Room 101: The Evolution of Desktops

Room 101: The Evolution of DesktopsI was browsing through Insignificant Thoughts tonight, and I came across a link for this blog on the history and evolution of desktops. Its a fascinating look at how we got to where we are today with personal computer interfaces, and its pretty comprehensive for the most part. I really only have a couple of issues to raise.

The time-line of desktops is excellent, and I particularly like the inclusion of the oft-overlooked early MS Windows products. Windows 1 and 2 series rarely get much mention these days … to read most accounts, you’d think Windows 3.0 sprung forth from the loins of Microsoft as a wholly new product/idea, instead of a modification of two mostly unsuccessful attempts at a GUI (Graphical User Interface). For people who think that Microsoft is the king of Windows, this is pretty clear indication that in the early days, it was Apple, not Microsoft, that did Windows. Comparing the crispness and clarity of the 1984 Macintosh System 1 with late 1985’s Microsoft Windows 1, its easy to see that Apple was by far the more professional delivery. Even today, more than 20 years later, I marvel at the sheer simplicity and clarity of that 1984 Mac System 1.

But while the time-line was very interesting, I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t start in the right place. There’s little doubt that Macintosh System 1 represents the first large scale commercial application of GUI technology that got widespread consumer use, but it was by no means the first functioning GUI, nor even the first commercial GUI in a home computer system. Xerox, not Apple, deserves that distinction. Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) is legendary for a number of reasons, not least because they pioneered the first GUI computer with the

Alto was years ahead of its time, pioneering such GUI concepts as point and click, and the icon, as well as an Ethernet connection. For 1973, that was all pretty darned high-tech, and while the Alto was a technical success and in many ways represents one of the first desktop computers made, it never made a huge impact in the consumer market. Several thousand were made, but most saw use in educational institutions.

Alto’s true legacy comes not from itself so much, but from its spawn, the

Xerox_star_desktop.jpg
Screenshot from the 1981 Xerox Star

The second ‘issue’ I had with this involves the lack of discussion of early Linux desktops using Window managers like

fvwm-matt.gif fvwm-geir.gif afterstep-rawg.jpg
3 examples of early Linux Window Managers. From left to right: a primitive configuration of FVWM, a more elaborate configuration of FVWM that shows how configurable it truly was, and AfterStep, a knock-off of the interface for the Steve Jobs created OS, NextStep. Check out Window Managers for X for more screenshots

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