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Feb 24, 2020

Today we’re going to honor Larry Tesler, who died on February 17th, 2020. Larry Tesler is probably best known for early pioneering work on graphical user interfaces. He was the person that made up cut, copy, and paste as a term. Every time you say “just paste that in there,” you’re honoring his memory. I’ve struggled with how to write the episode or episodes about Xerox PARC. It was an amazing crucible of technical innovation. But they didn’t materialize huge commercial success for Xerox. Tesler was one of the dozens of people who contributed to that innovation. He studied with John McCarthy and other great pioneers at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 60s. What they called artificial intelligence back then we might call computer science today. Being in the Bay Area in the 60s, Tesler got active in war demonstrations and disappeared off to a commune in Oregon until he got offered a job by Alan Kay. You might remember Kay from earlier episodes as the one behind Smalltalk and the DynaBook. They’d both been at The Mother of All Demos where Doug Englebart showed the mouse, the first hyperlinks, and the graphical user interface and they’d been similarly inspired about the future of computing. So Tesler moves back down in 1970. I can almost hear Three Dog Night’s Mama Told Me Not To Come booming out of the 8track of his car stereo on the drive. Or hear Nixon and Kissinger on the radio talking about why they invaded Cambodia. So he gets to PARC and there’s a hiring freeze at Xerox, who after monster growth was starting to get crushed by bureaucracy, so was in a hiring freeze. Les Earnest from back at Stanford had him write one of the first markup language implementations, which he called Pub. That became the inspiration for Don Knuth’s TeX and Brian Reid’s Scribe and an ancestor of JavaScript and PHP. They find a way to pay him, basically bringing him on as a contractor. He works on Gypsy, the first real word processor. At the time, they’d figured out a way of using keystrokes to switch modes for documents. Think of how in vi or pico, you switch to a mode in order to insert or move, but they were applying metadata to an object, like making text bold or copying text from one part of a document to another. Those modes were terribly cumbersome and due to very simple mistakes, people would delete their documents. So he and Tim Mott started looking at ways to get rid of modes. That’s when they came up with the idea to make a copy and paste function. And to use the term cut, copy, and paste. Thee are now available in all “what you see is what you get” or WYSIWYG interfaces. Oh, he also coined that term while at PARC, although maybe not the acronym. And he became one of the biggest proponents of making software “user-friendly” when he was at PARC. By the way, that’s another term he coined, with relation to computing at least. He also seems to be the first to have used the term browser after building a browser for a friend to more easily write code. He’d go on to work on the Xerox Alto and NoteTaker. That team, which would be led by Adele Goldberg after Bob Taylor and then Alan Kay left PARC got a weird call to show these kids from Apple around. The scientists from PARC didn’t think much of these hobbyists but in 1979 despite Goldberg’s objections, Xerox management let the fox in the chicken coup when they let Steve Jobs and some other early Apple employees get a tour of PARC. Tesler would be one of the people giving Jobs a demo. And it’s no surprise that after watching Xerox not ship the Alto, that Tesler would end up at Apple 6 months later. After Xerox bonuses were distributed of course. At Apple, he’d help finish the Lisa. It cost far less than the Xerox Star, but it wouldn’t be until it went even further down-market to become the Macintosh that all of their hard work at Xerox and then Apple would find real success. Kay would become a fellow at Apple in 1984, as many of the early great pioneers left PARC. Tesler was the one that added object-oriented programming to Pascal, used to create the Lisa Toolkit and then he helped bring those into MacApp as class libraries for developing the Mac GUI. By 1990, Jobs had been out of Apple for 5 years and Tesler became the Vice President of the Newton project at Apple. He’d see Alan Kay’s concept of the digital assistant made into a reality. He would move into the role of Chief Scientist at Apple once the project was complete. There, he made his own mini-PARC but would shut down the group and leave after Apple entered their darkest age in 1997. Tesler had been a strong proponent, acting as the VP of AppleNet and pushing more advanced networking options prior to his departure. He would strike out and build Stagecast, a visual programming language that began life as an object-oriented teaching language called Cocoa. Apple would reuse the name Cocoa when they ported in OpenStep, so not the Cocoa many developers will remember or maybe even still use. Stagecast would run until Larry decided to join the executive team at Amazon. At Amazon, Larry was the VP of Shopping Experience and would start a group on usability, doing market research, usability research, and lots of data mining. He would stay there for 4 years before moving on to Yahoo!, spreading the gospel about user experience and design, managing up to 200 people at a time and embedding designers and researchers into product teams, a practice that’s become pretty common in UX. He would also be a fellow at Yahoo! before taking that role at 23 and me and ending his long and distinguished career as a consultant, helping make the world a better place. He conceptualized the Law of Conservation of Complexity, or Tesler’s Law, in 1984 states that “Every application has an inherent amount of irreducible complexity. The only question is: Who will have to deal with it—the user, the application developer, or the platform developer?” But One of my favorite quotes of his “I have been mistakenly identified as “the father of the graphical user interface for the Macintosh”. I was not. However, a paternity test might expose me as one of its many grandparents.” The first time I got to speak with him, he was quick to point out that he didn’t come up with much; he was simply carrying on the work started by Englebart. He was kind and patient with me. When Larry passed, we lost one of the founders of the computing world as we know it today. He lived and breathed user experience and making computers more accessible. That laser focus on augmenting human capabilities by making the inventions easier to use and more functional is probably what he’d want to be known for above all else. He was a good programmer but almost too empathetic not to end up with a focus on the experience of the devices. I’ll include a link to an episode he did on the 99% Invisible episode in the show notes if you want to hear more from him directly ( ). Everyone except the people who get royalties from White Out loved what he did for computing. He was a visionary and one of the people that ended up putting the counterculture into computing culture. He was a pioneer in User Experience and a great human. Thank you Larry for all you did for us. And thank you, listeners, in advance or in retrospect, for your contributions.