Here’s a quick story you’ve probably heard before, followed by one you probably haven’t. In 1979 a young Steve Jobs paid a visit to Xerox PARC, the legendary R&D lab in Palo Alto, California, and witnessed a demonstration of something now called the graphical user interface. An engineer from PARC used a prototype mouse to navigate a computer screen studded with icons, drop-down menus, and “windows” that overlapped each other like sheets of paper on a desktop. It was unlike anything Jobs had seen before, and he was beside himself. “Within 10 minutes,” he would later say, “it was so obvious that every computer would work this way someday.”As legend has it, Jobs raced back to Apple and commanded a team to set about replicating and improving on what he had just seen at PARC. And with that, personal computing sprinted off in the direction it has been traveling for the past 40 years, from the first Macintosh all the way up to the iPhone. This visual mode of computing ended the tyranny of the command line—the demanding, text-heavy interface that was dominant at the time—and brought us into a world where vastly more people could use computers. They could just point, click, and drag.
In the not-so-distant future, though, we may look back at this as the wrong PARC-related creation myth to get excited about. At the time of Jobs’ visit, a separate team at PARC was working on a completely different model of human-computer interaction, today called the conversational user interface. These scientists envisioned a world, probably decades away, in which computers would be so powerful that requiring users to memorize a special set of commands or workflows for each action and device would be impractical. They imagined that we would instead work collaboratively with our computers, engaging in a running back-and-forth dialog to get things done. The interface would be ordinary human language.