Canon Cat

From Academic Kids

The Canon Cat was an innovative, task-dedicated, desktop computer released in 1987. On the surface it was not unlike the dedicated word processors popular in the late 1970s to early 1980s, but it was far more powerful and incorporated many unique ideas for data manipulation. There is a current software project underway, initiated by Jef Raskin himself, to develop a similar yet even more capable system for today's PCs. The project (called Archy) is designed to eventually replace current software interfaces.


Canon Cat
Canon Cat

The Cat was primarily the brainchild of Jef Raskin, originator of the Macintosh project at Apple in 1979. It featured an innovative text user interface not making use of any mouse, icons, or graphics. All data was seen as a long "stream" of text broken into several pages. Instead of using a traditional command line interface or menu system, the Cat made use of its special keyboard, with commands being activated by holding down a "Use Front" key and pressing another key. The Cat also used special "Leap keys" and, by typing strings of characters, the user could navigate to the next occurrence of a particular character string.

The machine's hardware consisted of a 9-inch black-and-white monitor, a single 3½-inch 256 KB floppy disk drive and an IBM Selectric-compatible keyboard. It used a Motorola 68000 CPU (like the Macintosh) running at 5 MHz, had 256 KB of RAM, and an internal 300/1200 bit/s modem. Setup and user preference data was stored in 8 KB of non-volatile (battery backed-up) RAM. The Cat's array of I/O interfaces encompassed one Centronics parallel port, one RS-232C serial port (DB-25), and two RJ-11 telephone jacks for the modem loop. The total weight of the system was 17 lb (7.7 kg).

An extensive range of application software was built into 256 KB of ROM: standard office suite programs, communications, a 90,000 word spelling dictionary, and user programming toolchains for Forth and assembly language.


The Canon Cat was targeted at low-level clerical workers such as secretaries. After six months on the market and with 20,000 units sold, Canon discontinued the Cat. The Cat was released into a market of newer GUI-based computers like the Apple Macintosh that were finally becoming useful business computers, which were replacing dedicated word processing machines wholesale. The Cat, while considerably more capable than most machines, simply "looked outdated". It was mistaken for an old-style word processor rather than being seen as a precursor to a new way of handling information or as a very early form of Information appliance.

Jef Raskin has offered an alternate theory to the demise of the Cat. He had originally been building a Cat-like machine at Apple as the Macintosh, until Steve Jobs took over the project and forced him out, turning it into a very different GUI-based machine. Jobs himself was soon forced from Apple, and started to build a new machine at NeXT. While starting this company he approached several Japanese companies for funding, including Canon. Raskin claimed that it was Jobs' influence and pooh-poohing of the machine that was the primary reason for its cancellation. Whether or not this is true, or simply the side-effect of personal animosity between the two, is not known.

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