Saturday, April 2, 2016

A brief history of visual interfaces

Last week, I wrote about the visual brand and user experience. In that article, I introduced the concept of breaking down a user interface into distinctive visual elements that truly represent the core identity of the graphical desktop.

In that article, I demonstrated that shapes and arrangements used in the presentation define a user interface's visual brand. In this way, the shapes influence our perception and create an association with a particular identity. Even without the distinctive wallpaper background, we can recognize particular arrangements of shapes and colors as different user interfaces. We recognize a particular arrangement and connect that pattern with a brand.

To demonstrate, I provided a visual "quiz" to demonstrate how a few colored shapes and simple symbols can depict a recognizable operating system interface.

Rather than simply reveal the operating systems listed in that little quiz, allow me to expand on that topic a bit. I thought it would be interesting to show a brief history of the visual brand of operating systems using that list. Through this brand history, you can see the evolution of operating system interfaces.

In the beginning was the command line. While early computers were programmed by means of wires, switches, and cards, the first recognizably "modern" computers used a simple command line. Evolving from teletype terminals, the command line provided the most fundamental interactive interface to the computer. The operator typed in a command, and the computer did the action requested.

The command line should be familiar to anyone who used Unix systems "back in the day." You will also be familiar with the command line if you used the original Apple computer, or MS-DOS or any of the other DOS systems from the 1980s and early 1990s. (In 1994, I created a free software version of DOS, called FreeDOS. Many people still use FreeDOS to play classic DOS games, to run legacy business software, or to support embedded systems.)

Today, the command line interface continues as a comfortable "power user" interface, especially when working on Unix servers.
FreeDOS command line (Wikipedia)
In the mid to late 1980s, computer systems began to sport graphical user interfaces. The "desktop" concept was still nascent, but generally used separate windows for separate processes. Every user interface was different, but generally these windows used a tab or title bar over a rectangular display area.

The most recognizable consumer-oriented desktop from the era was MacOS (1984). Native to Apple's Macintosh computer, MacOS popularized several user interface metaphors still used today. A "trash can" contained to-be-deleted items, a file manager (Finder) used a graphical representation of files and folders, and desktop icons represented available disk volumes.
Apple Macintosh original desktop (Wikipedia)
The MacOS desktop has become part of Apple's visual brand. Over the years, Apple has done little to modify that brand. In the latest versions of MacOS, the white menu bar is still prominent at the top of the screen. MacOS X (2001) also introduced a Dock at the bottom of the screen to launch commonly-used programs, and to represent running applications.
Apple MacOS X 'El Capitan' desktop (Wikipedia)
The first graphical user interface I used was Microsoft Windows. Windows 1.0 (1985) was a sad representation of a graphical desktop; I think Windows became "ready for the desktop" starting at Windows 3.0 (1990). My first graphical user interface for Unix was TWM (1987) which featured a similar interface with a blank desktop and overlapping windows. Other contemporary Unix graphical interfaces used a similar visual style, including Motif, Open Look, and NeXTSTEP. You may also be familiar with FVWM (1993) which was a derivative of TWM.
Windows 3.0 desktop (Wikipedia)
TWM desktop (Wikipedia)
NeXTSTEP desktop (Wikipedia)
OpenLook OLVWM desktop (Wikipedia)

Microsoft further refined the Windows system with the release of Windows 95 (1995). This version introduced a "task bar" along the bottom, with new way to launch applications via the "Start" menu. The task bar also represented running applications as clickable buttons, with other system applications represented in a "system tray."

Windows 95 immediately became very popular, due to its ease of use—especially compared to previous versions of Windows. Other user interfaces mimicked the new look and feel of Windows 95, including FVWM95 (1995), KDE (1996), IceWM (1997), and GNOME 1 (1997).
Windows 95 desktop (Wikipedia)
FVWM95 desktop (Wikipedia)
GNOME 1 desktop (Wikipedia)
Microsoft Windows maintained this visual brand for many years, until the release of Windows 8 (2012). I'll skip my discussion of Windows 8 and Windows 10; we can pick that up in another post. Also, I don't have a lot of experience with Windows 8 or Windows 10, so it's hard for me to comment on it.

I'll add that Windows has changed the task bar color over different versions, but continued the brand element of the task bar. In Windows XP (2001), the task bar was a deep blue. Windows Vista (2007) switched to the Aero glass-like theme, and the the task bar became smoky grey. Windows 7 (2009) also used Aero, but with a light blue task bar. Throughout, the task bar remained a key branding element for the Windows desktop.

KDE has similarly maintained its visual identity, updating the look and feel over time. The latest versions of KDE use the Plasma desktop which incorporates the Air theme with a light "glass" look reminiscent of Windows 7 Aero.
Windows 7 desktop (Wikipedia)
KDE Plasma 4 desktop (Wikipedia)
While Microsoft remained steadfast with the Windows user interface, other popular desktops continued to evolve. GNOME 2 (2002) modified the user interface arrangement, placing a separate task bar at the top where users could launch programs, and where GNOME displayed the date and time. A separate task bar at the bottom showed running applications. It was around this time that I helped friends and family to transition to free software, using GNOME 2 on the desktop. I explained GNOME 2's arrangement as "things you can do" (top) and "things you are doing" (bottom).

While the two task bars deviated from other popular desktop environments at the time, the arrangement was not too dissimilar to more common graphical environments, so was easy to learn. At the time, I found GNOME 2 to be a sort of hybrid between Windows (bottom task bar shows running applications) and MacOS (launch applications using the top task bar).

Interestingly, the KDE 1 desktop (1998) had previously introduced dual task bars, although implemented differently from GNOME. The KDE interface used a bottom task bar to launch programs, but a separate top task bar displayed running applications and allowed users to switch between them. This approach was abandoned in KDE 2 (2000) to use the more familiar single task bar interface still in use today.
GNOME 2 desktop (Wikipedia)
KDE 1 desktop (Wikipedia)
An update to GNOME's user interface was first proposed at GNOME's annual GNOME User And Developer European Conference (GUADEC) in July 2008. The team wanted to address several perceived design issues that had become more pronounced over time: Finding windows was frustrating and difficult. Workspaces were useful but not easy or natural to use. Launching applications was labor-intensive and error-prone. The panel suffered from over-configurability; applets were little used by most users.

GNOME 3 (2011) removed the traditional task bar, in favor of an "Overview" mode that shows all running applications. Instead of using a launch menu, users start applications with an "Activities" hot button in the black top bar. Selecting the Activities menu brings up the Overview mode, showing both things you can do (an application dock to the left of the screen) and things you are doing (window representations of open applications).
GNOME 3 desktop in Overview mode (Wikipedia)
Today, computers are more than a box with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. We use smartphones and tablets alongside our desktop and laptop computers. In many cases, "mobile" (phones and tablets) displace the traditional computer for many tasks. I think it's clear that the mobile and desktop interfaces are merging. Before too long, we will use the same interface for both desktop and mobile.

The key to making this work is a user interface that truly unifies the platforms and their unique use cases. We aren't quite there yet, but GNOME 3 and Windows 10 seem well positioned to do so. I think MacOS X and iOS (Apple's mobile platform) feature similar interfaces without uniting the two. Perhaps Apple's is a better strategy, to provide a slightly different user interface based on platform. I think it will be interesting to see this area develop and improve.
images: Wikipedia


  1. I think Apple's strategy is a bit different: gradually make iOS into a "desktop-grade" operating system suitable for most people. Google seems to have the same strategy.

    1. I agree, but it's kind of sad in a way. I really like the ChromeOS "Aura" desktop. I think if you ran it on a standard Linux distro, with a full file manager and the ability to run a terminal window, I'd be very happy with it. But see my reply to Simon about the future of the desktop—I think these companies are in a race to merge desktop and mobile.

  2. Yeah, Apple seems to have largely abandoned their traditional desktop, in favour of evolving iOS into something that can do both mobile and desktop. And Google had a look both ways with Android and ChomeOS, but consensus seems to be that they're likely to phase out the latter in favour of a desktop-adapted Android. Not sure that's entirely sensible, but given that neither of them makes much money out of desktop systems, I can see how maintaining a desktop-only OS is unappealing.

    1. I wrote an item on my Coaching Buttons blog about the future of the desktop (2013) and briefly commented on attempts to merge Android with desktops:

      What about five years from now? How will technology inherit the future? What devices will we use at that time? The convergence of mobile devices and laptops seems likely. Some vendors have experimented in this space, with mixed success. It seems a matter of time until someone strikes the right balance, and this new device becomes the next "must-have" technology that displaces even the iPad. …
      While the market seems unwilling to adopt this device today, we may in five years consider it obvious that our computer fits in our pocket, as a phone, ready to be docked to a keyboard and monitor for more traditional "desktop" computing.

      I think that's the market companies like Apple and Google and Microsoft are shooting for. They know (or at least believe) the "brass ring" is merging the desktop and mobile. And the company that can do it first and do it successfully will have an advantage.

      And when daily computing tasks have shifted to the Cloud (Google Docs, Microsoft Office365, etc) the desktop platform doesn't matter that much. All you need is a web browser and you're ready to go. (Until you need to print, of course.)

  3. I would have loved to see where you'd place the Amiga OS / Workbench series in this.

    1. I've never used Amiga/Workbench, so I didn't think to include it. Looking at the screenshot of Workbench 2.0 (1990) on Wikipedia, the desktop looks similar to other graphical interfaces at the time: windows on a flat desktop.

      So in the same "family" as TWM or Windows 3.

  4. One thing I find strange is that we've had touch-based user interfaces since at least the 1990s on ATMs, yet no-one then suggested that we should have the same type of interface on computers. So why is now different? What has changed? I think nothing has changed. Touch-based user interfaces on traditional computers made as little sense then as they do now.


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