Welcome to the interview with Nathan Lineback, creator of
GUI Gallery – the oldest and
the most broad in scope online museum of Graphical User Interfaces.
The obvious first question is: when did the fascination with GUIs
start, and how did it turn into a website?
First, I was lucky that my very first computer, the TI-99/4a, was a
heavily graphical machine. I did not get my mind wrapped around the
“command line is everything” way of thinking that some people seem to
I think my fascination in desktop GUIs really started when I first used
Apple II DeskTop running on a IIgs in high school. The way it organized
files and folders just made sense and heavily influenced how I thought a
file manager and application user interface should work.
Later, when I was in college, I got my first glimpse of
Windows 3.0 and
how hideous it was. I was appalled at the horrible Program Manager shell
and separate file manager. Fortunately I didn’t have to use it that
much. Like most people back then I used various DOS based file managers.
It seriously bothered me that my 286 with an entire megabyte of ram and
a 65 meg hard drive couldn’t do what the Apple II Desktop could.
Another event that inspired me was when a friend of mine gave me two
dead monochrome 19-inch monitors. These monitors had icons burned in to
the screen, and I realized someone besides Apple or Microsoft had what
looked like a usable desktop GUI. I had no idea what the monitors were
from, except they were branded “Xerox” – it was only a few years back I
discovered with certainty it was from a later model Xerox Star system.
What really started to worry me was that people started believing that
Microsoft Windows was the first and only GUI. Especially after Windows
3.1 came out, everyone was so dazzled with all the screen savers and
sound effects they seemed not to care how bad Program Manager was. Of
course the “smart” people “knew” that Apple invented the GUI.
|A Xerox 6085 monitor identical to those described by Nathan Lineback|
Digging in to the history myself, I was surprised how little attention
was given to GUIs other than Macintosh and Windows. I did find some info
on the Xerox Alto and a completely incredible
1983 Byte Magazine article
showcasing “Microsoft Windows,” a product that at the time (91/92) was
only just becoming popular. And the most ignored GUI of all seemed to be
VisiCorp Visi On, only occasionally being mentioned whenever someone
brought up the subject of the origins of Microsoft Windows. I wanted to show
people what I had found, but I didn’t have the ability to do anything about it at the time.
My website started off in 1998 originally as an Anti-Microsoft site. I
had actually come to like Windows 95, but Microsoft was shoving IE 4
down my throat. Needless to say I wasn’t happy, and this time I was
going to tell the world.
Some time after that I stumbled across a website called “Uncreative
Labs” that had Windows 1.01 up for download. I grabbed it and was amazed
it was even worse than Windows 3.0. So I made some screenshots and
added it as a “Gawk at Windows 1.01” section to my anti-microsoft
section. I eventually added screenshots of Apple II Desktop and other
versions of Windows, and it just grew from there.
Over the years many different people have had different ideas of how a desktop
user interface should work. I feel that it is necessary to find and
archive as many of these different ideas as possible. Some may be
failures, others successes, and yet others are good ideas that are being
held back, but may hopefully one day be rediscovered.
What are the examples of such abandoned ideas?
Well, the idea of a desktop that doesn’t embed a web browser seems to be
A few specific ideas that are in my GUI Gallery and could emerge again,
include the “Beginner/Intermediate/Advanced” modes found in GeoWorks
1.2, vector based icons like in Irix and Bob-like rooms. They will certainly
be tried again eventually.
Probably the best idea that has been abandoned is that of simplicity.
Early on, due to hardware limitations, serious GUI designers were forced
to keep things simple, and to focus on usability (not that they always
succeeded). Now that this is no longer an issue, designers feel free to
embed web browsers, paste large shiny graphics all over the place, offer
a dozen different and inconsistent ways to perform the same function,
and even include advertising! Ironically, however, simplifying too much
can sometimes make an interface more complicated.
Large shiny graphics seems what sells these days. Steve Jobs
encouraged people to lick Aqua and now goes at length to show every
little gratuitous animation in Tiger; new Longhorn prototypes have fancy
effects and huge photorealistic icons. The emphasis shifted from
productivity to attractiveness and joy to use. But is that necessarily a bad thing?
It is kind of like junk food. Companies like to sell it and people like
to eat it but it isn’t good for them, and smart people know better. It
wouldn’t be so bad except in this scenario everyone exclusively sells
junk food because the companies don’t think anything else would sell.
I know some non-technical people that work in an environment that has
mixed Windows 2000 Pro and Windows XP Pro computers. They refer to
Windows 2000 as “professional” and Windows XP as just “XP.” This tells
me that many people do realize that there is a difference.
Hmmm, wouldn’t licking Aqua cause some serious hallucinations?
You mentioned Visi On, which is known to be your favourite GUI. You’ve
been looking for it on your site since 1999, at one point joking that “Bill
Gates may have personally destroyed every last copy!” How did you finally
manage to find it?
Like all good things, I found it on eBay. A very nice lady who didn’t
seem terribly computer-savvy and didn’t seem to know much about the
software was selling it with a bunch of other VisiCorp programs.
Actually, I had been searching for Visi On and information about it since
the early 90s. Almost every book, magazine article and webpage that
discusses the origins of Windows mentions Visi On, but nowhere did
anyone describe what Visi On was. Wanting to show how Windows was
not the first, searching for it turned into a bit of an obsession.
Searching an entire library and many other places over the years turned
As it turned out, VisiCorp actually did it to themselves, rendering every
copy useless with their floppy disk copy “protection” scheme. The
software was serialized to the VisiCorp mouse and/or floppy disk.
Imagine your operating system refusing to work when old hardware goes
bad and is replaced... oh, right we don’t have to imagine that, Windows
XP does that now too!
|Early GUI Gallery from 1999 (you can see it yourself thanks to Internet Archive)|
Were there other GUIs that were especially hard to get? And now that you
found your Holy Grail, is there anything else you’re after?
Packard Bell Navigator was very hard to get. The problem is that PB did
not include separate installation media for the later versions. It was
only pre-installed and part of their restore image. It was also always
the first thing Packard Bell owners had someone delete.
A number of other GUIs such as PubTech File Organizer, Irix, GeoWorks,
and GlobalView were hard to come by simply because they were uncommon.
It was only through the help of very generous visitors to my site that I
was able to acquire screenshots of these.
Some other very uncommon ones I would like to get, if possible, include
3-Rivers Perq, whatever GUI HP Apollo workstations had, Atari TOS 3.x
and 4.x, and NeXTSTEP 1.0.
During past couple of years you have described more than 80 GUIs. When you
research a new one, do you still find features or designs that surprise or
Sometimes. Of course most of the really good ideas have been copied and
What probably surprises me the most is when I come across a desktop GUI
that has been well thought out, organized, and is consistent throughout.
Since most newer desktop GUIs seem to be designed by increasingly larger
separate groups of people, this is becoming more and more rare.
Speaking of the newer GUIs, what do you think about the upcoming incarnations
of Mac OS X (Tiger) and Windows (Longhorn)?
I really haven’t been following either too closely. The new version of
Mac OS X sounds cool but seems nothing earth-shattering. I stopped reviewing
Windows pre-release for my site a long time ago because I felt it was
just increasing the hype for a product that I don’t care for. I will, of
course, review the final versions whenever they come out.
I hear that Longhorn is moving towards using 3D acceleration for
rendering applications. A fairly sound move given the state of modern
hardware and Apple seems to already do that, but I think it has some
downsides. It is common for low-end video cards to have poor video
drivers, and these may have problems with longhorn. Unlike Apple, Microsoft
cannot control the quality of other vendors’ hardware or software. I
also wonder how a move to 3D accelerated rendering for application would
affect applications running under future versions of Terminal Server.
Also, knowing Microsoft, they will probably get carried away with making
the desktop environment 3D like a video game. Until the day comes we all
have 3D holographic displays, we still see and interact with the the
video screen as 2D (even if it’s rendered by 3D hardware).
I am a little worried about how they plan to leverage this technology.
Most people these days just use their computer to browse the web, and
people have this crazy idea that everything should be a webby
application. Considering the web is mostly 2D documents, how is Microsoft
planning to force people to use this stuff now?
Seems I have no choice but to ask you about your dislike of Microsoft. Don’t you
think it’s a little bit outdated now? MS Bob is turning 10 this year, Internet
Explorer 4 is also quite an old story, and Longhorn actually promises some nice GUI
Yes, my IE pages are quite old now. Over the years IE has moved from
being horrendously evil to almost decent to just plain obsolete. Mozilla/Firefox,
Opera, Safari, and even Netscape have new versions out with
vastly better standards support, while IE has not been significantly
updated in ages. I doubt we will see any major improvement in any new
version of IE that might come out. Too many poorly written unmaintined
internal corporate web applications as well as local content on
“integrated” desktop apps rely on its buggy broken behavior. If
Microsoft fixed IE or even made certain enhancements, then these would
Even after all this time I still feel angry about what Microsoft did
with IE 4, and I still disagree with all of this extreme web integration
and the “everything as a webpage” philosophy. So for now I am just
going to leave that as is. Besides, everyone has to hate something.
There are some Microsoft products I actually do like. I like Windows 95
OSR2 (I still use it as my main OS!), NT 4, Access 97 (front end GUI is
excellent, newer versions are too buggy though), Microsoft Terminal
Server totally rocks, and even Windows XP is tolerable after turning off
all the webby stuff.
Did you ever wonder what the GUI scene would be like if Microsoft never issued
Windows? Which one of its competitors you would prefer to take its place?
I was into computer technology back in the days before people commonly
used Windows. I can tell you with fair certainty that if it were not
for Windows, the average person would be using a Macintosh these days.
And we would hate Apple instead.
IBM PC compatibles would probably still be around as cheap alternatives
to Macintosh. Many businesses would still be loyal to PCs instead of
Macs, because of their former investments in DOS apps. By today most PC
users would be using some version of IBM OS/2. Back in the 90s OS/2 was
slow to catch on because it used too much memory for the time, DOS
support wasn’t quite what it needed to be (although actually not too bad
in 2.0 and later), and the UI was not too friendly if you were used to
using a Mac. I expect this still would have been the case, and as a
result DOS systems would have remained popular until the late 90s.
GeoWorks/GEOS would possibly have been more popular on really low-end
machines. I doubt it would have really taken off on PCs, but if a
compact edition of OS/2 did not appear, then possibly many PDAs would use
it instead of Windows CE.
We would still have Linux and open source but they would just be
haphazardly cloning the Mac and OS/2 UIs. Who knows, IBM might still be
the “big evil” and Microsoft would be backing Linux
It is hard to say how well OS/2 PCs would compete with Apple Macintosh.
It really would have depended on how seriously IBM would have taken
supporting and enhancing OS/2.
It is also difficult to predict people’s attitudes. Back in the day, even
before Windows was in common use, there was an attitude that “PCs were
better.” This was mainly because they were cheaper – you could buy a
very, very inexpensive bare-bone PC and then upgrade it over time as
you could afford it, using the same brand or third-party parts. Apple
usually wouldn’t let you do that with a Mac.
This all assumes, of course, that nobody else would have stepped in and
written a decent enough, popular, and inexpensive GUI API for the PC. I
really doubt that anyone else at the time would have had the resources
and motivation to do that.
This also mostly assumes, for whatever reason, that Microsoft’s lack of
involvement with OS/2 2.0 was the same; in fact, Windows 3.0 almost
never saw the light of day because Microsoft wanted to drop Windows in
favor of OS/2 development. Only as a result of some clever folks quietly
hacking features into Windows 2.x, it was saved and the direction of
Microsoft OS/2 development changed into creating a new core for future
versions of Windows – Windows NT. If Microsoft had stayed involved with
OS/2, we would probably now have Microsoft OS/2 XP, but not quite as
successful and still resulting in a larger Macintosh market share.
Of course, I would like to imagine that if Windows had never been
conceived or hyped in the early 80s, Visi On might have been
successful and we would all be using VisiCorp Visi On 2005 Professional
right now . Unfortunately, there were other factors besides Microsoft
that lead to Visi On’s demise.
Do you think Windows will still be dominant in 10 years’ time? Will GUIs even
be around then?
Yes, I think Windows will still be dominant 10 years from now, but by
then it should be painfully obvious to everyone that Windows is slowly
going down the toilet. There are a number of reasons this will happen:
The core of Windows is close to technical perfection, they can not
really improve on it any more in any way anyone would care about. In the
closed source commercial software world, once a piece of software
reaches this point the only way to sell new copies is to add bells and
whistles – but eventually the product gets so many bells and whistles it
becomes unusable. Interestingly, open source has the potential to be able
to handle this by just leaving well enough alone, but from what I have
observed this can fail with developer adding technical bells and
whistles until the product becomes unusable.
Microsoft has lost sight of OS design philosophy and vision. This
started back with Windows 98. Any sane computer scientist could tell you
that an OS and a web browser are two distinctly different things and the
code for the most part should be separate. Unfortunately, Microsoft mixed
code and functionality to prevent one from working without the other, for
the sole reason of excluding competition. The same has happened with
other applications, such as Windows Media Player. The result was Windows
becoming an increasingly bigger mess.
Most companies – as they get larger and experience turnover – become
obsessed with business standardization, procedures, process
documentation, and micromanaging employees in the illusion of
increasing efficiency, thereby killing all morale. From what I have heard,
Microsoft has somehow avoided this for the most part, and is supposedly a
great place to work. It is impossible for this to last forever and I
suspect this is already changing. I would be surprised if 10 years from
now there is not a noticeable change in their work environment. (And if
not I would like to know how in the heck they manage that!) Such
downward change affects the quality of developed products.
Finally, there already is competition out there. Linux by itself is
already a mostly viable alternative, with Wine it can even run many
Windows programs. In 10 years ReactOS should be at a point that it can
replace Windows on many desktops. I believe that people will be more
inclined to migrate to ReactOS, as it is designed from the ground up to
run Windows applications.
It may take 20 or even 100 years, but eventually Windows will fall from
the control of Microsoft or be replaced. Of course Microsoft will not go
down with out a fight. They are already using the broken US patent
system to snatch up more software patents. You can expect with certainty
that eventually Microsoft will try to use them to stifle or destroy the
As for GUIs in general, they simply will be around a very long time
until someone invents some kind of computer-neural interfaces. Then,
instead of visually seeing and interacting with information, it will be
placed directly in your brain (uh, let’s hope Microsoft doesn’t control
And until then? Speech recognition? Smarter offsprings of Clippy?
Task Gallery? Jef Raskin’s Archy?
In the immediate future I see desktop GUIs being further polluted by the
web. Also, more desktop GUIs will start to render their 2D desktops with
3D hardware acceleration. Macintoshes already do this.
There probably will be more attempts at 3D environments like Task
Gallery, but it is unlikely they will succeed, unless stereo vision or
holographic displays or something take over. Also, it has been shown
time and time again by programs like Bob and Packard Bell Navigator, that
common people prefer to not to virtualize reality and to just use a
computer as an appliance within real reality.
Speech and speech recognition will probably never take off. Imagine an
office full of people chatting to their computers! Speech synthesis has
been around forever and speech recognition has been around for a while
now and neither are widely used. Heck, I used to actually use the speech
synthesizer on my TI-99/4a, but our new Dell Pentium 4 machines at work
don’t even have speakers!
AI has been promised for ages, but a computer is only as smart as what
humans put in it, and those humans are not as smart as they think.
I do see some potential room for improvement, especially with input
devices. Mice keep input simple, but after using a single nerve in your
arm to click a million times over 10 years it is likely you will curse
each time you painfully have to click. (I know I do.) It is obvious
keyboard layouts could be improved but everyone knows QWERTY and it is
impossible to just teach everyone a new layout overnight. The desktop
metaphor could be revived if someone with enough common sense could
scrape off the web trash that has accumulated over the years.
Unfortunately, as long as Microsoft is dominant it is unlikely any real
improvement will become popular, unless they can use it to crush a
Do you consider Konfabulator and Dashboard examples of “web pollution”?
Well, here I am really talking about user interface pollution regardless
of the technologies that implement them.
An example of such user interface pollution is the default Windows XP
control panel. It presents the control panel as a series of webpages.
Users must click through a number of these pages to get to the control
panel applet they want. This is in contrast to the classic control panel
where, for the most part, all of the control panel applets are listed
right there in front of you. There was no reasonable reason for this
change and it made it more difficult to use.
Another example: it is also becoming more common to find hyperlinks in
application dialog boxes. I find this very annoying as hyperlinks are a
document metaphor. Dialog boxes should usually use buttons instead.
It is true people have been creating off-the-wall flashy user interfaces
since before the World Wide Web. But it seems that the web has made things worse.
First, it makes everybody with a copy of FrontPage think they are user
interface experts because they can create a colorful document that
people oooh and ahhh at. Second, because everyone is doing it, people now
feel justified doing the same thing in formal applications, even desktop
applications. (Or, as an interesting thought, some people might be
trying to make desktop applications look webby in order to hide the
limitations of actual web applications.)
And for anyone that really happens to want to design an application with
a UI that bugs me to heck and back they should check out my
Good UI design tips – If
you want to whiz off your users.
|GUI Gallery as seen during this interview (February 2005)|
Let’s end on a higher note, though: what would you consider the most important
software and hardware GUI inventions ever?
It is difficult to narrow it down. There were many, many important
discoveries and advances from the first buttons and switches that
separated the internal workings of machines from their external
function, to the first megapixel graphics displays, to dancing badgers on
I think the most innovative GUI invention I can think of off hand is
that of executable resources. This was a very big deal on the original
Macintoshes. Using a resource editor it was possible to alter almost
every visual aspect of a program including icons, menus, dialogs, text
strings, bitmaps, and alert message and all without recompiling the
application or ever seeing a single line of code. To some extent this
helped keep the job of designing the interface and writing code
separate. This also made it unbelievably easy to translate applications
to other languages or modify how they looked for special needs. And all
of the resources were packed neatly inside the executable so all the end
user would ever see was a single application file.
And what can we expect to see next on your GUI Gallery?
Well, there are still a number of GUIs and OSes that I could add. The
main problem, of course, is if I can get the time . Some of the GUIs I
would like to get screenshots or photos of are very rare and may not be
possible unless another kind visitor donates some screenshots.
I do have a couple of things in progress right now, and some ideas that
might eventually take the site in a tiny bit different direction.
By the way, I don’t claim to be an expert in UI design or anything else for that
matter, I have just been around quite a bit and have seen what works and
what doesn’t. I feel privileged that I have been able to work with as
many different systems as I have but there is always so much more to
know and experience I always wind up feeling like I don’t know anything
If you think about it, it is quite mind-boggling. Computers can do a
nearly infinite number of different things depending on what permutation
of programming they have in them. Ultimately, designing a UI is the art
of telling a user what they may not do. And there is no one right way to
design a user interface. No mater how much work, research, or effort you
put in to it, someone, somewhere, won’t like it.
The interview has been conducted over email in February 2005. Nathan Lineback’s GUI Gallery is available at