Thirty years ago this week, Steve Jobs announced the Apple Macintosh computer to the world, and introduced the graphical user interface (GUI) to mainstream computer users for the first time, a move that led to the user interfaces we see on pretty much everything today.
Apple wasn't the inventor of the GUI, of course, but with the launch of the Macintosh it carried off what has since become a hallmark of the company – spotting an emerging technology that had the potential to make computers better or easier for users, and putting it to use in a polished, compelling product. See V3's coverage of an earlier Apple anniversary for more on how the Mac changed computing.
In fact, the Macintosh wasn't even the first Apple system to use a GUI – that honour fell to the innovative but costly Lisa that the firm launched in 1983, a year before the Macintosh. However, the Mac introduced the formula of an on-screen desktop with applications running in separate windows and driven by a mouse to a much wider audience by bringing the cost down to something mere mortals could afford.
It's difficult today to realise just what a huge impact the coming of the GUI had on the computer industry. Users of other computers at the time had to perform every action - from starting an application to copying files - by typing arcane sequences of words at a blinking command line prompt.
Apple repeated the trick in the last decade with the iPhone and then the iPad. Touchscreens already existed, but with the emergence of new capacitive touch technology, Apple saw the opportunity to develop an intuitive user interface that enabled gestures such as tapping and swiping with your fingers.
The key point is that these user interfaces are suited for different use cases: the mouse and keyboard is perfect for desk use, whereas the touchscreen is a much more sensible and natural way to operate a compact, handheld mobile device.
However, it seems that innovation in user interfaces has stagnated of late. The GUI is still the most common way that people interact with computers, and most attempts to improve on the GUI have turned out to be largely cosmetic or even counter productive, actually making the system less intuitive to use. The Metro-style user interface seen in Windows 8 is a good example.
Even Apple has run into criticism, with the changes to its user interface in iOS 7 meeting a storm of negative comments from many users, while the elegant simplicity of the GUI seen in its OS X platform has been somewhat tarnished by the constant addition of new features and gimmicks over the years.
What will be the next great user interface breakthrough? Speech recognition still languishes in the doldrums, despite Apple's Siri, because it is still hopelessly unreliable, despite decades of research and development.
Meanwhile, motion-sensing apparatus such as Microsoft's Kinect seems to have few practical applications outside the world of gaming. Likewise, there was a lot of media attention around 3D user interfaces a few years back that now seems to have abated without any notable end product to show for all the effort.
Perhaps some innovation can be expected from developers working with Google Glass, which seems to be crying out for a really effective and unobtrusive way for the user to control the wearable miniature computer.
However, with device formats proliferating and the lines between devices such as tablets and smartphones blurring, it would be nice to see some form of user interface that could be equally useful across all of them. Is there anyone out there who can pick up Apple's baton and deliver the next compelling new user interface?
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