Genesis of the GUI

Thirty-five years ago Xerox made an important TV commercial. An office employee arrives at work and sits down at his desk while a voice-over says, “You come into your office, grab a cup of coffee and a Xerox machine presents your morning mail on a screen. … Push a button and the words and images you see on the screen, appear on paper. … Push another button and the information is sent electronically to similar units around the corner or around the world.”

Xerox 1979 TV Commercial

Frame from the Xerox TV commercial in 1979

The speaker goes on, “This is an experimental office system; it’s in use now at the Xerox research center in Palo Alto, California.” Although it was not named, the computer system being shown was called the Xerox Alto and the TV commercial was the first time anyone outside of a few scientists had seen a personal computer. You can watch the TV ad here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0zgj2p7Ww4

The Alto is today considered among the most important breakthroughs in PC history. This is not only because it was the first computer to integrate the mouse, email, desktop printing and Ethernet networking into one computer; above all, it is because the Alto was the first computer to incorporate the desktop metaphor of “point and click” applications, documents and folders known as the graphical user interface (GUI).

Xerox Alto Office System

Xerox Alto Office System

The real significance of the GUI achievement was that the Xerox engineers at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) made it possible for the computer to be brought out of the science lab and into the office and the home. With the Alto—the hardware was conceptualized by Butler Lampson and designed by Chuck Thacker at PARC in 1972—computing no longer required arcane command line entries or text-based programming skills.

The general public could use the Alto because it was based on easy-to-understand manipulation of graphical icons, windows and other objects on the display. This advance was no accident. Led by Alan Kay, inventor of object-oriented programming and expert in human-computer interaction (HCI), the Alto team set out from the beginning to make a computer that was “as easy to use as a pencil and piece of paper.”

Basing themselves on the foundational computer work of Ivan Sutherland (SketchPad) and Douglas Engelbart (oN-Line System), the educational theories of Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert (Logo) and the media philosophy of Marshall McLuhan, Kay’s team designed an HCI that could be easily learned by children. In fact, much of the PARC team’s research was based on observing students as young as six years old interacting with the Alto as both users and programmers.

Xerox Alto SmallTalk desktop

An example of an Alto graphical user interface

The invention of GUI required two important technical innovations at PARC:

  1. Bitmap computer display: The Alto monitor was vertical instead of horizontal and, with a resolution of 606 by 808 pixels, it was 8 x 10 inches tall. It had dark pixels on a light gray background and therefore emulated a sheet of letter-size white paper. It had bit-mapped raster scan as a display method as opposed to the “character generators” of previous monitors that could only render alphanumeric characters in one size and style and were often green letters on a black background. With each dot on its display corresponding to one bit of memory, the Alto monitor technology was very advanced for its time. It was capable of multiple fonts and could even render black and white motion video.
  2. Software that supported graphics: Alan Kay’s team developed the SmallTalk programming language as the first object-oriented software environment. They built the first GUI with windows that could be moved around and resized and icons that represented different types of objects in the system. Programmers and designers on Kay’s team—especially Dan Ingalls and David C. Smith—and developed bitmap graphics software that enabled computer users to click on icons, dialogue boxes and drop down menus on the desktop. These functions represented the means of interaction with documents, applications, printers, and folders and thereby the user derived immediate feedback from their actions.
Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls and David C. Smith worked on the software programming and graphical user interface elements of the Xerox Alto

Alan Kay, Dan Ingalls and David C. Smith worked on the software programming and graphical user interface elements of the Xerox Alto

The Alto remained an experimental system until the end of the 1970s with 2,000 units made and used at PARC and by a wider group of research scientists across the country. It is an irony of computer and business history that the commercial product that was inspired by the Alto—the Xerox 8010 Information System or Star workstation—was launched in 1981 and did not achieve market success due in part to it’s $75,000 starting price ($195,000 today). As a personal computer, the Xerox Star was rapidly eclipsed by the IBM-PC, the very successful MS-DOS-based personal computer launched in 1981 without a GUI at a price of $1,595.

It is well known that Steve Jobs and a group of Apple Computer employees made a fortuitous visit to Xerox PARC in December 1979 and received an inside look at the Alto and its GUI. Upon seeing the Alto’s user interface, Jobs has been quoted as saying, “It was like a veil being lifted from my eyes. I could see the future of what computing was destined to be.”

Much of what Jobs and his team learned at PARC—in exchange for the purchase of 100,000 Apple shares by Xerox—was incorporated into the unsuccessful Apple Lisa computer (1982) and later the popular Macintosh (1984). The Apple engineers also implemented features that further advanced the GUI in ways that the PARC researchers had not thought of or were unable to accomplish. Apple Computer was so successful at implementing a GUI-based personal computer that many of the Xerox engineers left PARC and joined Steve Jobs, including Alan Kay and several of his team members.

In response to both the popularity and ease-of-use superiority of the GUI, Microsoft launched Windows in 1985 for the IBM-PC and PC clone markets. The early Windows interface was plagued with performance issues due in part to the fact that it was running as a second layer of programming on top of MS-DOS. With Windows 95, Microsoft developed perhaps the most successful GUI-based personal computer software up to that point.

First desktops: Xerox Star (1980), Apple Macintosh (1984) and Microsoft Windows (1985)

First desktops: Xerox Star (1980), Apple Macintosh (1984) and Microsoft Windows (1985)

Already by 1988, the GUI had become such an important aspect of personal computing that Apple filled a lawsuit against Microsoft for copyright infringement. In the end, the federal courts ruled against Apple in 1994 saying that “patent-like protection for the idea of the graphical user interface, or the idea of the desktop metaphor” was not available. Much of Apple’s case revolved around defending as its property something called the “look and feel” of the Mac desktop. While rejecting most of Apple’s arguments, the court did grant ownership of the trashcan icon, upon which Microsoft began using the recycling bin instead.

When looking back today, it is remarkable how the basic desktop and user experience design that was developed at Xerox PARC in the 1970s has remained the same over the past four decades. Color and shading have been added to make the icons more photographic and the folders and windows more dimensional. However, the essential user elements, visual indicators, scroll bars, etc. have not changed much.

With the advent of mobile (smartphone and tablet) computing, the GUI began to undergo more significant development. With the original iOS on the iPhone and iPod touch, Apple relied heavily upon so-called skeuomorphic GUI design, i.e. icons and images that emulate physical objects in the real world such as a textured bookcase to display eBooks in the iBook app.

Comparison of iOS 1 to iOS 7 user interface

Comparison of iOS 1 to iOS 7 user interface

Competitors—such as those with Android-based smartphones and tablets—have largely copied Apple’s mobile GUI approach. Beginning with iOS 7, however, Apple has moved aggressively away skeuomorphic elements in favor of flattened and less pictorial icons and frames, etc.

Multi-touch and gesture-based technology—along with voice user interface (VUI)—represent practical evolutionary steps in the progress of human-computer interaction. Swipe, pinch and rotate have become just as common for mobile users today as double-click, drag-and-drop and copy-and-paste were for the desktop generation. The same can be said of the haptic experience—tactile feedback such as vibration or rumbling on a controller—of VR and gaming systems that millions of young people are familiar with all over the world.

It is safe to say that it was the pioneering work of the research group at Xerox PARC that made computing something that everyone can do all the time. They were people with big ideas and big goals. In a 1977 article for Scientific American Alan Kay wrote, “How can communication with computers be enriched to meet the diverse needs of individuals? If the computer is to be truly ‘personal,’ adult and child users must be able to get it to perform useful activities without resorting to the services of an expert. Simple tasks must be simple, and complex ones must be possible.”

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