The Graphical User Interface

Whether it’s a computer, laptop, smartphone or tablet, every piece of modern hardware has a user interface – something that helps the user to interact with it easily.
Back in the days of punched cards the user interface was a set of cards with holes and perhaps an operating console. The limited power and possible uses of these machines meant that every bit of processing power was needed for the task in hand, so elaborate user interfaces were neither possible nor necessary.
By the time people could use computers in real time without the need for batch processing, command-line interfaces meant that users could interact with computers by typing in commands on keyboards. The advent of display terminals even meant users could see what they were typing and the immediate response from the computer.
But lines of text are cumbersome and error prone. Wouldn’t it be great if the words could be reimagined as images (icons) to make things simpler and quicker? Enter the Graphical User Interface or GUI (pronounced ‘gooey’).
GUIs make the logical design of stored programs easy to use and seemingly customisable. Well thought out GUIs are key to human-computer interaction. They started with machines like the Xerox Alto and ultimately allowed the development of mobile computing and touchscreen smartphones, as well as everyday modern conveniences like ATMs, sat navs, and ticket machines.

Douglas Englebart and the ‘Mother of All Demos’

In 1968 Douglas Englebart and his team in California had a vision for using computers to boost human intelligence. They wanted to move computers away from the number crunching of the post-war era into tools for human communication and information retrieval.
On 9th December 1968 Englebart set up a demonstration at a conference in San Francisco and first showed the world almost all of the fundamental elements of modern computing: the mouse, windows, hypertext, graphics, navigation, command input, networking, video conferencing, word processing, file linking and revision control in a single system. The system was the oN-Line system (NLS).
Englebart’s ideas for the mouse had been in development since 1964, and at first it was little more than a wooden shell, a circuit board and two metal wheels. At the 1968 demo Englebart said “We’re calling this a mouse for the moment, I’m sure somebody will come up with a better name.” No one ever did. But many people built on the ideas and technologies developed by the NLS team.

The Xerox Alto and the very first GUI

A full 10 years before mass produced computers like the Apple Macintosh came onto the market, Xerox developed the Alto (see below), the first computer designed from the start to support an operating system based on a GUI. This was 1973, the era of mainframes and then minicomputers.

At Xerox PARC in California, Charles P Thacker, Douglas Englebart (see left), Dustin Lindberg and various others developed the pilot Alto and due to its success went on to produce around 2000 of them over the next 10 years. Although not a personal computer as such, the Alto can be seen as one of the earliest personal computers in the sense that it was designed for one person sitting at a desk, in stark contrast to the vast rooms needed for the mainframes of the time.

Charles P Thacker went on to win the 2009 Turing Award (the ‘Nobel prize’ of computing) for his pioneering design of the Alto, recognising the machine as the first modern personal computer and the prototype for networked personal computers. The award credited the Alto as having enabled “a new vision of a self-sufficient, networked computer on every desk, equipped with innovations that are standard in today’s models”. The Alto was groundbreaking in its use of bitmap (TV-like) displays which enable modern GUIs, including What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editors; in fact most modern general purpose GUIs are derived from it. In 1983, Thacker joined Microsoft Research and helped establish their research lab here in Cambridge.

The Concept of Icons

David Canfield Smith, one of main designers of Xerox Star, was interested in AI and realised that for people to access computers easily the computers had to embrace certain conventions. He was influenced by the meanings religious icons have, so he wanted his computer objects to have meanings like them; we therefore have icons that are office-like objects - documents, folders, files, wastebaskets, mailboxes etc. Smith also helped develop the desktop metaphor, dialog boxes and universal commands (delete/copy/move/undo) and helped develop Smalltalk, an object-oriented programming language.

Quote from Byte magazine Sept 1981 (we have it ref CH5752, can we have this out?): “It is unlikely that a person outside of the computer-science research community will ever be able to buy an Alto. They are not intended for commercial sale, but rather as development tools for Xerox, and so will not be mass-produced. What makes them worthy of mention is the fact that a large number of the personal computers of tomorrow will be designed with knowledge gained from the development of the Alto.”

Quotation : Erik Sandberg-Diment wrote in New York Times (25 Dec 1984) that there was little prospect of a future for the concept of ‘windowing’ and he had already written them off by the end of 1984: “Windows were a great idea until you compared them with the old-fashioned, uncomputerized desk, at which point it became obvious that they were simply too complicated to be dealt with efficiently. They made life more difficult, not easier…” He might have been wrong there! He likens it to “having one cooking pot and trying to prepare dinner for an assortment of visitors including a vegetarian, a Moslem, a Bulu tribesman and a North European. Either you opted for groats gruel, an alternative certain to leave everybody less than enthralled, or you cooked four different dishes, washing the pot in between.” 


The Graphical User Interface

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