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The Invention of the Graphical User Interface

A graphical user interface (GUI) is a way for humans to interact with computers that uses windows, icons and menus, and which can be manipulated by a mouse. You are reading this article with the help of a web browser, an opened window, which is a key feature of the GUI. Many of us take it for granted, but easily interacting with the computer wasn’t always possible. Although Steve Jobs’s Macintosh, released in 1984, was the first commercially successful computer with a GUI, the idea for a computer with an easy-to-use interface, was first published by engineer Vannevar Bush in 1945.

A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

- Vannevar Bush; As We May Think; Atlantic Monthly; July 1945.

Steve Jobs and the invention of GUIDouglas Engelbart, known today as an Internet pioneer, had a background in electrical engineering and worked during World War II as a radar operator. He was inspired by Vannevar Bush’s aforementioned essay to create a computer in which you could visually see what you were doing, one which allowed people to share knowledge and solve problems collectively. A part of his vision was made reality when he presented the oN-Line System to computer professionals in 1968. Englebart’s machine was able to provide its user with document editing, video conferencing, instant messaging, and e-mail! He and his team were the first to develop the looks of modern day computers: the mouse, a bit-mapped screen, and a keyboard, which worked in sync with one another to display text on a screen.

Englebart’s presentation was so impressive that it startled Xerox’s upper management, whose business focused on paper-based machines. Upper management of Xerox opened the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1970, which invited top talent to work on the latest in computing technology. PARC’s researchers came out with the Xerox Alto in 1973, the first device, which resembled a modern personal computer with a computer, mouse, keyboard, and a monitor with a text based user interface. Smalltalk was created in 1974 in order to give the Alto a graphical interface, and the combination of the interface and newly developed Alto hardware gave birth to the first recognizable computer. Icons, pop-up menus, scroll buttons, windows that could be stacked one on top of the other: all were the first to be seen on a computer and are still in use in operating systems today. Although the PARC commercially released the Xerox Star 8010 in 1981, which was based off the Alto and Smalltalk, it was too expensive and too slow for mass appeal.

Good artists copy. Great artists steal.- Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs visited XEROX PARC in 1979 and was so blown away by the Xerox Alto’s Smalltalk graphical interface that he was convinced that a graphics based, rather than text based, interface was the wave of the future. Although the Apple II, which featured color graphics as its main selling point, was Apple’s main source of income at the time, jobs knew that Apple could cease to exist if it didn’t adopt the GUI he had seen at Xerox. Although the Apple II was the first time a personal computer was made affordable to the public, it still relied on a text bed Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS).

Many people mistakenly assume that Apple "stole" the idea of the GUI when, in fact, Apple had been working on its own version of a GUI before seeing the Alto. The Alto’s GUI clearly influenced the Macintosh, and exactly how much of a GUI Apple had before seeing the Alto in 1979 is not fully known. Furthermore, the Alto had already been seen by thousands of PARC visitors and, most notably, PARC’s own upper management. Only Jobs was able to see its potential.

Jobs, seeing the GUI’s revolutionary potential, incorporated the graphical user interface into Apple’s Macintosh 128K, which was released in 1984. Jobs did not "invent" the personal computer with a GUI, but rather, he innovated on existing, decades long research: turning a $20,000, hard-to-use, clunky machine into a relatively inexpensive product that could be enjoyed by the masses.

Back to November 2011 Newsletter

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