History of the graphical user interface

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Brief History

The graphical user interface, or GUI, of Microsoft Windows is based on that of the MacOS (and Apple's earlier unsuccessful Lisa), which in turn used many elements of the work of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), who produced the advanced but commercially unsuccessful Star and Alto computers. The Star's user interface, with visual icons representing computer resources, built upon the work of Doug Engelbart's team at SRI, who developed the first computers with a device called a mouse used to move a pointer on a graphic display.

Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad, Doug Engelbart's On-Line System, Jef Raskin, Bill Atkinson

Expanded History

Initial Developments

The first concept of a windowing system begins with the first real-time graphic display systems for computers, namely the SAGE Project and Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad.

Augmentation of Human Intellect

Doug Engelbart's Augmentation of Human Intellect project at SRI in the 1960's developed the On-Line System, which incorporated a mouse-driven cursor and multiple windows.

Xerox PARC

Engelbart's work directly led to the advances at Xerox PARC. Several people went from his project to Xerox PARC in the early 1970's, most importantly Bill English, Engelbart's senior engineer. The Xerox PARC team codified the WIMP (windows, icons, menus and pointers/pull-down menus) paradigm, which appeared commercially in the Xerox 8010 ('Star') system in 1981.

Apple Macintosh

Beginning in 1980(?), led by Jef Raskin, the Macintosh team at Apple Computer (which included former members of the Xerox PARC group) continued to develop such ideas in the first commercially successful product to use a GUI, the Apple Macintosh, released in 1984. In 2001 Apple introduced Mac OS X ( roman numeral 10). Some more informationa about Apple's visit to PARC and the myths surrounding it can be found on the Apple Computer wikipedia page.


Graphical user interface primarily designed for spreadsheets by the company that wrote the legendary VisiCalc spreadsheet. First introduced the "windows" concept and a mouse to the PC environment. Preceded the first Microsoft Windows implementations (1983). VisiOn never took off because it could not be used to run other MS-DOS applications and was buggy and expensive. Inspired the multitasking system DESQview.

Microsoft Windows

Microsoft modeled the first version of Windows, released in 1985, on the MacOS. Windows was a GUI (graphic user interface) for their own operating system (MS-DOS) that had been shipped with IBM PC and compatible computers since 1981. Apple sued Microsoft over infringement of the look-and-feel of the MacOS. The court case would run for many years.

On August 6, 1997, after 18 months of losses by Apple, Microsoft helped 'bail' them out of serious financial trouble by buying 100,000 non-voting shares in the company for $150 million. Microsoft had several political reasons for doing this, but one condition was that Apple had to drop this long-running court case.

It is generally acknowledged that Microsoft has advanced the science of human-computer interaction and the technology of user interfaces minimally. However, the sheer volume of Microsoft Windows systems installed (90% in the 1990s) has tended to make it the reference standard to which all others are compared.

See Microsoft Windows/History.


At the same time Microsoft was developing Windows in the 1980s, Digital Research developed the GEM Desktop GUI system. GEM was created as an alternative window system to run on IBM PC systems, either on top of MS-DOS (like Microsoft Windows) or on top of CPM-86, DR's own operating system that MS-DOS was patterened after. GEM achieved minimal success in the PC world, but was later used as the native GUI on the Atari ST machines.


GEOS was another very early graphical desktop system. Originally written for the 8 bit home computer Commodore 64 it was later ported to IBM PC systems. It came with several application programs like a calendar and word processor. Compared to the competing Windows 3.0 GUI it could run reasonably well on much simpler hardware, perhaps due to the fact that the GEOS programmers learned to use highly optimised assembly code while designing GEOS for the very resource limited Commodore 64.


IBM's planned successor for Windows 3.0. First implementations came without a GUI.


Originally developed as a replacement GUI for the apple Macintosh, later ported to the IBM-PC. Used a modified BSD unix kernal , but did not use X-windows but a written from scratch GUI. Much effort was spent by the developers to make it an efficient platform for multimedia applications.


Operating system with a GUI for the first ARM based computers from the company that designed the BBC computer. The first RISC ARM CPU was designed for these computers, but ARM CPU's later became very popular because they where very powerfull, had very low power consumptions and a very elegant architecture.

X Window

The standard windowing system in the Unix world, developed in the late 1980s, is the 'X Window System'. This was developed at MIT for use on graphics workstations in Project Athena. Due largely to the availability of the source code used to write it, it has become the standard graphical interface on most Unix based systems - including most GNU/Linux distributions.

In the early days of X Window development, Sun Microsystems and AT&T attempted to push for a GUI standard called OpenLook in competition with MOTIF. OpenLook was a well designed standard developed from scratch while MOTIF was a collective effort that fell into place. Many people who worked on OpenLook at the time appreciate its consistent design. It was like comparing Microsoft Windows and Macintosh GUI in the early days. It was two giants against the rest of the industry. Motif won the 'religious' war and it later turned into CDE.

In the late 1990s, there was significant growth in the Unix world, especially among the open source community. New graphical desktop movements grew up around GNU/Linux and similar operating systems, based on X Windows. A new emphasis on providing an integrated and uniform interface to the user brought about two new desktop environments, KDE and GNOME.

See Graphical user interface, History of computing.