Chapter 2. History: A Brief History of User Interfaces

Table of Contents

Batch Computing
Command-Line Interfaces
What's Old is New Again
Vector Graphics, Video Games, and NLS/Augment
The first GUIs
The X Windowing System
The Color Convergence
GUIs in the era of commodity hardware
The Unix resurgence
Beyond the WIMP?

Show me the face you had before you were born.

-- Traditional Rinzai Zen koan

Software designers who don't understand history often find themselves doomed to repeat it, often more expensively and less productively than the first time around. So it's worth taking a look at the history of user-interface design to see what kinds of trends and patterns we can discern that might still inform today's practice. We'll draw some specific lessons from this history, but many others await the discerning reader.

One of the largest patterns in the history of software is the shift from computation-intensive design to presentation-intensive design. As our machines have become more and more powerful, we have spent a steadily increasing fraction of that power on presentation. The history of that progression can be conveniently broken into three eras: batch (1945-1968), command-line (1969-1983) and graphical (1984 and after). The story begins, of course, with the invention[6] of the digital computer. The opening dates on the latter two eras are the years when vital new interface technologies broke out of the laboratory and began to transform users' expectations about interfaces in a serious way. Those technologies were interactive timesharing and the graphical user interface.

[6] We are aware of the disputes surrounding the invention of the digital computer and the varying claims to priority of machines like the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, the Zuse machines, and the Colossus. For our purposes in this book, these disputes are irrelevant; the standard account that identifies the birth of the digital computer with the foundation of a continuous engineering tradition of Turing-complete digital computers by the designers of the Harvard Mark I in 1939 and the ENIAC in 1945 is satisfactory.