The Shape Of PSIBER Space
May 19, 2018 9:50 AM   Subscribe

The PSIBER Space Deck is an interactive visual user interface to a graphical programming environment, the NeWS window system.

A PostScript based windowing system, PSIBER went on to influence the design of NeXTSTEP.
posted by woj (4 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
(Author of the article, here!)

Ha ha, I don't have any indication that PSIBER itself directly influenced the design of NeXTSTEP.

But maybe the NeWS window system itself did, in some ways. Adobe was well aware of NeWS when they later developed Display PostScript, and there was certainly a lot of heated discussion comparing the two at the time (and confusion about them).

We liked to refer to NeWS as "PostScript for Poets". ;)

That's not to say I didn't TRY to influence NeXTSTEP with some of the ideas from NeWS:

On October 25, 1988, I gave Steve Jobs a demo of pie menus, NeWS, UniPress Emacs and HyperTIES at the Educom conference in Washington DC. His reaction was to jump up and down, point at the screen, and yell “That sucks! That sucks! Wow, that’s neat! That sucks!”

I tried explaining how we’d performed an experiment proving pie menus were faster than linear menus, but he insisted the liner menus in NeXT Step were the best possible menus ever.

But who was I to rain on his parade, two weeks after the first release of NeXT Step 0.8? (Up to that time, it was the most hyped piece of vaporware ever, and doubters were wearing t-shirts saying “NeVR Step”!) Even after he went back to Apple, Steve Jobs never took a bite of Apple Pie Menus, the forbidden fruit. There’s no accounting for taste!

NeWS and Display PostScript were very different beasts with extremely different architectures and goals.

NeWS was more like a network oriented multitasking operating system with lightweight PostScript threads, events, monitor locks for synchronization, and an object oriented programming system for implementing user interface toolkits.

NeWS designed to optimize network usage, and operate smoothly and efficiently over slow connections, so it was architecturally similar to what is now called AJAX, except that NeWS coherently:

- used PostScript code instead of JavaScript for programming.
- used PostScript graphics instead of DHTML and CSS for rendering.
- used PostScript data instead of XML and JSON for data representation.

Display PostScript was more like a software laser printer that prints on the screen, and the user interface toolkit was implemented in Objective C instead of PostScript, PostScript didn't handle events itself (which is what made NeWS so efficient), and it wasn't optimized for using over the network.

So the NeWS interpreter had a lot of special features that Display PostScript lacked, and ended up executing a hell of a lot more computationally complex PostScript code than Display PostScript did. You could write entire apps in PostScript, like PizzaTool:

PizzaTool PostsScript Source code:

There was even a scriptable HyperCard-like editable user interface development environments (GoodNeWS aka HyperNeWS aka HyperLook) entirely written in NeWS PostScript!

I did have some interesting discussions about NeWS, PSIBER, the Distillery, and PostScript programming in general with Glenn Reid, the PostScript Guru who wrote "Thinking in PostScript" and worked for NeXT and Adobe, and who developed the "Distillery" which I referenced in that article.

Glenn's PostScript distillery was a step in the direction of PDF, by "distilling" out the programming language constructs from PostScript programs, so only the drawing commands were left. (That's called "partial evaluation" in computer science.)

Here's some Hacker News discussion of Display PostScript, NeWS and the Distillery:

And here's some recent discussion I had with Glenn about the Distillery and its relationship to PDF, etc. It turns out the distillery was originally John Warnock's idea!


I was telling people about your PostScript Distillery!

I wrote a much simpler one for NeWS, and The NeWS Toolkit had a simple one built in too, for capturing PostScript drawings from NeWS apps for printing!

What's the back story behind the relation between your original work with Distillery, and Adobe's development of PDF?


No real relationship. John Warnock had written a simple bit of clever PS that redefined a built-in operator to accomplish some task (forget what) and I saw an opportunity to generalize it into a distillery. It was quite challenging, but I got almost all operations to work. Some great hacks like hiding things inside strings or on the stack so they would survive across save/restore 🙂

PDF came about with much different goals, and in retrospect, kind of makes the case that the value was (is) in the imaging model, not the programming language. NeWS and DPS notwithstanding, you really don't need/want an interpreted language in there if you can help it.

Did you know that the Preview app in MacOS X is essentially a distillery? You can double-click a .ps file and it opens as a PDF 🙂
posted by DonHopkins at 11:55 AM on May 19, 2018 [49 favorites]

Yay! I was getting ready to go back through my recent browser history to confirm "Hey, isn't this that Pie Menu guy?" Now I don't have to.

I only remember NeWS from my earliest days of University when I was just learning that you had to type 'startx' or such to stop using that Sun Workstation as a big screen hi-dpi text terminal. And NeWS was just one of those other newish things you could try but nobody ever did much. It wasn't until a few years later when I had learned Postscript for printing and such that I came across a book about windowing systems that explained what NeWS was all about. Then I was just annoyed that I had never really played with it.

I only remember the NeXT from around the time Jobs was touring around giving demo presentations.

So, thanks DonHopkins for the history. I'm still working my way the Pie Menu post.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:56 PM on May 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Did you know that the Preview app in MacOS X is essentially a distillery? You can double-click a .ps file and it opens as a PDF

*Opens eighteen-year-old .ps file*

Oooooh. Neat.
posted by D.C. at 10:48 PM on May 19, 2018

Yet another instance of successful GUI centric computing. Meanwhile, Rust and Golang are doing the modern languages thing of introducing incompatible random punctuation marks that stand in for core syntax! Oh, uppercase number keys, is there any use we can't shoehorn you inappropriately into? Well, at least they aren't running out of brackets like Python.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:07 AM on May 20, 2018

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