The Graphical User Interface

By the mid-1980s, personal computers were becoming common in the workplace, but they were still rare in the home. Expense was not the only factor; other factors were operational skills and functionality. While the microcomputer was domestic in scale, it made few concessions to the casual user in terms of usability. Personal computers were marketed as “user-friendly,” but many people were intimidated by disc operating systems that offered only an enigmatic prompt, signifying the active disk drive, on the opening display screen. Apple again demonstrated its inventiveness when it introduced the Lisa in 1983. The Lisa introduced the graphical user interface (GUI), a screen display that showed program options as graphic icons, pull-down menus from menu bars, and “windows,” screens that could be overlaid and sized. It also offered a pointing device called a mouse as an alternative to the keyboard for navigation and activating menu commands. The computer mouse had been developed in the 1960s at the Stanford Research Institute by Douglas Engelbart, who obtained a patent in 1970. It was commercially developed by the Xerox Corporation in the 1970s, but only became a standard computer device when GUI displays arrived.

Although the Lisa was too expensive to have a major impact on the microcomputer market, the launch of its cheaper sibling, the Apple Macintosh, in 1984 established the GUI as the truly user-friendly face of computing. The Macintosh, familiarly known as the Mac, became particularly popular with graphic designers as it ran the first commercial desktop publishing (DTP) package, Adobe PageMaker. With its streamlined shell, the Mac was also the first microcomputer to be hailed as a design icon. While purist DOS users disparaged the Mac as a WIMP (windows, icons, menus, pointing device), Microsoft was quick to recognize the mass-market appeal of the GUI. As the developer of the Word and Excel applications for the Mac, Microsoft had privileged access to the Apple GUI program code, which became a bone of contention when Microsoft began to develop its own GUI operating system, Windows, for PCs. A legal judgment imposed restrictions on the design of the first version (1.0) of Windows, launched in 1985, but the restrictions ceased to apply thereafter. Nevertheless, it was only with the release of version 3.0 in 1990 that Windows achieved equivalent user-friendliness to the Mac interface. The later versions, Windows 95 and 98, improved the multitasking performance of the interface, which allows separate applications to be open at the same time.

Microsoft’s monopoly of the PC operating system gave it clear advantage in the development of PC applications, as its applications programmers had first access to new code. Microsoft’s first PC application was the PC version of the Excel spreadsheet, introduced in 1987. Since then, its suited Office and Office Pro packages of business applications have become the PC market leaders.