3 Mar 2014

Jef Raskin's Canon Cat


The ‘newest’ computer I’ve added to my collection is a 1987 machine designed by Jef Raskin, the Canon Cat. Based on the ideas of modeless text editing that Raskin had developed while at Apple, including the Swyft hardware and software enhancements to the Apple //, the Cat arguably represents the original vision for the Macintosh project.

Raskin is actually depicted in the Ashton Kutcher film Jobs, in a brief scene where Steve takes over the Macintosh team, unceremoniously ejecting the bearded and professorial Raskin from the team that Jef had led since 1979. The machine that emerged from the new, Steve Job-managed Mac team was very different that the minimalist appliance that Raskin envisioned: a high-resolution bitmapped display, a mouse, and sophisticated software that required larger amounts of RAM all pushed up the price to $2,500 at launch.

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The Canon Cat, which came to market three years later, is the closest vision of what Raskin’s original idea for the Mac might have been. Raskin was able to extend the ideas of the “Leap” keys that he had pioneered on the Apple //-based Swyft systems, giving users two new meta-keys (LEAP FORWARD and LEAP BACKWARD) that, when held down during typing, zapped the user to the exact place in the text where those words occurred. With such a radical system of navigation, there was no need for a visible file system, or discrete documents in different windows — the Cat provided a scrolling window containing everything you had ever written (or at least as much could fit on a 3.5” disk.) The closest parallel today would be navigating a webpage by using the browser’s “Find on page” command.

Although such a system is a big cognitive leap from how most software (previously and since) worked, Raskin claimed that keeping all your writing in a big scrolling list would avoid several levels of cognitive abstraction that traditional GUIs required the user to master. Reading through the Canon Cat manual is interesting because — whether due to Raskin’s focus on simplicity and appliance computing, or the sponsoring corporation Canon’s historical focus on office equipment — one encounters a machine much more limited and simple than the Apple Macintosh, despite shipping three years later. This was a machine for office workers, writers, and others who only needed to manipulate text; Desktop Publishers need not apply. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t room of innovation: after mastering the distinctive LEAP key system, users could select text and “compute” it using the built-in math functions, or select a phone number underneath a friend’s name and have the Cat’s built-in modem dial them directly. Restricting the functional domain of the computer down to the realm of A-Z meant that the user experience could be tightly honed, the computer booting in mere seconds and the screen instantly responsive with an image of the exact place you had left off typing.

There are some scans of the Cat’s manuals and marketing materials available from canoncat.net, and a great photo of Raskin himself using a Cat on the website of Computer History Museum.

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