Windows for the rest of us


12 min read
CNET News.com Newsmakers
September 11, 1996, Steve Capps
Windows for the rest of us
By Margie Wylie
Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM

It's really too bad that such a nice guy should be labeled a traitor. You see, Macintosh fanatics just can't understand how Steve Capps, inventor of the Mac's Finder, Betsy Ross to the original Macintosh pirate's crew, and former Apple Fellow, could work for Microsoft. But Capps just couldn't resist the challenge of trying to give Windows the soul it never had.

If you've never heard of Capps, it's no surprise. In the desert of Silicon Valley egos, the 41-year-old software engineer is a refreshing oasis of humility. Capps worked on Apple's first computer, the Lisa, and co-authored the original Macintosh Finder, the iconic interface that lets you "find" your way around the computer. He also led the team that created the Newton, Apple's technologically dazzling, though commercially disappointing, handheld computer.

All that's in the past. Now he's designing the Web experience for Microsoft's much vaunted "active desktop," the project that will integrate Web browsing with the Windows OS. If Microsoft has its way, Capps will influence how all Windows users see the Web. And why not? There doesn't seem to be anything Capps can't do, inventing toys, restoring antique electronics scrounged from thrift shops, and even the unthinkable: leaving Apple.

NEWS.COM interviewed Capps in his San Carlos home where we talked about his departure and how he's going to make Windows for the rest of us.

NEWS.COM: Why did you leave Apple?
Capps: I left Apple basically because I wanted to do something on the Web. As near as I could tell, the two major players for user interfaces, which is my main interest, are Netscape and Microsoft. It just seemed like there was an opportunity to get involved helping to define the user interface for the Web. I thought it was a neat opportunity, so I took it.

NEXT: What's wrong with the Web

Steve Capps

Age: 41

Greatest hits: Macintosh Finder, Newton, Jaminator

Other job: Mad toy inventor

Avocation: Junk picking

CNET News.com Newsmakers
September 11, 1996, Steve Capps
What's wrong with the Web

You're working on Microsoft's project to put a Web browser in Windows. Tell us about that.
The whole user experience just isn't that fun. Ninety percent of what the user sees is not designed by the user interface designers at the browser company, so you better make sure that the 10 percent that's left over is right. The navigation tools that we're familiar with today are getting a little stale and they aren't that useful.

My biggest complaint about the Web is it's very page-based. I feel like a voyeur looking through keyholes. I start at the table of contents, dip into an article, come back to the table of contents, but the representation gives me no idea of where I really am, no way to navigate the landscape. I can only go backwards and forwards but can never see where I'm going or where I've been. So this linear representation of history is very obscure. I find it very confusing. And I can't imagine the average user out there has any idea what to do with it. The Web is so big; there's no sense of context. You have to have a sense of context, a sense of where you are. The user interface does not support that. That's one thing.

The other big problem is we are trying to map what we are familiar with, which is icons and folders--a hierarchy on to the Web. That makes no sense at all because I can't even manage a gigabyte drive, much less the entire Web. Hierarchies map fairly well only to a couple hundred megabytes.

I actually find myself searching (the Web) much more than I ever find myself trying to manage the data at a conceptual level. Like, I don't usually go to a site and then traverse the site. I'd much rather search it. So my browser doesn't open to Netscape. I'm sorry they don't get their ad revenue from me. It's actually Alta Vista because I love to just search. That's how I usually navigate. Flat text search is pretty crude. So I think there's a lot of room there to improve searching. If you look at what the Excite folks are doing, I think there's a lot of interesting things there. So, sense of context, and how do you navigate around, I think are two big problems.

How will you solve those problems?
Well, you can read between the lines of what I just said. You get rid of this feeling that you're looking through a keyhole at one page at a time. And also let's take advantage of the fact that screens are getting bigger. The typical machine and typical Web sites are set for 800 pixels wide now and they're getting bigger.

And if you have 800 pixels for the article, it turns out that you don't want to make things much wider than that, because then you get into legibility problems. It's actually hard to read a foot wide piece of text, especially when it's set in 14 point Times Roman or whatever most Web sites are. So, if you want to have that wide expanse you can either go to multiple columns or narrow it up, and then you suddenly have a third of your screen you can use for some navigational aids. And maybe you can do something that gives users a sense of context and lets them understand what history is, lets them understand what favorites are. So instead of turning these into linear menus, maybe there is a metaphor that gives the user a sense of place and let them navigate stuff and not be so confused by it.

It's kind of like you need an Alta Vista search engine for your bookmarks after awhile. I periodically throw out the sites I haven't visited. That's something the browser could do. The browser can sit there and say, "You know, you haven't visited this in a while." It's like an aging. And conversely, it notices you go to a bookmark everyday, why not just do a PointCast-type-thing and just start giving it to you, or a freeloader-type-thing where it says "Hey, I noticed you go to this every day, why don't I greet you with this?" And I think there's a lot of opportunities there.

We just spent the last decade convincing people that typing filenames is stupid--à la DOS--and now here we are typing things that are worse than filenames. Walter Smith (a former Newton team member who followed Capps to Microsoft) pointed out that unfortunately people might expect to see "www" now. It becomes kind of an iconic tag that says, "Here is a Web site." So, even if we wanted to get rid of it, we may not be able to. So as you're driving down 101, you see on a billboard, www.bofa.com. You kind of say, "Oh, that's a Web site." So the www actually may outlive its usefulness in terms of the technical reason for navigating to a certain site, but people may keep it around just because it's a way of saying, "Hey, I'm a Web address." You know, it's shorthand to say "visit us at the Web." The UI (user interface) is ready to crash and burn. So like I said, let's try to sneak a new paradigm in before people get calcified in what they expect from browsing.

NEXT: Microsoft is Mars, Apple is Venus  

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CNET News.com Newsmakers
September 11, 1996, Steve Capps
Microsoft is Mars, Apple is Venus

What's the major difference between working for Apple and Microsoft?
The biggest difference I've noticed so far is Microsoft people understand the business, or at least, they are fluent in the business. They understand who their competitors are and, ironically, they don't think one of their competitors is Apple. But they understand who their competitors are, how they're reacting to what their competitors are doing, and they just are more aware of where they sit in the business world. At Apple you would follow your muse more than you would follow somebody else's pocketbook, if you will. It's much more important to be realistic about who your customers are and how they're going to use your products. Probably the most important thing is to listen to your customers. Because, as near as I can tell, at least in the division I'm in, Microsoft goes way out of its way to understand what's out on the Web, commenting on their products, commenting on competitors products at a much deeper level than anything I ever witnessed at Apple.

I've heard Apple described as a sort of company where there's no adult supervision.
Yeah, there are a couple jokes back in the old days, one of which was, "What's the difference between the Titanic and the Lisa?" The joke was that the Titanic had a band. They countered with, "What's the difference between the Mac group and Boy Scouts?" And the joke was Boy Scouts have adult supervision. So those jokes have been around for awhile about Apple.

Apple people were encouraged to kind of do the crazy things and do new things for the sake of being new. And I think that's good but what's unfortunate is that, it didn't create a mentality to develop the strengths of the Macintosh as much as they could have. One of the things people always say to me is, "How could you go to Microsoft?" There's this bittersweet comment, that if Rip van Winkle fell asleep in 1985 and woke up in 1996, he could still use a Macintosh. He would have no idea about Windows 95 relative to what Windows was a few years ago. And that just shows you, Microsoft has not stood still whereas Apple kind of has.

One could argue that it was so elegant in 1984, it didn't need improving. But I think any die-hard Mac user today realizes it's really not that easy to use anymore. Your system takes a few minutes to boot. Things crash. And it could have been improved. You can argue until you're blue in the face whether the Mac is better than Windows. The point is people are moving Windows forward at a very, very high rate. They're asking how can we move the desktop to the Internet? And I just think Microsoft is more than willing to say, "Okay that was last year, what are we going to do this year," instead of, "Hey, aren't we great. Look what we did. Our machine is easier to use." You know that's not going to get you that far.


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CNET News.com Newsmakers
September 11, 1996, Steve Capps

I think John Sculley said he was going to turn Apple engineers into rock stars. So what's it like being an engineer at Microsoft versus Apple? Are you a rock star?
It's hard to be a rock star if you don't live in Redmond, I think.

That came from Jobs actually. So I think that buzz has been around for a good decade, if not longer. And Sculley, I think, just echoed what Jobs set up and I think that's one of the problems. If you look at the mentality of the people who come out of Apple, Jobs did make a lot of people from the Mac group kind of very famous as programmers. And I think it's hurt them because they got their first debut album and it's very hard to follow up with your second album.

Look at General Magic. Those two guys are one of the best, main contributors to the Macintosh?this is Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld--and Steve made them kind of stars, demigods, and they struggled to follow that up with something that was as revolutionary as the Mac. You might want to tone that down a little bit so you don't have to feel like you have to live up to your past work. Because the Mac was more of a phenomena of the time, being in the right place at the right time. It was a great piece of work that we did, but it was more the world was ready for it and that's what made it such a success. It helps that there was very good implementation of it but it was more so the fact that the technology was there and cheap enough and the world was just waiting for it.

How come you didn't get sort of chewed up in that star-making machine?
Well, I didn't make the cut. In fact, I used to complain to Steve about. You know, my ego was bruised by it.

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But he just said the world cannot focus on 20 heroes. The world can only focus on a handful of heroes and these are the people I chose. So at that point, you kind of said OK. I kind of sneaked in here and there.

Are you glad that you didn't make the cut now?
There's nothing wrong with getting that excitement and getting the credit when you do something good. What's bad is when it goes to your head. And you've just got to be very careful and not believe somebody else's hype. You know today on the Web and there are discussion groups talking about say Newton, and they're talking about Walter Smith leaving Newton, and you've just got to ignore this. It's basically gossip. It doesn't mean anything. Sometimes you want to respond and say you guys got it wrong. But other times, you just say, "This is the price of doing business." Like I said, you've just got to ignore it.

Out of all the things that you've done, what are you most proud of?
That's a tough one. What I go for is to make people smile, to make people enjoy what they're doing. I always like a UI design to be like doing a soundtrack to a movie. The point is the user's work. You're not there to get in the way of the user accomplishing a task or the user enjoying themselves playing a game. The trick is make yourself fade away into the background so you enhance their experience. And that's what a good soundtrack will do for a movie. And that's what a good UI should do. I think there are a lot of examples of UIs that are just in your face that I find totally ridiculous and they become a joke unto themselves, which may be fine. So anytime that I can make people accomplish something that either they didn't think they could accomplish or make them accomplish it with more fun than they had thought possible--anything to make it easier to view stuff--it makes me smile.

So to put that down to one accomplishment, it's tough because that's what I try to do everywhere. So if you look at Newton, the fact that you can walk up to it and write. And you know, if the handwriting gods are nice to you, it will recognize it. The point is you can walk up and do something that you know how to do. You don't think, you just write. I guess my favorite reaction is when enough users or enough purchasers buy the product and then write you these nice long letters that say this thing is really cool. Unfortunately, a lot of the products I worked on like Newton, you get these die-hard fans that just love it, but there's not enough of them. And Jaminator (an electrical air guitar toy) is the same thing. There are people that wax poetically about Jaminator, but unfortunately there's just not enough of them out there. So someday I've got to get it lined up right. But I just say, you know, people are not ready for this stuff yet. I think you're going to see that with Newton. That it does embody what we set out to do. It's going to be a completely snappy experience and hopefully it will be just as easy to use.

I noticed you have two really great loves: technology and thrifting. One points forward one back.
I think trips to the thrift store are a very humbling experience. When you find your product in a thrift store, you have arrived in a certain way. And about two or three years ago, you'd start to see Mac 128Ks there. And now you see Mac 512Ks there. We haven't seen Mac Pluses yet. But I've heard of people buying Mac IIs in thrift stores for $40 so it's just, I think, a way of showing you've arrived, that your technology is still worth something. People didn't throw it away but they gave it away.

It's also just a good inspiration. Most ideas you ever come up with have actually already been done before.

Another thing is there's some cool industrial design. I'll buy products just because they look cool. And they're fun to hold. It's fun to look how they're made just in terms of the materials and the shape.

Steve Capps and one
of his inventions,
The Jaminator