Copy/Paste: “A Computer on Every Desk, and in Every Home, Running Microsoft Software.”

“A computer on every desk, and in every home, running Microsoft software.”

When Bill Gates made that prediction — which seemed almost laughable at the time — we were a long way from such a reality (the quote is usually dated in 1980, but Gates remembers it as earlier).

But now — here we are. Taking away the “Microsoft software” portion of the prediction, we could argue that many homes have multiple computers — smartphones, tablets, laptops and even smart home devices. One of the primary reasons Gates’ prediction has come to fruition was that computers were made reasonably easy to learn and use for the average nonengineer. Names like Gates and Steve Jobs are certainly top of mind for this revolution, but there are many almost unknown names that developed pieces of our everyday computing lives that ushered in this era.

In that vein, last month, we lost someone who developed a process many of us use daily. Larry Tesler, creator of the cut/copy/paste functions, passed away at age 74. A former Xerox researcher, Tesler was remembered by Xerox in this tweet:

“The inventor of cut/copy & paste, find & replace, and more was former Xerox researcher Larry Tesler. Your workday is easier thanks to his revolutionary ideas. Larry passed away Monday, so please join us in celebrating him.”

It seems appropriate that the inventor of the “digital” copy function should be a researcher from Xerox, known for the “paper version” of copy.

Tesler’s passing caused a few of us here at Cardinal Peak to reflect on how computing, in many ways, has evolved into two separate categories:

  1. Engineers, who develop and design the code for these easy-to-use programs.
  2. Everyone else, who uses these programs (with varying degrees of comfort and expertise) in both their personal and professional lives.

The cut/copy/paste functions are an outstanding example of this separation. Many of us use these functions several times each day to fill out online forms, enter passwords, repeat a phrase in a document or reuse a formula in a spreadsheet. Ironically, for software developers, like Tesler, cut/copy/paste is typically frowned upon when writing code because copying someone else’s code violates copyright law, and copying your own code can run afoul of some basic coding best practices like “don’t repeat yourself (DRY).” Using copy/paste with code that has yet to be fully debugged can introduce the same error over and over, making final QA, as well as long-term maintenance, far more painful than it needs to be. We joke that we should pry the copy/paste keys from keyboards at Cardinal Peak, as no good can come from them. No matter how much software developers may use the function in other parts of their computing lives, it’s typically not something used in the coding process.

It’s interesting to reflect on how many things we take for granted — copy/paste, point and click, the ability to change fonts, or select bold/italic/underline in any font, highlighting, spellcheck and more — that required not only the idea but the lines of code to make it easy for all those users of all those computers now sitting on every desk and in every home.

Thank you, Mr. Tesler.