Enso: computer interface takes a leap forward

One of my favorite things to show people on my computer these days is a great piece of software called Enso, made by a small company called Humanized, Inc. I started using it about 6 weeks ago and I have not clicked the Start button since. It is quite possibly the best invention in human-computer interaction since high-quality internet search became a reality. It’s also proof positive that Windows users, like myself, have some hope of redemption when we get all jealous of the slick Mac OS X interface improvements—just don’t expect it to come from Redmont.

Enso is a fast, simple, and powerful alternative to the basic interactions you have with your computer: things like opening applications, switching windows, and saving shortcuts or bookmarks. Basically, Enso hangs out in the background until you press the <Caps Lock> key, at which point it snaps to attention for you to begin typing a command. Want to open a program? Photoshop, for example: just type open photoshop. Enso scans through all the items on your start menu as you type and finds anything that matches “photoshop.” The most likely candidate is displayed on top, with alternates listed below. To execute the command, just release the <Caps Lock> key. Brilliant! To hear it described doesn’t do justice to how much faster and easier this system is compared with trolling the start menu, trying to find the folder, then subfolder your shortcut is likely to be in.

Enso Screenshot

But Enso’s usefulness doesn’t stop there. It acts as a kind of universal bookmark/shortcut system, which harnesses your ability to remember language to allow you to access a whole array of items by assigning them names. Highlighting anything—a file, a folder, a program, or a URL—and running the Enso command learn as open <name> stores a link to the object, which can be reached at any future time as open <name>. Common folders, web pages, and files are now only a few keystrokes away, all filed away neatly in my brain by associating them with words. I can certainly remember a lot more of those than I can <Ctrl>+<Alt>+<letter> -style shortcuts. And the most convenient thing is that it works seamlessly with websites: open rss brings up a Firefox Tab with Google Reader, while open quanta takes me directly to my tumblog.

The whole thing reminds me of how computer-sciencey people bemoan the death of the command-line interface (CLI) in favor of the windows, icons, menus, popups (WIMP) interface that form the core interactions on Windows, Macs, and most Linux machines. Yes, the WIMP interface is less intimidating and easier to learn, but it lacks the power of the command-line: you could string together complex commands, piping the output of one program to the input of another, allowing you to put together surprisingly powerful data manipulation commands in one go. Enso, and the paradigm it introduces (or reintroduces) seem to me the first steps toward reclaiming some of that power, while maintaining the approachability and information richness of a graphical interface.

I could go on about other useful commands, like the ability to highlight a word or phrase and issue the command youtube to get search results on youtube.com, or the ability to insert beautiful TeX equations just about anywhere—but seriously, what are you waiting for? Go download the 30 day evaluation version. Now.

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