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August 13, 2006 7:01 PM   Subscribe

The Evolution of the Desktop 1984-2007
My oh my, how far we've come.
posted by fenriq (60 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nice, thanks. Those old Mac desktop screenshots bring back memories of middle school - using Classics (we had two Mac SEs.. ooooohhhhh).

My OS does indeed suck (Win2k Laptop). Too bad it is taking Apple 3+ weeks now to fix my MacBook.
posted by SirOmega at 7:09 PM on August 13, 2006


Needs more Acorn, Amiga etc
posted by riotgrrl69 at 7:13 PM on August 13, 2006


No frickin' OS/2? SHAME!
posted by fet at 7:19 PM on August 13, 2006


So all that's changed has been graphics quality, but the strategies for window management seem to be the big change. As for desktops, there's still involve icon clutter.
posted by taursir at 7:23 PM on August 13, 2006


Besides being woefully incomplete, its got a hugeass error. That is not MacOS System 5. Thats GS/OS for the appleIIgs
posted by MrLint at 7:24 PM on August 13, 2006


Wow ... it's always shocking how little innovation there's been since the Xerox PARC days. The color depth gets better, you get fancy crap like "3D" interface elements and transparent windows, but it's the same tired pig, more lipstick. (Or, more accurately, how little innovation has made it into the mainstream — Bell Labs' Plan 9, Ion, wmii, Jef Raskin's Archy, and others have pushed the boundaries a little bit, but there's no one today in a position to take a chance with a new interface on a commercial platform as Apple did in 1984 with ideas from the Xerox Star.)
posted by IshmaelGraves at 7:24 PM on August 13, 2006


I look on it as more of a personal tour than a comprehensive overview. Otherwise, it could include Geos and GEM (on DOS, CPM/86 and Atari TOS!) and Amiga and various *nix window managers, in addition to your Acorn. (And don't forget Oberon!)

The customization on that KDE 1.0 screenshot is unfortunate. Makes it look a bit trampy.

Oh, and: MacOS 5? Was that ever really real? I kid -- but: I worked in a university computer lab in the early 90s, and MacOS 5 was an "un-system" to us. The Mac consultants at the computing center would visibly shudder when it was mentioned. We only dealt with 4, 6 and 7.
posted by lodurr at 7:27 PM on August 13, 2006


What, no Workbench?
posted by Dr-Baa at 7:29 PM on August 13, 2006


If we're talking about the evolution of desktops:

Homo habilis

Australopithecus afarensis

Only because we stand on the shoulders of giants, ne?
posted by absalom at 7:31 PM on August 13, 2006


I'm with IshmaelGraves, if anything this shows how seriously we are going to have to completely rethink interfaces if we're going to do anything other than an endless number of windows. — Which isn't to say that it's absolutely necessary, but it seems like something that people ought to be at least trying.
posted by blacklite at 7:32 PM on August 13, 2006


Is it that there's been no innovation, or is it that the medium won't support changes?

I've seen a bunch of innovations demo'd that include stuff like rotating cubes, files selection that looks like those silly rubber-band javascript tricks, and UIs inspired by a far too religious and TOG-fanboy undersatnding of Fitt's Law, and none of them impress me. Perhaps it's simply that what we've got is what best accomodates 80:20 optimization given the current limitations: sub-print res 2D screen, pointing device, keyboard.
posted by lodurr at 7:32 PM on August 13, 2006


It might just be, of course, that windows and icons are just the best thing we can possibly do, given our current set of peripherals (mouse, keyboard, big square video device.) There are some neat other things that I've seen, but we're just so attached to the current infrastructure.
(I always think of things after I hit post.)
posted by blacklite at 7:34 PM on August 13, 2006


Dammit, lodurr, you beat me.
posted by blacklite at 7:34 PM on August 13, 2006


I saw a Sun java-based desktop demonstration a couple of years ago that was pretty sweet with windows able to be stashed like books on a shelf, fully mobile video that could be flipped back to front (not that its especially useful to be able to watch pron backwards but it was neat). I don't know whatever became of it but I do know Jonathan Schwartz got promoted again shortly afterwards (he was giving the talk).

The list isn't meant to be comprehensive by any stretch but its kind of neat to look back on those screens that amazed me way back when they were cutting edge.
posted by fenriq at 7:36 PM on August 13, 2006


Enough with the 3d stuff and "eye candy". I like textmode better than any GUI.

Seriously, Windows peaked with 2000. XP is just bloat. Apple is way too glitzy for me, and unlike windows you can't make it plainer by config settings.

See also: toastytech.com/guis/ - big gallery, history of GUIs.
posted by jam_pony at 7:37 PM on August 13, 2006


no gnome?


posted by quonsar at 7:39 PM on August 13, 2006


Complaining about lack of innovation in presenting information on a 2D display makes about as much sense as complaining about lack of innovation in the design of books.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:40 PM on August 13, 2006


Christ, I saw this on Slashdot too. It's complete shit. Half of the Mac ones are wrong -- it even says in the fucking screenshots what version they are and what is it really? A one-post blog, started this week and filled with some Google Image search results? woo.

This is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 times better.
posted by bonaldi at 7:42 PM on August 13, 2006


What, no Workbench?

Agreed. The Amiga's hardware-assisted virtual screens, with each possessing its own custom resolution and colour depth was and remains amazing and fluid. It amazes me that 20 years later there's nothing that feels as nice.
posted by meehawl at 7:42 PM on August 13, 2006


oops, absalom beat me to the toasty link.
posted by jam_pony at 7:45 PM on August 13, 2006


with each possessing its own custom resolution

It was a great trick at the time, but what possible practical use is it today, when video cards can display millions of colours without sweat, and LCD displays have one very ideal resolution outwith which they look like ass?
posted by bonaldi at 7:51 PM on August 13, 2006


Bonaldi, you might as well ask why people still want to buy vintage cars, when the new ones are faster, easier to drive, and get better mileage.

It was a fantastic piece of engineering, and the history of the Amiga and its OS is one of the great tragic tales in the history of personal computing.
posted by lodurr at 7:54 PM on August 13, 2006


Oh, don't get me wrong, there's an A1200 in my loft as well, and I loved those things. But there's a difference between lusting after a Jaguar E-Type, and wanting to buy a new car that splutters past 100mph burning a litre of oil as it does it.
posted by bonaldi at 7:57 PM on August 13, 2006


lodurr, there's been a lot of nonsense in 'theoretical' interfaces (remember that web browser which rendered a page and its links as some sort of would-be Metaverse VRML thing?), but there's also been some real progress in usability on the fringes. I personally use the Ion window manager I linked to above, and have for several years, because for me it's such a radical improvement over the standard model that I'm willing to put up with the obnoxious Emacs-style key chords and the 'it's easy to configure, you just edit the source' approach in order to get the window management functionality. At this point when I have to use Windows or MacOS or KDE or Gnome it's uncomfortable and distracting, like wearing clothes that don't fit. I don't think this means that the Ion model is the perfect model, or even a better model than the standard one in all cases, but I do think it makes very clear how absurd it is that we generally force the same half-assed 30-year-old window management paradigm on everyone, whether they're computer-illiterate individuals who only use e-mail, or designers who only use Photoshop and InDesign, or business people who spend 90% of their time working with documents and spreadsheets, or programmers and system administrators who spend most of their time at a command line, or high school kids who never leave their browser window, or whomever. More than anything using an alternate model makes you realize just how much room there is for improvement. It's absolutely ludicrous that I can't drag or copy a file from an Xterm into an editor window, for example.

Complaining about lack of innovation in presenting information on a 2D display makes about as much sense as complaining about lack of innovation in the design of books.

Ever tried to read a clay tablet? There's been a hell of a lot more innovation in book design than there has in OS-level UI design — there were front-panel toggle switches, then the command line, then 22 years ago we got windows and mice, and that's it. And unlike UIs, books vary widely in design based on their intended purpose — a coffee-table book doesn't look like a textbook, which doesn't look like a novel, which doesn't look like a university press book, which doesn't look like a guidebook, which doesn't look like a magazine.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 7:58 PM on August 13, 2006


Is it that there's been no innovation, or is it that the medium won't support changes?

Or is it that most "innovations" past the windows metaphor have been mostly poorly thought out abstractions that don't really lend themselves to getting the kind of work done that most people use computers for?

I find todays modern OSes pretty good for the work I do, which is mostly (to abstract it) designing ways for information to be transmitted. It's not sexy, not exciting, and not innovative... but I test a lot of "innovative" technologies that end up being very low signal to noise.

The first question to answer is what problem needs to be solved?
posted by illovich at 7:59 PM on August 13, 2006


For computer interface history, you can't get much cooler than Engelbart demonstrating the mouse for the first time. Skip past the classroom introduction to get to the good stuff.
posted by Lirp at 8:04 PM on August 13, 2006


Ever tried to read a clay tablet?

Er, yah, I have.

It's remarkably like reading a page in a book.

Pages are just thinner tablets.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:31 PM on August 13, 2006


Bonaldi gives a much better link about GUIs. Thanks, man!
posted by five fresh fish at 8:35 PM on August 13, 2006


Also, I note that the trend in icons was toward true iconism, and then to realism. And I have to say the realism icons suck shit. Half the time they're grey blobs that don't look particularly representative of any one thing. How stupid.

I cite as example the Vista keyboard icon. Whu?
posted by five fresh fish at 8:39 PM on August 13, 2006


I predict that, in time, overlapping windows will fade out in 2d interfaces, in favor of something that will look more like ion or ratpoison ( or even okudagrams! ) coupled to a fairly smart system ( perhaps with voice recognition ) for choosing which windows to display and how best to lay them out (perhaps selecting from a smallish library of standard layout templates).

The need for large numbers of windows to be visible at a time is mostly an artifact of unusably-bad ways of finding and hiding existing windows, and the need for windows to overlap is also an artifact of the same -- if they could be trivially found once hidden, there'd be little reason to keep overlappingly-many of them onscreen at any one time.
posted by little miss manners at 8:40 PM on August 13, 2006


bonaldi, that link is 1,000,000,000,000,000,001X

Outstanding, thanks!
posted by dbiedny at 8:45 PM on August 13, 2006


First off, fenriq: "how far we've come"? Unless you work on developing an OS...

Second, riotgrrl69, fet, Dr-Baa, etc. -- Doesn't matter how big the list is, some jerk is always going to say what? why didn't you include [insert name of OS here] Way to be that jerk.

Third, MrLint -- You should have read the comments on the post, you would have found that the error you mentioned was pointed out a long time ago.

Fourth, bonadi -- GUIdebook was linked to on Metafilter like 2 years ago. We've all seen it.

Fifth... If I can piss anyone else off in this thread let me know, but I've had a long day.
posted by banished at 8:49 PM on August 13, 2006


The Amiga was amazing beyond all reason, just about ten years ahead of its time. (You hear that phrase used a lot, but it's really quite close in this case.) With transistors doubling in speed/density every 18 months at the time, that meant it was roughly eight generations ahead.

Linux, which got kinda usable in 93 or so, was the first system to multitask as well as the Amiga did. It was appallingly primitive, but it multitasked very well. OS/2 Warp, which shipped in 1994 (nine years after the Amiga 1000) was the first semi-mainstream PC OS that really was better than the Amiga in every way. It required very high-end hardware, but it really did do everything better. Finally.

While I have tons of praise for AmigaOS, the Workbench interface is, and remains, among the ugliest color combinations ever put on a computer screen. Later editions did improve, but they never looked all that great. In a way, it was a little sad... a machine with such unbelievable graphic prowess stuck with the ugliest of the desktops. (except possibly the Atari's ST GEM, which was also horrid, at least on the color monitor.)

Too, the interface was used to launch programs, which then took over most of the interface duties. Many programs, particularly graphics-oriented ones, ran fullscreen. The desktop on the Amiga didn't matter as much as it did on most machines. And, of course, we were all so bloody amazed with what we could DO with it that nobody really minded the butt-ugly interface. In looking back, though, it's shudder-worthy.

Heh, you know, Workbench blue wasn't all that different from Metafilter blue, now that I think about it.... :)
posted by Malor at 8:49 PM on August 13, 2006


banised, if you'd read your own link you'd see me in that thread too :)
posted by bonaldi at 8:58 PM on August 13, 2006


Little miss manners - agree, the overlapping window thing has long since lost whatever cool factor it had, it's an awkward model beyond maybe three windows - I almost always keep all windows full-screen and alt-tab (although while running more than one screen).

Yes a way to more quickly / reliably switch between apps would be great - it's especially aggravating to try and find which tab in which browser instance contains what I'm looking for once there's five or six browsers with several tabs each and this matters since so many apps are becoming web-based.
posted by scheptech at 9:12 PM on August 13, 2006


That's why I said, "We've all seen it."
posted by banished at 9:26 PM on August 13, 2006


banished, we being the collective computer using universe as a whole. And yes, I did cut my computing teeth on the Apple II, before the Mac was even born. I have had many, many Macs over the years and I've grown up with Apple and its computers that hug me back.

What I love is when people come over and look into my office and see the dual monitors and they are astounded by it. Still.

bonaldi, nice oops on banished name, I think that counts as a touche.
posted by fenriq at 9:26 PM on August 13, 2006


I want to say in advance that I realize these are using the same WIMP metaphors but I think Exposé (embedded QT) and Quicksilver are the two biggest steps forward in computer interfaces in a long time. Those two things are the reasons I switched to a Mac. The fact that everything else is so great on them just helped me decide sooner.


That to me, is everything that is beautiful about the current state of computing. Command line + the GUI + the automatic matching = something that becomes an extension of your arm.
posted by Brainy at 9:30 PM on August 13, 2006


Scheptech, I realize you're probably on Windows, but I had the same problem as you, Exposé came to my rescue.
posted by Brainy at 9:34 PM on August 13, 2006


quicksilver is da bomb, yo. seriously. i just installed it last week and now i'm really pissed when i try to do something that it apparently can't do. i never want to touch my mouse again :)
posted by joeblough at 10:00 PM on August 13, 2006


I wish they had used Enlightenment, and not KDE, to represent for the linux crowd. As far back as the late nineties, Enlightenment had eye-candy -- despite being slow as molasses -- that ran circles around any other desktop in existence. A true work of art.
posted by Gordion Knott at 3:39 AM on August 14, 2006


That's not OS 10.5

That's Leopard.
posted by Deathalicious at 4:08 AM on August 14, 2006


...um, which is Leopard. Never mind. I got all confused, since they skipped Jagwire and Tigger.
posted by Deathalicious at 4:09 AM on August 14, 2006


Second, riotgrrl69, fet, Dr-Baa, etc. -- Doesn't matter how big the list is, some jerk is always going to say what? why didn't you include [insert name of OS here] Way to be that jerk.

Just trying to keep with the whole "Your Favorite OS Sucks" theme.
posted by Dr-Baa at 4:12 AM on August 14, 2006


Macintosh System 6 in color? Was that even possible?
posted by emelenjr at 4:29 AM on August 14, 2006


Did no one notice that Windows 1.x, which wasn't a copy of the Mac OS, had the same menu items? File...Special??? If Apple didn't need Microsoft Word and Excel, well Multiplan at the time, they could have won that lawsuit and set Microsoft back to the drawing boards.
posted by Gungho at 5:24 AM on August 14, 2006


NeXTstep, we hardly knew you.



posted by elmwood at 5:40 AM on August 14, 2006


banished: Unless you work on developing an OS...

Take your exclusionist, elitist mindset on a very long hike, please.
posted by lodurr at 6:30 AM on August 14, 2006


Gungho: Did no one notice that Windows 1.x, which wasn't a copy of the Mac OS, had the same menu items? File...Special??? If Apple didn't need Microsoft Word and Excel, well Multiplan at the time, they could have won that lawsuit and set Microsoft back to the drawing boards.

At that time, menuing systems had been in play for almost 15 years. That's plenty of time for a vocabulary and standard body of practice to stabilise.

In any case, I think you'd want to provide some evidence that Apple developed thoses terms before you jumped to the conclusion that they had grounds for suit. If I were a betting man, I'd bet that those terms came from somewhere else -- most likely, an academic research lab.

Too, at that time there was a lot of talk in the air about what would become CUA -- which, despite the fact that Bruce Tognazzini doesn't like it, was a huge, huge advance in UI design. (Why? Well, because for the first time you could actually expect interaction habits learned on one system to be valuable on another. That's a big deal. If you don't believe it, try doing tech support for three or four operating environments some time.) Apple has historically (at least on the public face) treated CUA as an un-standard, but if you look at OS X you'll find it honored more than ignored.
posted by lodurr at 6:40 AM on August 14, 2006


I used to wonder a lot about the desktop metaphor.

Why does my computer have to be an office/workplace? Why not a bedroom or a kitchen or even a skyscraper? (2nd floor internet, pron, online poker - going up...) I suppose it helps to use a metaphor which we understand to be organized (although my actual desktop is certainly not organized), and not organic (like, say, the various occupants of a building and their relative locations), but I'm still surprised there haven't been alternatives. Espescially given the non-office uses more people spend their time with. Like mefi. Which could have it's own shelf in the refrigerator.
posted by gilgamix at 8:13 AM on August 14, 2006


I'm pretty sure you could find a copy of Microsoft BOB on eBay, gilgamix.
posted by cmonkey at 8:41 AM on August 14, 2006


Yeah, but BOB is still primarily a desktop, just cuter, no? I don't have any real experience with the product, but that was my understanding.

In any event, cuteness is not what I'm talking about. A bedroom metaphor could still function in a similar manner, only folders would be replaced with drawers, for example. There's no need for the drawers to be opened by a lovable cartoon character.
posted by gilgamix at 10:11 AM on August 14, 2006


The desktop metaphor is used because it's where most people do work on information manipulation. Other metaphors may be appropriate in certain situations -- a darkroom, for instance -- but a desktop is the one that most easily morphs to fit most of them, particularly file manipulation.
posted by bonaldi at 10:16 AM on August 14, 2006


gilgamix, it's a very fair question. Room metaphors have been tried -- badly -- as have file cabinet and bookshelf metaphors. Usually, they've been slavishly devoted metaphors.

Really detail-oriented attentiveness to the metaphor seldom bodes well for a UI design. The most durable metaphors (such as the "window" and the "folder") are ones that don't pay more than the vaguest lip service to their real-world counterparts. By contrast, some of the most roundly ridiculed examples (MS BOB, for example) have had strong correspondence to the physical objects on which they're modeled.

My $.02 is that metaphors get in the way at least as often as they help.

A really good UI metaphor usually does one (or both) of two things: It looks for the most essential characteristics of the object it's inspired by; or it finds the real-world object with the most obvious correspondence to the user interaction design (which could have been from the head of Zeus). "Windows" are a good example of the latter; the (in)famous WordPerfect "blank screen" a good example of the former. (It was conceived as a way of recreating the most striking aspect of working with a typewriter: The BLANK PAGE. And as someone who taught WP to a lot of secretaries in his day, I can tell you that it really worked for some of them when you put it to them that way.)

The "window" metaphor, I think, was a case of selecting a term that worked really well for the people who created it -- they were 'opening a window onto a process' -- but had no real world correspondence for the vast, vast majority of people who've since had to live with it. So "windows" are actually a pretty good example of how people come to use a computer effectively without metaphors. Similarly, most "desktops" have had so little correspondence to a physical desktop that we might as well have called them "cutting boards" or "platters" or "big flat rocks", and it would have made as much sense at a metaphorical level.
posted by lodurr at 10:21 AM on August 14, 2006


... or, I meant also to say, "Workbenches".
posted by lodurr at 10:24 AM on August 14, 2006


gilgamix: Magic Cap (originally an Apple group around the time of the Newton, oddly enough) used the room and hall metaphors. Interesting, but not as intuitive as the now (and even then) standard desktop.

So I guess what I'm saying is innovation is out there, but people stick to what they know.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 12:34 PM on August 14, 2006


Here's another similar link to the posters, which includes Gnome and one of my favorite desktops, Geoworks 2.0
posted by samsara at 1:34 PM on August 14, 2006


Ah, nm bonaldi linked it already :P
posted by samsara at 1:39 PM on August 14, 2006


Linux, which got kinda usable in 93 or so, was the first system to multitask as well as the Amiga did.

Not true. OS/9 for the 680x series of CPUs was not only multitasking as well as anything available today, it also did things regarding driver loading, re-entrant programming, and memory management that are still not available in the leading OSes. It smoked the Amiga.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:47 PM on August 14, 2006


although i use XP PRO for daily tasks, i prefer gnome.
posted by jamjammo at 12:26 AM on August 24, 2006


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