How Did We Get To Metro? (Part 1)

10/25/2012 9:17:30 AM

A brief history of the GUI, David Hayward takes a look back the evolution of the GUI and wonders just how we ended up with Metro

Innovative, intuitive, ground-breaking: these are just a few of the words that some have used to describe Microsoft's bold new interface, Metro. Frustrating, useless, nasty and bad have also been bandied around, usually in the same sentence as the former compliments, which is a little unfair, as we've only had a brief taster of what Metro can do and how it affects our productivity. But how on earth did we get to this point, with tiles, apps, icons and graphics?

The graphical user interface (GUI) has undergone many changes in last 40 years of its existence. From a bleak yet functional, monochrome look in the early 70s to the modern look of Metro, it's been something of a rocky road. Originally designed for users to interact with their operating systems in a more friendly way, the early pioneers of the GUI served a basic function and that was it. As time moved on and the hardware along with it, the operating system itself became a more complicated beast and along with it came the GUI and the users, kicking and screaming about how much they hate change or having to learn something new.

It soon became apparent to operating system developers that the GUI had become so much an accepted part of the OS that its design could make or break the company behind it. So over the next few pages, we'll have a look at how the GUI evolved from those early days, how it shaped and paved the way for operating system design and how we've ended up, in 2012, with the infamous desktop that is Metro.

Xerox PARC

Founded in 1970, the Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre) opened up a whole era of computing by developing something called WIMP, which stood for 'Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing' device. In other words, Xerox created the first true GUI. There were minor examples before that time, using the likes of light-pens or text-based links (Sketchpad, for example), but the PARC Ul was the first to combine all the features we use even today, along with radio buttons and checkboxes. The first computer to fully utilize this new system was none other than the Xerox Alto, a weighty looking beast, but surely the great-granddaddy of the modern PC.

Description: The Xerox PARC, the first guide
The Xerox PARC, the first guide

As you can see from the screenshot (courtesy of there wasn't much to it other than a basic file manager operation, but it set the line for software developers to cross.

Xerox 8010 star information system

Through the 70s, and into the early 80s, the operating system evolved and started to become more complex in its operations. After all, it now had a larger hardware base to cater for and an increasingly growing popularity in electronics and computing from the general population.

Description: As the GUI evolved, icon and windows appeared
As the GUI evolved, icon and windows appeared

Following from the Xerox PARC was the Xerox Star, also known as Viewpoint. This was the first GUI to be regarded as a true integrated desktop, as it featured a bitmapped display, support for a two-buttoned mouse, folders, Ethernet networking and access to print servers. It was pretty awesome and well ahead of its time.

Looking at the screenshot, we can see that it's not all that dissimilar from the likes of GEM for the Atari ST, or even the early versions of X window System, so even as far back as 1981 we were beginning to see the use of multiple open windows, desktop shortcuts and icons for links to the computer's hardware.

VisiCorp Visi On

Interestingly this operating system, in spite of being a very brief flash in the pan, was the first OS developed for the new-fangled IBM Personal Computers. Built to be installed and run on top of DOS, this OS was scheduled for release during the fourth quarter of 1983. However, various problems cropped up, as they inevitably do, and the shelves didn't see a single copy of Visi On until at least the beginning of 1984.

Description: The Visi On could make astounding graphics, like pie charts!
The Visi On could make astounding graphics, like pie charts!

The response to Visi On wasn't quite what the developer, Personal Software, had hoped for. For starters, the OS cost something like $500, and on top of that it required the use of a specialist mouse, which would set you back $300. Should you require something in the line of office applications, these would go for $400 for the spreadsheet software, $250 for Visi on Graph (a graphing program, funnily enough) and $375 for the word processor, making a complete package totaling $1,765 enough to make even the most affluent business user's eye's water. Coupled with the extortionate price of the software, Visi On only worked and installed on the highest-spec PC at that time, needing a whopping 2.5MB of hard drive space to even install on.

The funny thing was, it wasn't even that effective as a GUI. There were no icons or folder shortcuts, and it ran like a pig in treacle. In fact, as far as the development of the GUI was concerned, Visi On was more of a step backwards than the step toward the future. But one particular user saw the vision that was Visi On - so much so, that according to history he immediately set forth a project that would, in a year or so, become the most used GUI in the known universe. However, before Mr. Gates’ famous GUI, there was another noteworthy release during 1984...

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