BIOS vendors realised that. In general, system software is getting back to text. The aforementioned BIOS, having abandoned its quest for GUI-ness, became remotely accessible during lights-out management sessions. It's possible to manage a system that you can't even boot from the attached console. As an administrative last resort, jacking into a server's serial port or using text-centric client/server tools like SSH (secure shell) and Telnet get the job done much faster than setting up a graphical management console client or debugging higher-level protocols like HTTP and RDP (Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol). The GUI twins of different mothers, Microsoft and Apple, have both gotten TUI religion. Apple went first with a command line utility that exposes all of the functionality of the GUI Server Manager. Microsoft is following suit in Longhorn Server with PowerShell and a command-line interface to Windows' integrated management GUI.

The power of text will never fade — and only the TUI is truly ubiquitous.

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Tags user interfacestechnologytext

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