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The Command Line Comeback
In consumer technology, everything old is new again.
As products get flashier with more features and shinier buttons, we crave a return to our roots. In food delivery, Amazon Prime Now and Instacart bring back memories of Webvan, the poster child of the dot-com “excess” bubble that filed for bankruptcy in 2001. David’s Disposable, the disposable camera app from YouTube personality David Dobrik, is a nostalgic throwback to the Kodaks and Fujifilms of the ‘90s. Even iOS 14’s homescreen widget functionality is reminiscent of the days of jailbreaking iPhones to create custom themes.
Another growing trend among modern alternatives to legacy products is the comeback of the command line, creating a user interface that’s both powerful and approachable to non-developers.
A form of low-latency communication, the command line is highly expressive and incredibly efficient. The next-generation command line mixes its simplicity and power of the past with its accessibility of the future, as described below by Superhuman founder Rahul Vora:
The new command line allows every user to be a power user, mixing decades-old ideas with modern UI patterns. But before going any further, let’s start with a bit of a history lesson:
What is the command line?
The command-line interface, or CLI, lets you type text commands to perform specific tasks, in contrast to clicking on menus and buttons with a mouse. Because you can control your actions simply by typing (no mouse necessary), many tasks can be automated or otherwise completed more quickly.
The command line is efficient, sure, but it is grindingly tedious.
It “strips away all ambiguity, lays bare all hidden assumptions, and cruelly punishes laziness and imprecision.” The command line was the status quo until the mid-1980s, when the Macintosh computer was introduced with its Graphical User Interface, or GUI. This was the first time the command line had been so boldly abstracted away (in fact, people freaked out at the WWDC when they heard the news).
Since then, even though the command line continued to exist as the underlying infrastructure — “a sort of brainstem reflex” — of modern computing systems, the GUI became “the dominant mode of consumer-facing personal computing.”
The Macintosh OS was a revolution. Without the command line interface, you either talked to the computer with your mouse, or not at all. The market for people using computers suddenly became exponentially larger, because the interface was more accessible to a less technical audience. With the command line abstracted away, anything was possible! How far could we go?
Clearly, much farther. In 2007, the command line was described as “bell-bottom out-of-fashion” for its unforgiving syntax and hard-to-remember commands. And when Postman came on the scene in 2012/2013, it simplified the ability to make API calls, returning necessary details about behind-the-scenes application information — no command line needed.
The transition from the CLI to the GUI abstracted away the laborious verbal communication between humans and computers and replaced it with visually appealing, expensively designed interfaces.
The introduction of the GUI was so successful during this time because the command line just didn’t seem accessible to non-developers. But GUIs only work well when the number of alternative items or actions is small. The GUI doesn’t scale well — even searching one’s email records is tedious. Perhaps a better way to say this is the internet can’t be navigated just by its visible structure, and we shouldn’t expect it to.
“Standard GUIs, with their drop down menus, check buttons, and tree-lists just cannot compare to the range of options that a text interface gives effortlessly. In just five alphanumeric characters, you can choose one out of 100,000,000 possible sequences. And choosing any one sequence is just as fast as any other sequence (typing five characters takes roughly 1 second). I challenge you to come up with a non text-based interface that can do as well.” — Aza Raskin
Slowly, and then all at once, it seems, the command line made a comeback, assisting with logging, workflows, keyboard shortcuts, and other supporting features. Now, we’ve reached a next-generation milestone: a command line that’s both powerful and approachable; a tool that’s efficient for technical users without the daunting learning curve of decades past. Even further, we’re seeing companies capitalize on this infatuation with speed and efficiency: just think of Superhuman, which markets itself as “the fastest email experience ever made.”
Superhuman, a cult-favorite and modern alternative to Gmail, has an entire command line of its own, activated by pressing Command + K. The app navigation is designed such that your movements are naturally fast. You’re forced by design to use the keyboard, as opposed to a mouse or trackpad. Once you break through Superhuman’s learning curve, you become a power user. It’s a feeling you couldn’t possibly get from Gmail or Outlook, and it’s addicting.
But Superhuman is only one example of the return to the CLI. Perhaps most notably, we can look to Stripe, which made an announcement in November 2019 about the release of their own command line interface. Others include:
Amie, the joyful productivity app
CommandDot, a “blazingly fast” scheduling tool inside your inbox
Height, a collaboration tool for product teams with adaptive workflows
Quill, professional messaging for groups and teams
Clew, a unified file system for all work apps
Slapdash, which brings your apps together under one Command Bar
Akiflow, which adds a command line for all your web apps
Brianne Kimmel of Worklife VC has called this emerging pattern “the consumerization of the command line,” while others have referred to it as “⌘K as a service.” At its core, the UI pattern of the command line is fast, learnable, and empowering, making even non-developers feel like next-generation hackers.
“We’re all starting to think — and work — like developers.” — David Ulevitch
In the best of breed products, design decisions are tied intimately to the strategy of the goals of the business. It’s clear in examples like Superhuman: because the main selling point is speed, Superhuman forces their users to act as fast as possible, so they can consistently deliver on their selling point.
We’re at an inflection point in consumer technical sophistication.
The market for technical knowledge workers is bigger now than ever before. The companies that acknowledge — and lean into— this shift will not only serve this market, but act as leaders in the growing trend towards the emphasis on product power and efficiency.
If you have any thoughts on the command line comeback, or if you’re building something in the space, be sure to let me know.
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