Scrollbars - what we lost in technology (de)evolution

I while ago I wrote about scrollbars and their positions on the right and on the left of the applications windows. I won't go into details whether left/right is wrong/right (more about arguments can be found in the mentioned post). I recently read about what we lost in scrollbars in an article about what we lost in the technology evolution (or as the authors name it de-evolution). An worthy mentioned example are "clicky" keyboards such us IBM Model M.

Bill Cattey argues that today's scrollbars are too simple:

"I'm disappointed in the direction scrollbar behavior has evolved," Cattey laments. "In the early days of user interface toolkits (think back to the X Window system, Sun Open Look and the CMU Andrew Toolkit of the early 1980s), Windows, MacOS, and UNIX Workstation platforms explored many possible aspects to scrollbar action beyond just dragging the bar to move the text."

"The CMU Andrew Toolkit had very complex scrollbars that took a while to master," say Cattey. "Once mastered, they provided two features I miss very much: left-click to bring this line to the top of the window and right-click to bring the top line of the window down to here. I could comfortably read online documents by paragraphs and other logical groupings by positioning the mouse appropriately in the scrollbar and doing a quick left-click or right click. It quickly became a habit that required no thought."

This complex scrollbar behavior "looked like it was becoming accepted," according to Cattey. "I remember being pleasantly surprised to find it available in Emacs built against the Athena Widgets. It was there for a while, but then it was gone. The more popular Mac and Windows platforms evolved very different ideas about whether to offer the ability to support a right mouse button, and what behavior it should have. Scrollbars got simpler. Too simple for my tastes."

"To this day," says Cattey, "Whenever I read an article online, be it in Adobe Reader, a text editor, or a web browser, I try to get an uninterrupted paragraph on the screen, fail, curse, and move on, knowing that online reading used to be a far less turbulent and far more graceful experience before popular and simple displaced complex and useful."

Before there were scrollbars, command-line interfaces to Unix and DOS would paginate output and pause when the screen was full, until you requested the next screenful with the "more" command -- which required being included in the command line, e.g., "grep fnord * | more" ("search for the character string 'fnord' in all files in the current directory, and pipe the output through 'more').

Interesting enough. No mentioning of left/right but worrying about simplification of scrollbars. Some screenshot and scrollbars behaviours can be found in already mentioned post.


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