If the name Douglas C. Engelbart ever comes up on TV's Jeopardy game show, the question doubtless will have been: "Who invented the computer mouse?" In fact, that's hardly Engelbart's only claim. More than a gizmo inventor, he was also a pioneer of the graphical user interface, showing how his mouse could be used to help nontechies get far more out of computing by pointing and clicking instead of memorizing arcane computer commands. He also developed an e-mail and online service of sorts back in 1968, three years before Netscape Communications founder Marc Andreessen was born.
Ask Engelbart, and he says his life's work is about an even more audacious goal: trying to figure out ways to help the human race solve its increasingly complex problems. Now 78, he continues to work nearly full-time at the Bootstrap Institute, which he founded to work on this task. Much of Englebart's work is on developing a new collaborative online interface called an "Open Hyperdocument System," which would allow companies, governments, or other entities to create and then use ever-changing "knowledge repositories" that could be used to more quickly find solutions to complex problems.
He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Computer Editor Peter Burrows about technology design and solutions to complexity. Here are edited excerpts:
Q: Did you imagine the mouse would have as much impact as it has?
A: [Mouse market-share leader] Logitech (LOGI) recently said that the billionth mouse had been sold. Isn't that unbelievable? My first thought was that you'd think someone would have come up with a more appropriately dignified name for it by now.
Q: Are you still working full-time?
A: I'm still full-tilt, working on the same thing that's been driving me since 1951: trying to find ways to solve complex problems. Our ability to cope with things collectively isn't keeping up with the increased complexity of the problems we're facing. If we don't catch up, we'll be in big trouble.
Q: Explain what you mean by that. And how can technology help?
A: It's not just technology. Look at all that needs to change! You're really talking about boosting the capabilities of individuals and of organizations. People are always talking about automating things. But it's much bigger than that. Does the automobile automate a human task? No, it augments our capabilities.
But it required much more than just technology. It required highways and stoplights, and new behavioral rules and laws, and ways to develop skills needed to drive a car. If you pull up at a four-way stop, people, in an instant, can figure out who should go first. They can drive on a highway at 60 miles per hour while talking and listening to music. There's a capability infrastructure that's required, and it's so underappreciated.
Q: Do you think you can have an impact at such a fundamental level -- trying to understand all the skills and technologies and processes required for humans to collectively solve the most daunting problems?
A: I got discouraged. After 30 years of publishing, no one ever talked about [my ideas].... Recently, it's getting more and more exciting. I'm getting people to listen more.
Q: How did you get involved in this quest in the first place?
A: I was a country kid, an electrical engineer from Oregon. In 1951, I was working at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffet Field [in the heart of Silicon Valley]. I'd just been engaged, and I was all aswirl. I remember driving home one day and thinking, "I don't have a plan. I have to reconsider my professional career."
For some reason, I realized in a matter of minutes that I didn't have any goals. It was just a place to work. And for some reason, I was able to craft a new goal for myself in the next 10 minutes: to try to have the maximum impact on mankind that I could have.
Q: And what did you decide on?
A: That Saturday morning, I started thinking about how complex the world's problems had become and that they would only get more complex over time. They have to be dealt with, but they have to be dealt with collectively. So what could I do about the complexity problem?
Q: Do you think the tech industry is doing a good job at helping people deal with the problems they face?
A: In the business world, everyone wants to make everything easy to learn [so that it has a wide-as-possible potential user base]. It's sort of like keeping everyone on tricycles, rather than letting them learn to ride a bicycle.
Q: But tech companies would lose market share and money if they didn't make products that people could easily learn to use. Isn't the customer always right?
A: This is a strongly held belief in the business world, that the capitalist approach to business -- for-profit -- is the best way to get maximum value to the consumer. I've had people wag their finger at me and say, "You don't get it, Doug."
But [there would be more progress] if things were free to evolve freely and didn't get tied up in patent fights or slowed down by monopolies. If the automobile manufacturers had made all the rules on driving, what kind of evolution would we have had? Would we have had turn signals, or would we all still be putting our hands out of windows every time we were going to make a turn?
Q: But you helped develop the mouse and the graphical user interface [GUI], the basic means by which people interact with computers.
A: Even the GUI limits the flexibility of our vocabulary. The GUI reminds me of pigeon English. We have to open up the evolution of computing.