Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Larry Tesler, RIP

William Gallagher (mhaeberli, Hacker News, Reddit):

From 1980 to 1997, he worked for Apple, recruited by Steve Jobs, and ultimately rising to become vice president and chief scientist. In his 17 years at Apple, he began on the Apple Lisa, ran the development of the Newton, and invented Copy and Paste.

He was also a major contributor to key Macintosh software including QuickTime, AppleScript and Bill Atkinson’s HyperCard.

Tesler was the person Xerox assigned to show Steve Jobs around its Palo Alto Research Center in late 1979.


Tesler advised Amelio to buy NeXT, but also warned him.

Luke Dormehl:

Tesler was passionate about something called modeless computing, meaning a type of computing (now taken for granted) in which the user doesn’t have to switch constantly between different input states. His Dodge Valiant bore a customized license plate reading “NO MODES.” He regularly wore a T-shirt warning colleagues not to “Mode Me In.” And his Twitter handle was @nomodes.


Update (2020-02-28): Chris Espinosa:

In memory of Larry Tesler, here is a video of a session we did together in 1997.

Chris Espinosa:

We were content to literally put a string on the clipboard and insert it at the insertion point. As a 20-year-old college dropout tech writer I was not going to argue with Steve Capps. But Larry wanted it done better.

He wanted the spacing around words to adjust automatically.


He produced a simple formula for when to add or strip space when pasting to make sure that words and sentences had not too many, not too few spaces.

Larry taught me the value of taking the user’s point of view; using heuristics to work magic; to look at all the cases. Much more than inventing copy and paste, he invented it as a writing tool, not a code-editing tool, for people who didn’t understand computers.

Gus Mueller:

Larry’s heuristic lives on in the Cocoa frameworks via the property smartInsertDeleteEnabled in NSTextView. There’s actually a handful of methods related to it, which you can find by searching for “smart” in the NSTextView headers or documentation.

Tom Conrad:

When I was 24 and working at Apple I found myself in a heated debate with an engineer that I’d not met before.

Since I was young and knew everything, I was lecturing this man on some nuances of how drag and drop should behave when activated on a text selection.

Dr. Drang:

His ACM article, “A Personal History of Modeless Text Editing and Cut/Copy-Paste,” is probably the best distillation of the ideas he’s known for and the connection between them. The main thread is a fun historical narrative, but don’t skip over the sidebars in the article. In “How Modes Degrade Usability,” he ties modes to the once-predominant verb/object method of telling a computer what to do. In verb/object computing, you give the computer an action command and follow that with the item(s) on which to perform the action. On a computer of today, that would be like selecting Copy from the Edit menu and then selecting the text to copy.

That may sound insane, but one of the things that made the Mac initially puzzling to people who were heavy users of PCs and mainframes back in the mid-80s was that it flipped verb/object around.

Adam Engst:

It was at the end of his tenure there that I corresponded with him, since he and I were both on a private Net-Thinkers mailing list that discussed issues relating to Apple and the Internet.

It’s telling how much things have changed, I think, that an Apple vice president would speak freely on even a private mailing list that included a writer like me. (At that time, apart from publishing TidBITS, my Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh book had sold about 400,000 copies, and I had just penned a MacWEEK column entitled “The Emperor Has No Strategy” that had ruffled feathers with Apple executives.)

Bruce Horn:

Larry was one of my favorite PARC colleagues and we worked on the Notetaker together before I followed him to Apple.

Brian Arnold:

From 1986 and all the way through 2005, my career was launched and propelled by the Macintosh, almost exclusively using the MacApp framework, that Larry Tesler was basically responsible for creating.


Among the people who had RSVP’ed to this hack session was none other than Larry Tesler, who was Chief Scientist at Apple at the time. Larry $%#&!! Tesler. And, I had no clue who he was, until after he had RSVP’ed, and someone else filled me in.

What I did know was, as with everyone else who came, he was there help finish the port, and to port some applications with his wife, that were written in Object Pascal with MacApp. He spoke with me several times briefly, and with others, and he was there the whole weekend. He picked up tasks that needed to be completed, and he ported code.

Daniel Jalkut:

I was lucky to have Larry Tesler as a customer. He gave me some really good feedback on my apps. He was always critical yet empathetic in the way he suggested changes.

I was also lucky to have him as a customer, though he never sent me any feedback.

Ernie Smith:

Tesler also is credited for inventing the term “browser” for the groundbreaking Smalltalk interface decades before it became associated with the web.


In the early 1990s, Tesler convinced Apple executives to offer financial support to ARM, a new type of chipset that devised by the British company Acorn, so it could be developed as a separate company in a joint venture. This technology was then used to develop the unsuccessful Apple Newton, whose development he helped to lead.

However, the RISC-based chip technology had a lot of potential beyond Apple’s doors—and that came in handy for Apple at a pivotal time.

Andrew Liszewski:

After leaving Apple in 1997, Tesler co-founded a company called Stagecast Software which developed applications that made it easier and more accessible for children to learn programming concepts. In 2001 he joined Amazon and eventually became the VP of Shopping Experience there, in 2005 he switched to Yahoo where he headed up that company’s user experience and design group, and then in 2008 he became a product fellow at 23andMe. According to his CV, Tesler left 23andMe in 2009 and from then on mostly focused on consulting work.

See also: Of Modes and Men (Hacker News), The Law of Conservation of Complexity, The Talk Show, The History of Computing, Tesler’s interview with the Computer History Museum (parts 1, 2, and 3).

1 Comment RSS · Twitter

My dad (Richard Moore) and I actually made that T-shirt for Larry, in the 70s. The bubble lettering and words surrounding it are my artwork, based on my dad's design. I was just a kid at the time. I searched and found this Twitter post with the T-shirt:

I ran into Larry years later, and he remembered me as the creator of the shirt!

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