Sunday, September 14, 2008

History of GUI

“User interfaces have to do with people, and computer scientists don't like to work on problems involving people.”
- Stuart Card, interface researcher at Xerox PARC

When did the graphical user interface (GUI) become so engrained within our daily lives and society, and why? Surely to some, it was simply the shape of things to come, during a time when users would come to demand more from computers as they became much more personal devices. The eventual mainstream adaptation of computers, as well as the innovations of a select few, ahead of their time, is the ones who were responsible for the wonderful present day adaptations of their initial vision.

Why were the end-users so critical to this development? Rather simply, as the computer industry continued to expand, so too did its base of users. Soon, professionals from many different backgrounds and walks of life would be using computers to fulfill their individual needs. Thus, with a broader audience, it is only natural that in order to maximize both efficiency, as well as the user experience, the usability of computers needed to expand to beyond that of simple text-line interfaces. Human beings are visual learners, and as such, having a machine that placed more focus on graphical interaction and manipulation, was one small step for users, one giant leap for usability.

Long before anything that resembled what we tend to think of today as a GUI, there were a few innovations that sparked interest in the field, and showed to everyone just how useful and leading edge this technology could be. The first of which is the Semi Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), which was utilized by NORAD from the late 1950’s into the 1980’s, as a program, which was used to track Soviet bombers so that they might be intercepted. Developed by both MIT and IBM for the US Air Force, the program lead to significant advances in interactive, online, and real-time computing. The system even utilized modems so that information could be delivered to subsequent bases, as well as pilots, which were ordered to intercept bombers. Users of the SAGE system, we’re able to make adjustments to radar intercept data on their screens using a light pen. Like many advancements of technology in our society, the SAGE project, a government funded program helped to pave the way for interactive, intuitive, and online computing machines.

A very critical element to early GUIs, involved that of computer assisted drawing (CAD), in which a user is assisted by the computer which is capable of performing complex geometric equations to organize objects and data. Ivan Sutherland, the father of Sketchpad (1963), was a true pioneer. His software, which made excellent use of the recently invented light pen, used an x and y coordinate system, which was capable of receiving input, storing it, and displaying it on a CRT, monitor to be displayed. This was not simply an interaction and interface marvel, it was also a computing marvel, as at this time, most computer programs were still run as batch jobs, and not in real-time.

While video conferencing is nothing new to most users today, it stands to reason, that at a particular point and time, it was a brand new and revolutionary feature. The Augmentation of Human Intellect project, conducted by Doug Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute, was an incredible innovation in computing and interaction, the likes of which the world had never seen. Inspired by the memex as described by Vannevar Bush in the mid 1940’s, the Augmentation of Human Intellect project was focused on how young adults learned, and featured new technology such as a mouse driven cursor and multiple display windows used to interact with hypertext. In his summary report, Engelbart describes that comprehension is essential for increased capability, thus a large focus on technology, which is easily understood. Furthermore, by 1968, the On-Line System, which was developed as part of Engelbart’s project, would go on to be capable of video conferencing with other users, capable of connecting users over distances.

Completed in 1973, the Xerox Alto (named for being developed at their Palo Alto Research Center), is the grandfather of modern GUI as we know it. However, the Alto was not originally designed to be a device for “standard desktop use”, however, as software was developed for it, the doors of usability and opportunity began to expand for it. The Alto bolstered a 606*808 tall monochrome bit-mapped video display, a 3-button mouse and a total address space of 64 K 16-bit words, however, using memory bank selection, a total of 256 K was possible.

During its inception, these features were revolutionary, and as such, allowed Xerox to attempt revolutionary things. Its command line program called Alto Executive was capable of loading programs both locally, and across networks with the help of Net Executive. For file manipulation, the Alto had a GUI file manager called Neptune Directory Editor, which allowed the user to use the various buttons on the mouse to manipulate files and directories without the need to type commands into a command line interface. The Alto also had a basic word processing program called Bravo, as well as a paint program called Draw. These programs also made use of the GUI functionality available, further eliminating the need to type archaic commands to accomplish one’s goals. The programming language SmallTalk was also developed at the Palo Alto center for the Alto computer. This high-level programming language allowed Xerox to create an environment that resembles the modern desktop, with draggable windows, pop-ups, and icons.

In 1981, Xerox commercially released the Xerox 8010 (Star), the Star was Xerox’s only real attempt to enter into the personal computing market. Based upon the designs of the Alto, the Star had much of the same functionality as the Alto. More importantly, in the interest of usability, its designers did their best to adhere to four rules regarding their product: seeing and pointing, progressive disclosure, uniformity in all applications, and what you see is what you get. Although Xerox would never become a major competitor in the personal computing wars to follow, they certainly opened the doors for those who would choose to compete.

Perhaps the most important event in modern computing, took place at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), but it was not the development of the Alto computer; it was a visit from Steve Jobs. Then working on the next evolution of computing, using Apple stock, Jobs negotiated with Xerox to bring a small team of Apple developers with him to the PARC to examine some of the research being done at the center. Two new technologies in particular that Jobs and his team were introduced to were the GUI elements of SmallTalk as implemented on the Alto, and Ethernet networking technology. It was said that Jobs was so marveled by the Alto, that he just about ignored everything else he saw at the PARC. Jobs then negotiated to acquire an Alto unit to take back with him to Apple, where his team would use it as an inspiration to change computing.

Released in 1983, the Lisa was, at that time, the pinnacle of personal computing. However, its hefty price tag of nearly ten thousand dollars, lessened its appeal to a larger audience. The Lisa included desktop management very similar to that of today’s Macintosh Finder and Windows Explorer, allowing multiple window instances, and the ability to drag and drop items from one to the next. The Lisa also offered functionality such as a clock, a basic function calculator, and an entire suite of office tools. LisaCalc, which was a spreadsheet program, was widely used by businesses during its time, as it allowed users to enter data, and reuse cells by simply typing over them, unlike traditional spreadsheets having to erase and rewrite figures. There was also, LisaDraw, LisaGraph, LisaList (a database creation program), LisaProject, and LisaWrite. These programs all made use of the latest GUI technology, allowing the user to click to add features and implement functionality at various points. The Lisa also had customizable preferences for the system so that the user could control the startup volume (disk), and adjust speaker, keyboard, mouse, and screen settings; once again, all in an easy to navigate GUI.

Developed concurrently to the Lisa, was Apple’s Macintosh. Released in 1984, with a fantastic marketing campaign, the sales of the Macintosh crushed that of the Lisa. Released at a much more reasonable price tag of less than three thousand dollars, the Macintosh initially experienced great sales, however, this was short lived, and sales quickly began to diminish. One of the major differences between the Mac and the Lisa was the overall look and feel of the OS. While Lisa had fantastic, and revolutionary functionality, it felt much less personal than that of the Mac. The Mac placed a strong emphasis on visual representation, such as displaying an icon for inserted disks upon insertion on the desktop, which users could then click and interact with. A very noticeable difference was also in that of the control panel, which was used to modify user preferences. Unlike the heavily text based preference customization on the Lisa, the Mac control panel was very pictorial in nature. While it may have been intended for this to result in an easier to understand interface, it stands to reason that with a completely pictorial representation, that it is possible that the user might become confused with some of the functionality, wondering what it is that certain icons represent.

Significant changes in usability and functionality came with the introduction of MacOS 1.1 however, which would further improve the experience it provided users. Some of the new functionality included the ability for users to drag the cursor to select multiple objects, which allowed the user to perform an operation on more than one item at a time, adding to efficiency and the user experience. The Finder utility also included a “close all” function, which allowed the users to clear all of the currently open windows, and return to their desktop.

In contrast to Apple, who developed their systems as one piece, hardware and software, Microsoft took a much different approach. Their vision was to deploy their software onto as many machines as possible, which was made possible thanks to the relationship they had with IBM. By the time the Macintosh was released, Microsoft already had a business relationship with IBM, having provided them with MS-DOS. Windows 1.0 was Microsoft’s initial attempt at a GUI OS, however it lacked a lot of the features and functionality found in the Macintosh, such as the ability to have overlapping windows. This crippled the ability to multi-task for the user, as only so much could be done at once. In addition, the OS itself was really just MS-DOS running GUI programs behind the scenes, which further hindered its potential. The overlapping of windows would change in v2.0, in addition to added application support, such as Word and Excel, and was bundled with AT&T computers.

For Microsoft, the major turning point was the release of Windows 3.0, which would go on to become the first version of Windows to become widely adopted. It bolstered several UI improvements, such as being able to drag and drop objects from different folders in different windows, as well as improvements to elements such as the control panel, which included larger buttons, and a much more organized look and feel. It also made use of hypertext in its help files, which allowed users to navigate information much easier than having to scan a document with a large amount of text. Improvements were also made to the paint program, which allowed users to get a much more robust experience. Later in windows 3.1, Microsoft also added the functionality to allow users to remove files relating to specific programs or folders, similar to Add/Remove programs in modern versions of Windows, preventing the user from having to manually delete the desired files. In Windows 3.11, Microsoft Mail, an early email application was added for the Workgroups edition, which looks very similar to Outlook today, as well as Scheduler, a scheduling application very similar in look and feel to Outlook Calendar.

The grueling fight between Microsoft and Apple raged on in the mid 1980’s and into the 1990’s. At several points, Apple attempted to sue Microsoft, on the basis that the look and feel of Apple’s OS, which was copyrighted, was stolen by Microsoft. However, to be fair, much of Apple’s inspiration was, to a certain extent, stolen from the Alto. The competition between these two companies has changed the world we live in today, and even though Apple was once thought to be broken and beaten, it has shown that they will continue to be around for a long time, as their products continue to grow in market share. Amongst users, it is commonly accepted that Apple’s MacOS is a much more enjoyable experience for the user, while Windows dominance is the result of compatibility, and at one point, activities that became the point of an antitrust law suit. Regardless of what anyone thinks of either company, they have both done their part to bring us into the computing world we now live in today, and surely, they could not have done it without the shoulders of whom they stood on.

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