Monday, 23 April 2007

A bit more on the CLI

David Beers engages with my comments on his blog, Software Everywhere.

He's right when he says I'm thinking of a traditional CLI, in terms of the syntax, if not in terms of how it interacts with its environment and arguments. And there's a reason for that -- the traditional CLI syntax combines expressiveness, terseness, regularity, and a strong mnemonic in a very powerful way.

David's proposal is like a traditional CLI, but with a dash of natural language, extensive autocompletion and a reduction in expressiveness to achieve terseness. (The autocompletion is actually so extensive that it is really a major part of the UI, and strains the definition of CLI -- perhaps it should be called a CCLI, for Completing Command Line Interface.) By dismissing scripting, for example, the expressiveness of a UI is substantially reduced. There should be concomitant advantages, and in David's model there are (terseness and interactivity).

However, I'm suspicious of how effective his system would be, given the level of terseness he claims, at expressing many of the things that I want to do with my smartphone -- even on a regular basis. (For example, how can "Hang up, Add caller, Record call, Write note, etc., all [be] accessible with a single keypress if you only have one hand free and don't want to tap these options on the touchscreen" when you are in the middle of writing a note? How does it know that the character is intended for a command rather than entry into the note -- doesn't that another keypress? And what if I wanted to call the number under the cursor, rather than one out of my contacts -- how do I differentiate?)

Anyway, to illustrate what I'm talking about with the tradeoff of terseness, expressiveness and other factors, let's think about why CLI's aren't simply natural languages.

Natural Language vs Traditional CLI

Natural language delivers expressiveness at substantially greater levels than the traditional CLI, but at the cost of terseness and (more importantly) regularity. (Obviously it doesn't even need a mnemonic.)

The reason that CLIs have never attempted to be like natural languages (NLs) are simply due to the lack of regularity of NLs. Software thrives on regularity and chokes on irregularity. Now software has certainly improved, but has it improved that much? I don't think so.

Even if software had improved that much, NLs bring other problems when used in a CLI.

In order to get the no-mnemonic-needed benefit of NLs, you have to support the end-user's own NL. That includes radically different grammars. For example, in English, imperative commands, which are generally what you would issue to computers, can start with a verb, followed by the object (the subject is implicitly the computer). In Japanese, on the other hand (the only other language I can speak), verbs are always at the end, even in imperative commands (eg. "Eat your rice" is "Gohan o tabete", where gohan is rice and tabete is the imperative form of eat). Let's just ignore the different character sets (in Japanese both gohan and tabete would be written with kanji -- Chinese characters -- and hiragana) which would add a whole other layer on top of this interpretive framework. Or rather, let's not!

Another problem is the lack of terseness that natural languages have, due to their generality. The o in the Japanese sentence above, for example, marks gohan as the object of the verb. But in a traditional CLI this is not necessary. If you want to see a hint of what this is like, take a look at a COBOL program. COBOL was designed with similar goals: to be easy for end-users to write software (or instruct computers) with little training. Of course, we all know that COBOL was not easy to use, and just ended up irritating programmers with its worthless verbosity for decades. (OK, I'm speaking as a C, now C++, programmer here -- maybe COBOL's verbosity didn't annoy everyone.)

These are all still problems for natural language input. Certainly extensive auto-completion reduces the impact of verbosity, but it doesn't remove it. The main trade-off with auto-completion is between verbosity and mnemonic value. The other trade-off is between regularity and expressiveness. There is leakage between these tradeoffs, so they're not clear-cut (eg. prepositions, articles, etc. all add to expressiveness as well as having mnemonic power, and they trade off verbosity and, in many languages, regularity).

Basically, moving away from a non-traditional CLI brings an, at least, 4D trade-off space that needs to be navigated. Throw in the fact that there are multiple NLs with radically different characteristics, probably forcing different trade-offs, and the fact that not all languages are as easy to input as English, and it becomes, to put it mildly, rather challenging.

To top it off, scripting is one of the major benefits of a CLI, and a benefit even to an ordinary end-user. It's not enough to dismiss scripting as too advanced for an end-user, since people use it all the time in their personal interactions with other people. The challenge is to make it easy enough for an end-user to engage in it. While using an NL as a CLI helps that, the regularity issue would be almost crippling for any software attempting to implement NL scripts.

Alternatives to the CLI

What are the equivalent challenges for my proposed five-way hierarchical menuing system? Clearly character sets are not a challenge (Unicode has made it easy to display any character sets, and display is all that's required). Neither are an NL's grammatical peculiarities, since any syntax would be simple, regular, and independent of NL. Menuing doesn't feed well into scripting, so that's a weakness of this system (it's not incompatible with scripts, it just doesn't naturally support them in the same way that a CLI does). Expressiveness is limited, but chiefly by the choice of grammar (for example, Apple's menuing system is very simple: object-verb, implemented via selection followed by menu command choice). Regularity is a complete non-issue, of course. So that leaves mnemonic value, and this is where the trickiness lies in this solution.

In order to have strong mnemonic value, a hierarchical menu has to be structured in a logical, sensible fashion that is going to reflect the end-users own understanding and thought structures. And it has to do it out of the box (nobody will spend ages configuring software -- Apple learned that the hard way with Newton's handwriting recognition). To make matters difficult, the hierarchy has to be universal, ie. cover the full range of commands that can be issued at any time (otherwise it violates one of the purposes of David's UI -- to be able to perform any action on a piece of data). This is a matter for considerable research.

Just a quick note to relate this all back to the status quo: the traditional GUI, as implemented on all smartphones, uses contextual menus and selection mechanisms to achieve a basic object-verb level of expressiveness. The expressiveness is severely limited by the application "silos", though. Unfortunately, opening the range of commands up would overwhelm the command activation method (flatish menus). The greater expressiveness of GUIs (where needed) is achieved by dialogs. These allow very complex interactions (such as the logic-based search rules of DreamConnect), with great mnemonics, but hopeless regularity and verbosity and no chance of scripting.

Conclusions

Clearly, near-NL CLIs are not really viable, even on PCs, despite the level of expressiveness that they would deliver. Hierarchy menus have their own issues, but certainly show potential for mobile devices, I think. CCLIs have potential, especially if the command language was as expressive as traditional command lines, but I'm skeptical about the lack of expressiveness of David's proposal (either that or whether it can achieve David's claims of terseness given a reasonable level of expressiveness). The issue really is, for mobile devices, terseness is crucial, and needs to be achieved without sacrificing too much expressiveness.

Still, the proof is in the pudding. I'd like to see any of these systems running. Any would be better than the status quo, I reckon.

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