Evolution Of Graphical User Interface Information Technology Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

This report discusses the evolution of Graphical User Interface over the years. The first mouse driven GUI was launched around 40 years ago in Xerox Alto which was developed by Xerox PARC but it was not a commercial product. Apple launched their commercial personal computer with a mouse driven GUI called Lisa in 1980s. The GUI in Apple Lisa was extensively inspired from the one used in Xerox Alto. Even though Xerox was the one who innovated and developed the GUI it was unable to capitalize on the same because of various reasons which have been discussed below. Xerox launched the Xerox Star but it was too late then and the market was dominated by the IBM personal computers. Xerox had to eventually exit from the workstation market. The GUI developed by Xerox laid the groundwork and foundation for the GUI we see nowadays in our laptops and personal computers. The GUI was further enhanced in the Windows GUI and the MAC OS GUI and various other vendors came up with their own versions of GUI based on the Xerox GUI. This is a classic case of Design Dominance. Also, now we have 3D effects, animations, transparency effects etc. in the GUI found in latest versions of Windows and many other operating systems. Further, nowadays we are moving towards user interfaces which are driven by touch. This is especially true for modern phones like iPhone, music players like iPod Touch and tablets like the iPad. Further, in the future one will see user interfaces being driven by gestures and thoughts. A lot of research is being done in this field to enhance the way one interacts with the digital formation and to make the whole experience user friendly.

Table of Contents


Graphical User Interface (GUI) can be defined as using graphic icons and a pointing device such as a mouse to control and use a computer. The first GUI was launched around 40 years ago and has evolved over the time. Many companies like Microsoft, Apple etc. have created their own user interfaces based on the Window, Icon, Menu, Pointing Device (WIMP) concept. The first GUI was developed by Xerox in 1973 in the Xerox Alto computer. It was developed by the PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) division on Xerox which was founded in 1970 at Palo Alto, California.

Xerox Alto

Figure - Xerox Alto, Martin Pittenauer, 3 June 2005It was the first personal computer to use a GUI which was controlled by a mouse. Several thousand units of Alto were built even though it was not a commercial product. It was used extensively at Xerox facilities, PARC and various other universities like Stanford, MIT, CMU etc. The credit for designing the Alto goes to Chuck Thacker though the concept was inspired by Douglas Engelbart's NLS (On-Line System). Charles Thacker was also awarded the Turing Award for this design in 2009.File:Xerox Alto.jpg

The Alto had a TI 74181 processor, 128 kB memory and 2.5 MB of hard-disk space. A black and white monitor (CRT) in portrait orientation served as the output device. The input devices included were a 3-button mouse, detachable keyboard & a 5-key chord keyset which was optional. It also featured an Ethernet connection. The software used in Alto was initially written in BCPL (Basic Combined Programming Language) and later in Mesa which was developed at Xerox PARC. It also popularized the use of bitmap for all text and graphical output. Further, the first WYSIWYG( What You See Is What You Get) document making system was written for Alto. It was also the first time that pop-up menus were introduced in the GUI.

Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC in 1979 and was really impressed by the mouse-driven GUI which led him to incorporate the same in Apple Lisa and then in the Macintosh.

Xerox StarFile:Xerox 8010 compound document.jpg

Figure - Xerox Star Compound Document, Poster Scan, 6 May 2008Xerox Star was launched by Xerox in 1981 and was officially known as the Xerox 8010 Information System. Star was the first commercial computer that had a bitmapped display, a window-based GUI driven by a mouse, folders, icons, e-mail, print servers, file servers and Ethernet. The concept of Xerox Star was based on the Xerox Alto. The cost of a Xerox Star was around 75,000 $ in 1981.

The most important feature of the Star was its User Interface which was based on the concept of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). Black text was displayed on white background and the user's desktop contained folders and icons. Further, users only opened the file and not the application by clicking on the icon and the relevant application would open automatically. Further, the user interface was an object based interface with applications like word processing having various objects like sentence objects, page objects, word objects etc. These objects were selected by a mouse click. An object created in one module could be used in any other module as this integration was built into the system from the very beginning. Though the Star failed in the marketplace it inspired a huge number of products and laid the groundwork for the modern computers. The GUI became the de-facto standard and its various modifications were launched by various other vendors. It is a classic case of Design Dominance.

Why did Xerox fail in capitalizing on the GUI Innovation?

Xerox failed to realize and capitalize on the value of the innovation done at PARC. This was because the company was reluctant in getting into the computer business again as it had suffered a setback with Scientific Data Systems in 1960 in the computer business. Hence, Xerox did not show any interest in the GUI developed at PARC during the 1970s.Even though the innovation done by Xerox was a Closed Innovation, Xerox was not able to benefit from it (Chesbrough, 2003). The other mistake Xerox did was to give demonstrations to the Apple team of the Xerox Alto GUI. This is because Apple went ahead and launched the Apple Lisa whose GUI was extensively based on the Xerox Alto. Xerox finally did enter the PC market in 1980s but did not go with the Alto design but chose a CP/M - based machine with no mouse. They realized this mistake when the PC market was revolutionized by the Apple Macintosh in 1980s because of its mouse driven GUI and the bitmap display both of which were copied from the Alto. Though Xerox launched the Xerox Star, but by then it was too late and Xerox was not able to compete with the cheaper GUI-based workstations and it exited the workstation market for good. Further, Xerox failed to protect its intellectual property with regards to the GUI as patents related to user interfaces were not common those days and Xerox attorneys were busy with other patents like Laser Printing. In 1989, Xerox went to trial to protect the Star user interface but only after Apple filed a similar lawsuit against Microsoft for copyright infringement of its Mac user interface in Windows. The Xerox lawsuit failed because the 3 year statute of limitations had already passed.

Apple LisaFile:Apple Lisa Office System 3.1.png

Figure - Lisa Office System, Emulation Screenshot, 31 Oct 2010Apple Lisa was launched by Apple Inc. in January, 1983. The idea behind it was to design a computer with a GUI for the business customers. The introductory price of the Lisa was 9,995 US Dollars and it was the first commercially sold personal computer with a GUI. The name Lisa was a short form for Local Integrated Software Architecture. The Lisa project started in 1978 and was a major project at Apple. Steve Jobs negotiated with Xerox for getting a demonstration of the GUI projects being done at PARC and hence the Lisa GUI was inspired by the GUI of Xerox Alto.

Here we can see the Innovation Diffusion framework in action. The diffusion of invasion has the following 5 steps

Figure - Diffusion Of Innovation Process

Knowledge - Steve Jobs came to know about the mouse driven GUI being developed at Xerox PARC.

Persuasion - He becomes excited about the same & negotiates with Xerox to get a demonstration of the same.

Decision - He decides to use the GUI concept extensively in Apple's design of GUI.

Implementation - The Lisa GUI is developed based on the Xerox GUI.

Confirmation - Apple launches Lisa as the first commercial computer with a mouse driven GUI.

The processor used in Lisa was a Motorola 68000 CPU and it had 1 MB RAM. The other significant feature of Lisa was that it supported multitasking. Further, a hierarchical structure was used for organizing the files and directories. Lisa had two user modes namely "Office System" and the "Workshop". The Office system was GUI-based and had applications like LisaWrite, LisaCalc, LisaDraw, LisaGraph etc. The workshop was a text-based environment used to develop programs.

Lisa failed in the market because the business customers found it to be high-priced in comparison with the IBM PCs. NASA was the largest Lisa customer and it faced many problems when Lisa was discontinued. The Lisa line was discontinued n 1985 and even its successor Lisa 2 was not able to save the product.

Apple Macintosh

Apple Macintosh which was released in 1984 was the first personal computer with GUI which was commercially successful. It used a desktop metaphor with desk accessories such as notepad, alarm clock and calculator. The files looked like paper pieces and the directories like folders and user could delete them by dragging them to a trash can which was placed on the screen. Further, the GUI used drop-down menus for various settings and functions. There is no doubt that the whole GUI was extensively inspired by the GUI used in Xerox Alto though Apple did improve upon it.

Windows GUI

Since 1981, Windows 1.0 was used as the operating system in IBM personal computers. In 1990, Windows 3.0 was launched and the GUI was also improved further. Any application could now be viewed full screen by using the maximize button. Also, in 1988 Apple filed a copyright infringement lawsuit of the Lisa GUI against Microsoft. The court denied all of Apple's claims in this case which lasted for 4 years. In 1997, Apple and Microsoft entered into a private settlement for this matter.

Components of a GUI

Most of the GUI we see and use nowadays is based on the WIMP (Windows, Icon, Menu, Pointing Device) concept. In this concept, a physical input device is used to control the cursor and all the information is presented in windows. The available commands are presented using a drop-down menu. All the above elements are modeled together to form a desktop environment.

Current Trends in GUI

Effects like zooming on objects, animations, window transformations, transparency etc. have become quite common nowadays in current GUI's like Windows. Further 3D effects are being included in many desktop environments though which a user can get a 3D view of the various desktop environments he is using. All this has become possible due to the widespread use of graphics cards as functions like window rendering have been moved to the GPU on the graphics card rather than using the CPU. E.g. The Aero interface present in Windows 7 uses 3D rendering for transparency and shading effects.

Further, a lot of development in GUI is happening for portable devices like cellphones, music players etc. With the growing popularity of touch screen based mobiles like iPhone etc. a lot of advancement in GUI is happening in this space. With mobiles getting bigger screens with higher resolutions day by day, GUI in mobiles is also rapidly evolving with many visual elements like Menus, Icons, Wallpapers, Animations etc. Further, with the launch of Android mobile operating system by Google which is open source, a lot of applications are being built by users all around the world which further augment the GUI making it more useful and interactive.

Future of Graphical User Interface

The future of GUI will remove the need of having a pointing device for the user interface. We already have touch screen based devices like iPad, Microsoft Surface where one does not need a keyboard or a mouse to perform operations. An onscreen keyboard serves the purpose. Further, we have devices like Microsoft Kinect where the user interface is driven by our gestures and body movements. Also, there is a research going on in MIT i.e. "SixthSense" project which lets one use natural hand gestures to interact with the digital information (Mistry & Maes, 2009). It is quite similar to the user interface that was shown in the movie "Minority Report". In future, it would be possible to control the GUI using our brains i.e. just by thinking. E.g. One thinks about clicking on an icon in the brain and that's it, the icon gets clicked. There is a lot of research and projects going on around the world which promises to revolutionize the way one interacts with the information and greatly enhance the user experience.