The Evolution of Graphical User Interfaces

Written by Stéphane Richard (Mystikshadows)


Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs for short). One of the hottest topics today in the Qmunity. In my letter to the editor in this issue, I gave my vision as to why I believed GUI development was so popular and those reasons even goes beyond the Qmunity itself. The first official GUI was released back in 1973 by Xerox and since then, the competition has been on to bring forth the best Graphical User Interface to the users. GUI development is far from a new idea and still today GUI development is still a popular topic in the community and beyond.

In this article I'll review the GUIs that really made their marks in the GUI timeline. as well, will talk about their strong points to give you an idea of what made these GUIs as successful as they were when they came out. For all of you wanting or thinking about creating a GUI this should prove very informative. Note that I'll only be convering the commercially available GUIs of the time periods or this article would turn into a whole book.

The Xerox Alto - 1973

The Xerox Alto was the first system to hold everything typical of a modern Graphical User Interface. At the time it was more of a collection of Graphical DOS programs that worked with a mouse. But it did however bring out the main characteristics that are still in use in today's Graphical User Interfaces. When you booted the Alto you ended up at a command prompt, not an interface however any programs available were mouse driven and featured lists, buttons and other GUI elements we all know and love today. When you think of the year it came out (1973) these applications were well ahead of their times. The link shows screenshots of the Xerox Alto and it's operating environment in detail.

This system wasn't available to just everyone, it's niche market was the big corporate world but it was a breakthrough in the way software would be created and used in the future. It's main strong point was ease of use and back then, since there was no standard by which to measure ease of use, it was a valiant attempt at giving something users could use in everyday work operations.

The Xerox Star - 1977

The Xerox Star was the next version of GUI available from Xerox. If you click on the link provided and take a look at the screen shots, you can see a definate evolution from the Xerox Alto. For one thing, you didn't boot up in a command prompt anymore, hence the Xerox Star was the first official GUI based system and as such featured a very elegant interface to use. As quoted from the link: "It was based on 4 principles. Seeing and pointing, Progressive disclosure, uniformity in all applications and "what you see is what you get"." Now, which of these 4 principles is not in use in today's GUI? None of them.

They applied the 4 principles quite well in all the applications available. This sence of consistency really helped the users in learning to use all the applications and adapting to the new version of the Graphical User Interface it provided. That too was a very strong point. It marked an important point in time where ease of use also had to mean ease of learning.

Apple Lisa - January 1983

The Apple Lisa today, needs absolutely no introductions. It's the pioneer of GUI environment for Apple Corporation, came out at the beginning of 1983 and has since remained the standard and el facto of GUIs on Apple Computers. Most of it's features are still in use in today's newer versions of Mac OS. One thing that was always a strong point to me was that Mac versions of PC applications always seemed to run faster and better on a Mac. Faster, less resource hungry and the likes.

All in all one of the things that made the Apple Lisa as good as it was was not only the GUI, but the available applications that ran in the Lisa's GUI. I think this is a key factor to any GUI projects even today.

Visi On - 1983

Visi On was created by VisiCorp The main feature of Visi On was that it was the first, full featured GUi available for the IBM PC. Another great feature was in it's design. It was indeed designed to be poratable to other OSes. It used the principle they called the Visi Machine (Hmmm Java Ancestors perhaps?). Visi On definitaly got Microsoft quite nervous when they saw it as a demo in 1982 and realized that they had nothing close to that even in the project bench. So Bill Gates went back to Microsoft, after seeing this demo, and got a team on started on what we would come to know as Windows.

Assuming it was borrowed from the Xerox Star, the key strength was the consistent user interface it presented the user throught the many applications that were built for it (I see a pattern emmerging here). As you can see from the screenshots in the link, it was a very tightly integrated environment and offered many advantages by design.

Apple Macintosh - 1984

the Apple Macintosh Was the next evolutionary step in Apple's effort to bring the microcomputer to the general public. The computer itself had a mouse like the Lisa, it had the monitor integrated into the main casing however, it was about 1/2 the size of the Apple Lisa. One of the goals was to make the computer more affordable while keeping the materials used of equal quality. The Monitor on the Macintosh was small however it offered the clearest and crispiest display of the time and that helped alot in it's success.

Like the Lisa, the GUI on the Macintosh offered some very advanced GUI functionality that really contributed to setting the macintosh in it's own category of a "graphically oriented" computer. as such, it quickly made it's mark in such places as newspaper editing companies, magazine publishers and the likes just because of it's Document oriented user interface it presented the user with. Likewise, it's ease of learning (hence ease of use) was unmatched at the time which also made the macintosh a very good computer to use business wise and for the common individual.

GEM - 1985

GEM (Graphical Environment Manager), which is known today as the GUI for 16/32 bit series of Atari home computers (atari 520ST and above) actually had it's debut in the PC market. GEM and Windows 1.0 came out in the same year and indeed they both offered their own set of distinctive features that set them apart from each other while bringing them both in the GUI scene. Most of you will notice many similarities between GEM and the Apple GUI. Apple brought them to court because of this and if you look at gem 2.0 and up screenshots you'll see they had to change alot of things that made up their original GUI features.

GEM was one of the best GUIs to be created, it was very efficient even on the machines of it's time, it featured mouse and keyboard support, it had the ability to run GEM and DOS applications and it's interface was so lightweight compared to Windows which also came out that year it would basically run circles around it. Shortly after its release programs were made available to GEM fthat made it a very usable GUI alternative to Windows.

Amiga WorkBench - 1985

The Amiga Workbench GUI had alot to brag about at the time. it was the first truely multitasking GUI avaiable to home computers. Of course the Amiga series of computers, with their very rich list of features helped in making the Workbench a popular GUI. It cale with ABasic originally (AmigaBasic shortly after) and those BASIC languages could multi task as well. Everything on the amiga workbench, including the applications developped for it were remarkably fast for 8 mHz motorolla 68000 CPU.

Today, the Amiga OS is still being developed (Version 4.0 just recently came out) and it looks like This but you can still see that the essence of the amiga workbench hasn't really changed. Looking at these two links you can see that the Workbench had many GUI features that are still not found in today's popular GUIs. The Workbench set a new set of standards by which other GUIs would be measured against and compared.

DESQview/X - 1985

DESQview/X originally came out in 1985 but it wasn't really before 1994, when it's version 2 came out, that it was truely recognized as a popular GUI. DESQview/X is a multitasking GUI for DOS, yes, essentially it served to multitask DOS and DOS applications which it did quite effectively. With it's second version on the shelfs DESQview/X now had it's GUI and when you look at the screenshots on the link it's easy to see why it became so popular, so quickly. It's main feature was it's ability to start applications remotely on other computers on a network. That was, in itself, a remarkable feat of strength considering the technology of the era.

Some linux or Solaris users might recognize it's similarities with the Motif GUI. That also played a very big role since now Motif users would start looking at DESQview/X and start thinking maybe there's something there we didn't know about. It got many computer users, PC and Mac alike, curious about what it could do and that was how you could hope to gain success back then, to get people curious about what you had to offer. That and of course efficiency and stability both of which DESQview offered.

GEOS - 1986

GEOS (Graphical Environment Operating System) although the link doesn't provide this information, from what I see in the copyright notices, made it's debut on the commodore 64 back in 1986 (See the Apple GEOS to see how it looked liked on the commodore 64. GEOS was one of the first PC GUIs to come bundled with actual useful software like GeoWrite. it had scalable vector fonts (the first to offer this font technology) and was, at the time, one of the cleanest user interfaces available. everything was based on pages, not scollbars (except in software that needed more screen resolution and was very easy to use and understand.

Althought the Commodore 64 was more known for it's gaming feats, GEOS was able to turn this computer into a plausible office alternative for small businesses, which was, back 1988, quite a feat. not too long after it's release, many applications were created for GEOS and the more popular programming languages were ported to it in a record time. if you look at the screenshots you can see how clean that user interface was and how easy it was to locate where things were. It was floppy based and still managed to run pretty smoothly compared to other GUIs of the time.

OS/2 - 1987

OS/2 version 1.X was a came out in 1987 and was a 16 bit Operating System. It began as a joint effort between IBM and Microsoft both of which released their own version of the operating system. Indeed, you could find Microsoft OS/2 and IBM OS/2 at the time and with version 1.3 was the point in time where microsoft and IBM went their seperate ways. IBM had OS/2 version 1.3 and Microsoft took parts of OS/2 and created Windows NT. This initial joint effort between the two companies explain why OS/2 could deal with DLLs so well.

In 1992, OS/2 Version 2.0 came out and was the first Desktop OS to be truely 32 bits. It featured the Workplace Shell (the icon driver user interface built in compliance with their established CUA '91 revision standard and that standard proved to be a very workable environment. For a good while OS/2 had alot to offer compared to windows and was becoming the el facto of operating systems on the PC, but Micrsoft had much better marketing and that's all it took back then to make or break a product. In 1996 the more known OS/2 Warp 4 came out and although OS/2 isn't sold on regular PCs anymore, still today IBM and others send patches and updates to bring OS/2 Warp up to date. Today IBM has OS/2 Warp Server for E-Business a newer OS/2 Warp but intended for servers, not clients.

Windows 3.0 - 1990

Windows 3.0 Was the first version of Windows to really break the market. Windows 1.X (1985) and Windows 2.0 (1987) did exist but they never really made their marks on the market as a usable GUI in the workforce. Windows 3.0 did however and when Windows 3.1 came out in 1992 Windows then became the GUI standard. With every new release came a rich set of new features (and new problems for the most part) and that's what got Microsoft it's leading position today. Everyone was always curious to see what the next version of Windows would have to offer. And Microsoft made sure that it had so many new features to offer that people would essentially deal with the problems because there was so many features.

I think we all pretty much know what windows came out (see the link about for the full list of versions) and their features but the big mile stones after Windows 3.1 was Windows 95 (the first almos 32 bit OS) Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0 Windows 2000, Windows XP and still to come, Windows Longhorn. We're all curious to see what Longhorn will have in its guts Although you can read about it on the web we'll never know for sure until it's released and used. But this habit of releasing so many features to try to hide the problems promises that there will be alot of new features in Longhorn.

QNX Photon MicroGUI - 1994

QNX's Photon MicroGUI isn't a name many of you have heard of, mainly because it didn't start off as a commonly available GUI. Many of us probably used it without knowing it. But it came out in 1994 and still available and in operation today. It is used in ndustrial, network, telecommunications, medical, and automotive devices. The OS itselt is a realtime OS and offers all the features you would expect from a truely realtime operating system. It is a very efficient Operating System and GUI even when compared to today's more popular GUIs.

The GUI could boot from a single floppy which also included web browsing, tools all in a single floppy drive. Pretty impressive no? Today it's available as an ISO image and can be either installed to hard drive or bootable right off the CD. No matter which way you look it at, Photon MicroGUI had/has features that still today sets it apart of other OSes in terms of resource efficiency, performance, and GUI functionality.

BeOS - 1996

Back in the mid 90s, BeOS came out from a very important need. Multimedia was fast becoming the hotest subject on the computer industry. The ability to work with video productions, music, 3D and mix them all together in a finished product was becoming a necessity and BeOS was created to answer that call. It was designed from the grounds up to be a multimedia operating system, the first of it's kind. It was orginally created for a custom computer called the BeBox and was later ported to the macintosh and then the PC.

BeOS is not in production anymore however a team of programmers have started the OpenBEOS project in an attempt to recreate BeOS from the grounds up to offer a free BeOS alternative. In my belief, any Operating System that warrants itself an OpenSource version made by BeOS users that believed in them is definitaly a success story in itself. When you look at all the features that BeOS had as far as it's promise to the multimedia world was concerned, BeOS delivered like no other Operating System delivered on it's promises.


And there you have it. In essence these GUis are the ones that really left their mark in history on way or another. Some set new standards, some set new technological breakthroughs, but they all somehow helped defined what a GUI should have, how it should operate, and so on and so forth. The main reason why I created this article is simple. GUIs, still today are being developped by all kinds of different programmers with their own special list of features they want to see in their GUI projects. Take a look at Jacob Palm's GUI website and Todd's GUI website to get a glimpse of what personal GUIs were built and what they offered. I find it funny to say that there has been no new commercial GUIs since 1996

If you have your own GUI project or are planning to create one, I believe this article will help give you a good grasp of what makes a GUI successful wether it's inner workings or outside look and feel, each of the GUIs I described here all had something unique to offer. Of course there are/were other GUIs that might have made their marks but I believe this list feature the GUIs that were really successful for different periods of time. If you feel a GUI should be mentionned here that I haven't included, just let me know.

Stéphane Richard