History of the graphical user interface

The graphical user interface, or "GUI", is a computer interface that uses graphic icons and controls in addition to text. The user of the computer utilizes a pointing device, like a mouse, to manipulate these icons and controls. This is considerably different from the command line interface in which the user types a series of text commands to the computer.


Initial Developments

The first concept of a windowing system begins with the first real-time graphic display systems for computers, namely the SAGE Project and Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad.

Augmentation of Human Intellect

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On-Line System (1968)

Doug Engelbart's Augmentation of Human Intellect project at SRI in the 1960s developed the On-Line System (NLS), which incorporated a mouse-driven cursor and multiple windows. Engelbart had been inspired, in part, by the memex desk based information machine suggested by Vannevar Bush in 1945. Much of the early research was based on how young humans learn.

Xerox PARC

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Xerox PARC

Engelbart's work directly led to the advances at Xerox PARC. Several people went from SRI to Xerox PARC in the early 1970's. The Xerox PARC team with merzouga wilberts,codified the WIMP (windows, icons, menus and pointers) paradigm, first pioneered on the Xerox Alto experimental computer, but which eventually appeared commercially in the Xerox 8010 ('Star') system in 1981.

Apple Lisa and Macintosh

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Macintosh Desktop (1984)

Beginning in 1979, led by Jef Raskin, the Lisa and Macintosh teams at Apple Computer (which included former members of the Xerox PARC group) continued to develop such ideas. The Macintosh, released in 1984, was the first commercially successful product to use a GUI. A desktop metaphor was used, in which files looked like pieces of paper; directories looked like file folders; there were a set of desk accessories like a calculator, notepad, and alarm clock that the user could place around the screen as desired; and the user could delete files and folders by dragging them to a trash can on the screen. Drop down menus were also introduced.

There is still some controversy over the amount of influence that Xerox's PARC work, as opposed to previous academic research, had on the GUIs of Apple's Lisa and Macintosh, but it is clear that the influence was extensive. Note that Apple was invited by PARC to view their research, and a number of PARC employees subsequently moved to Apple to work on the Lisa and Macintosh GUI. However, the Apple work extended PARC's considerably, adding windows that can be overlapped, manipulable icons and a fixed menu bar and direct manipulation of objects in the file system (see Macintosh Finder) for example. The modern GUI as we know it owes as much or more to Apple as it does to PARC - it is incorrect to claim that Apple "copied" or "stole" PARC's work. A good article pointing out many of the significant improvements that Apple brought to the GUI over PARC's implementation can be read here (http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&story=On_Xerox,_Apple_and_Progress.txt&topic=Software%20Design&sortOrder=Sort%20by%20Date) (folklore.org)

The Macintosh's GUI has been frequently revised with time since 1984, with major updates including System 7, and underwent its largest revision with the introduction of the "Aqua" interface in 2001's Mac OS X.


DESQview was a text mode multitasking program introduced in July 1985. Running on top of MS DOS, it allowed users to run multiple DOS programs concurrently in windows. It was the first program to bring multitasking and windowing capabilities to a DOS environment in which existing DOS programs could be used. DESQview was not a true GUI but offered certain components of one, such as resizable, overlapping windows and mouse pointing.


GEM on the Atari ST (1985)
GEM on the Atari ST (1985)

At the same time Microsoft was developing Windows in the 1980s, Digital Research developed the GEM Desktop GUI system. GEM was created as an alternative window system to run on IBM PC systems, either on top of MS-DOS (like Microsoft Windows) or on top of CPM-86, DR's own operating system that MS-DOS was patterned after. GEM achieved minimal success in the PC world, but was later used as the native GUI on the Atari ST machines. Gem provoked and succumbed to the first "look and feel" lawsuit by Apple Computer.

Amiga Intuition

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Amiga Workbench (1985)

The Amiga computer was launched by Commodore in 1985 with a GUI called Workbench based on an internal engine which drives all the input events called Intuition, and developed almost entirely by RJ Mical. Users may remember the initial releases for their garish blue/orange/white/black palettes, selected for high contrast. The Amiga team chose it, basing their job on direct experiences made to obtain better contrast solution using even the worst televisions the team could find. Workbench presented directories as "drawers" because the idea was to present them as drawers of a virtual desktop just called Work... bench.

Intuition was the widget and graphics library that made the whole thing work. It was driven by user events through the mouse, keyboard, and other input devices. Intuition also arbitrated collisions of mousepointer and icons, controlled the "animated icons" in Amiga, etcetera.

Due to a mistake made by the Commodore sales department, the first floppies of AmigaOS which were released with Amiga1000 named the whole OS "Workbench". Since then, users and CBM itself referred to "Workbench" as the nickname for the whole AmigaOS (including Amiga DOS, Extras, etc.). This common consent ended with release of version 2.0 of AmigaOS, which re-introduced proper names to the installation floppies of AmigaDOS, Workbench, Extras, etc.).

Workbench is also used on the Amiga as a metaphor for their own standard of "desktop" as opposed to others, such as "Macintosh Finder". Workbench itself is another library or process. Rumors said that this concept of modularity was invented by Commodore to treat Workbench as a window amongst the others in the desktop, in order to avoid reprisal from Apple. But this can only be considered a rumor, as all copyrights on windowed GUIs were property of Xerox at that time.

Early versions of AmigaOS did treat the Workbench as just another window on top of a blank screen; but this is due to the ability of AmigaOS to have invisible screens with a chromakey or a genlock -- one of the best features of Amiga platform -- even without losing the visibility of Workbench itself. In later AmigaOS versions Workbench could be set as a borderless desktop.

Amiga users were also able to boot their computer into a CLI (aka. AmigaSHELL). This was a keyboard-based environment without the Workbench GUI. Later they could invoke it with the CLI/SHELL command LoadWB which performs the task to load Workbench GUI.

Like most GUIs of the day, Amiga's Intuition followed Xerox, and sometimes also Apple's lead anteceding solutions, but pragmatically, a CLI was also included and it extended dramatically the functionality of the platform. Later releases added more improvements, like support for high-color Workbenchs screens, 3D aspect, etcetera. Often Amiga users preferred alternative interfaces to standard Workbench, such as Directory Opus, or ScalOS interface.

The use of improved, third party GUI engines became common amongst users who preferred more attractive interfaces -- such as MUI (Magic User Interface), and Reaction. These engines were then standardized into the Amiga environment and made Amiga Workbench a complete and modern guided interface, with new standard gadgets, animated buttons, true 24bit-color icons, increased use of wallpapers for screens and windows, alpha channel, transparencies and shadows as any modern GUI requires.

Heirs of Workbench are nowadays: Ambient for MorphOS, ScalOS, Workbench for AmigaOS 4.0 and Zune for AROS.

Microsoft Windows

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Windows 1.01] (1985)
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Windows 3.11 (1990)

Microsoft modeled the first version of Windows, released in 1985, on the GUI of the Mac OS. Windows 1.0 was a GUI (graphic user interface) for the MS-DOS operating system that had been the OS of choice for IBM PC and compatible computers since 1981. Windows 2.0 followed, but it wasn't until the 1990 launch of Windows 3.0 that its popularity truly exploded. The GUI has seen major and minor redesign since, notably the addition of Finder-like file-management to the desktop in Windows 95 ("Chicago"), the much-debated browser integration of Windows 98, and the cosmetic tweaks and Wizard-ization brought to the fore in Windows XP ("Luna").

Windows traditionally differed from other GUIs in that it encouraged using applications maximized, as evident even in this early Windows 1.01 screenshot. The users usually switch between maximized applications using Alt+Tab keyboard shortcut or by clicking on a Taskbar listing all open applications, as opposed to clicking on a partially visible window, as is more common in some other GUIs.

In 1988, Apple sued Microsoft for copyright infringement of the LISA and Apple Macintosh GUI. The court case lasted 4 years before almost all of Apple's claims were denied on a contractual technicality. Subsequent appeals by Apple were also denied, and Microsoft and Apple apparently entered a final, private settlement of the matter in 1997 as a side note in a broader announcement of investment and cooperation.


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GEOS for the Commodore 64 (1986)
GEOS was another very early graphical desktop system. Originally written for the 8 bit home computer Commodore 64 it was later ported to IBM PC systems. It came with several application programs like a calendar and word processor, and a cut-down version served as the basis for America Online's DOS client. Compared to the competing Windows 3.0 GUI, it could run reasonably well on simpler hardware.

Revivals were seen in the HP OmniGo handhelds, Brother GeoBook line of laptop-appliances, and the New Deal Office package for PCs. Related code found its way to earlier 'Zoomer' PDAs, creating an unclear lineage to Palm, Inc.'s later work. Nokia used GEOS as a base operating system for their Nokia Communicator series, before switching to EPOC (Symbian).


Arthur Desktop
Arthur Desktop
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RISC OS Select Desktop

Early versions of what became called RISC OS were known as Arthur, which was released in 1987 by Acorn Computers. RISC OS was a colour GUI operating system which used three-button mice, a taskbar (called the iconbar), and a file navigator similar to that of Mac OS. Acorn created RISC OS in the 1980s for their ARM-CPU based computers. The GUI of RISC OS has developed over versions of RISC OS from 1987 to the present day with version 4.39 having a great ability to customise the interface.


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NeXTSTEP Desktop

The NeXTSTEP user interface was used in the NeXT line of computers. NeXTSTEP's first major version was released in 1989. It used Display PostScript for its graphical underpinning. The NeXTSTEP interface's most significant feature was the Dock, carried into Mac OS X, and had other minor interface details that some found made it easier and more intuitive to use than previous GUIs. NeXTSTEP's GUI was the first to feature opaque dragging of windows in its user interface, on a comparatively weak machine by today's standards.


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OS/2 Workplace Shell

Originally collaboratively developed by Microsoft and IBM to replace DOS, OS/2 version 1.0 (released in 1987) had no GUI at all. Version 1.1 (released 1988) included Presentation Manager (PM), which looked a lot like the later Windows 3.0 UI. After the split with Microsoft, IBM developed the Workplace Shell (WPS) for version 2.0 (released in 1992), a quite radical, object-oriented approach to GUIs. Microsoft later imitated much of this in Windows 95.


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BeOS Desktop

BeOS was developed on PowerPC hardware by a team of former Apple employees as an improvement upon the Macintosh GUI, and later ported to Intel hardware. It used an object-oriented kernel written by Be, and did not use the X Window System, but a different GUI written from scratch. Much effort was spent by the developers to make it an efficient platform for multimedia applications. Be Inc. was acquired (http://news.com.com/2102-1040_3-271718.html?tag=st.util.print) by PalmSource, Inc. (Palm Inc. at the time) in 2001.


The Display PostScript-based NeWS (Network extensible Window System) was developed by Sun Microsystems. For several years SunOS included a window system combining NeWS and the X Window System. Although NeWS was considered technically elegant by some commentators, Sun eventually dropped the product. Unlike X, NeWS was always proprietary software.

The X Window System

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X11 Desktop (running the Window Maker window manager).

The standard windowing system in the Unix world, developed in the early 1980s, is the X Window System (commonly X11 or X). X was developed at MIT as Project Athena. Its original purpose was to allow users of the newly emerging graphic terminals to access remote graphics workstations, without regard to the workstation's operating system or the hardware. Due largely to the availability of the source code used to write X, it has become the standard layer for management of graphical and input/output devices and for the building of both local and remote graphical interfaces on virtually all Unix, Linux and Unix-like operating systems.

X allows a graphical terminal user to make use of remote resources on the network as if they were all located locally to the user by running a single module of software called the X server. The software running on the remote machine is called the client application. X's network transparency protocols allow the display and input portions of any application to be separated from the remainder of the application and 'served up' to any of a large number of remote users.

In the early days of X Window development Sun Microsystems and AT&T attempted to push for a GUI standard called OpenLook in competition with MOTIF. OpenLook was a well-designed standard developed from scratch while MOTIF was a collective effort that fell into place. Many who worked on OpenLook at the time appreciate its design coherence. MOTIF prevailed in this 'religious' war and became the basis for the CDE (Common Desktop Environment). Both X and Open MOTIF are available today as free software.

In the late 1990s, there was significant growth in the Unix world, especially among the free software community. New graphical desktop movements grew up around GNU/Linux and similar operating systems, based on the X Window System. A new emphasis on providing an integrated and uniform interface to the user brought about new desktop environments, such as KDE and GNOME.

Mac OS X

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Mac OS X

Apple released Mac OS X in 2001 with the Aqua interface. It was a new operating system built primarily on technology from NeXTStep with UI elements of the original Mac OS grafted on. Mac OS X uses a technology called Quartz for graphics rendering and drawing on-screen. Some interface features of Mac OS X are inherited from NeXTStep (such as the Dock, the automatic wait cursor, or double-buffered windows giving a solid appearance and flicker-free window redraws), while others are inherited from the old Mac OS operating system (the single system-wide menu-bar). Mac OS X v10.3 introduced features to improve usability including Exposé which is designed to make finding open windows easier.

With Mac OS X v10.4, new features such as Dashboard, a virtual alternate desktop for mini specific-purpose applications, were added.


Modern computer games usually develop their own GUIs, which are often (but not always) based on the WIMP paradigm.

See also

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