Enso is now free. Enso is a “type-to-launch” meta application; a type of software that has had a renaissance these past few years, possibly starting with Quicksilver. The idea is that you invoke the software, type in a keyword, and an action is launched based on what you typed. The action could be to launch an app or invoke a spellcheck1. Most recently, a type-to-launch feature was integrated in Windows Vista, Mac OSX Leopard and it’s scheduled to be a part of Firefox 3.
From a usability perspective, the resurgance of this type of application is interesting for a number of reasons. Since the advent of graphic interfaces there’s been an informal understanding that such was of the better; that having to type things yourself was the same as the proverbial “throwing in the towel”. Linux is a favourite example: if a feature doesn’t have a graphic interface, it’s not easy enough to use. This understanding remains today because it’s mostly also true. Mostly.
Interfaces today, the operating system, the email client, the calendar, your contact list, your music player all have different interfaces. Because these are all, in a manner of speaking, separate entities, we have to interface with each application on their own terms. That all adds up to a veritable mountain of UI. Remember to pile on to that several different ways to launch apps: desktop icons, docks, taskbars, menus. No matter how organized you are, eventually things get out of hand. Your interface becomes a misshapen blob of gui.
Type-to-launch has been done before. Some of the older readers of this entry might remember type-to-launch from its DOS heyday wherein you’d write syntax such as
md. The oldest lot of readers might even think those were the days (they weren’t). But even if the syntax wasn’t very userfriendly, if you knew what app you wanted to launch, it was a matter of typing. On some computers today, you have to search through mile-high lists of alphabetized applications until finally you have to click (not drag, for the love science don’t drag!) a tiny icon to finally get what you set out for. In those cases, typing may actually be faster.
Enter the second coming of type-to-launch. This time it’s folded in an entirely different wrapper. Whether it’s Enso, Quicksilver, Colibri, Spotlight or Vistas search, the effect is the same: it feels fast, it feels new and it feels hip. Especially in the case of the most impressively userfriendly Enso, it also shows great promise. Enso tries to do what most operating systems and app suites have tried to and failed in doing for decades: uniting simple oft-used commands under a single, cross-app umbrella. Spellcheck, calculator, dictionary, web search and app launching, all bundled up in a sexy package. This universal commandline is clearly faster than launching and managing several different apps on your limited screen estate and it does beg the question: why haven’t these simplest of tasks been tackled properly before?
Fortunately, UI design seems to have come full circle. First we moved away from the commandline interface towards the purely graphical interface. Now we’re back where we started. Turns out there’s room for both.