The graphical user interface

An excerpt from Walter Isaacson's The Innovators

Published 8 years ago on Mar 19, 2016 4 minutes Read

Steve Jobs and his team at Apple bought a new IBM PC as soon as it came out. They wanted to check out what the competition looked like. The consensus was, to use Jobs’s phrase, “It sucked.” This was not simply a reflection of Jobs’ instinctive arrogance, although it was partly that. It was a reaction to the fact that the machine, with its surly c:\> prompts and boxy design, was boring. It didn’t occur to Jobs that corporate technology managers might not be yearning for excitement at the office and knew they couldn’t get in trouble for choosing a boring brand like IBM over a plucky one like Apple. Bill Gates happened to be at Apple headquarters for a meeting on the day that the IBM PC was announced. “They didn’t seem to care,” he said. “It took them a year to realise what had happened.”

 Jobs was aroused by competition, especially when he though it sucked. He saw himself as an enlightened Zen warrior, fighting the forces of ugliness and evil. He had Apple take out an ad in The Wall Street Journal, which he helped to write. The headline: “Welcome, IBM. Seriously.”

 One reason Jobs was dismissive was that he had already seen the future and was embarked on inventing it. On visits to Xerox PARC, he was shown many of the ideas that Alan Kay, Doug Engelbart, and their colleagues had developed, most notably the graphical user interface (GUI, pronounced GOO-ee), which featured a desktop metaphor with windows, icons, and a mouse that served as a pointer. The creativity of the Xerox PARC team combined with the design and marketing genius of Jobs would make the GUI the next great leap in facilitating the human-machine interaction that Bush, Licklider, and Engelbart had envisioned.

  Jobs’s two main visits with his team to Xerox PARC were in December 1979. Jef Raskin, an Apple engineer who was designing a friendly computer that would eventually become the Macintosh, had already seen what Xerox was doing and wanted to convince Jobs to look into it. One problem was that Jobs found Raskin insufferable the technical terminology he used for Raskin was “a shithead who sucks”- but eventually Jobs made the pilgrimage. He had worked out a deal with Xerox that allowed the Apple folks to study the technology in return for allowing Xerox to make a million-dollar investment in Apple.

Jobs was certainly not the first outsider to see what Xerox PARC had wrought. Its researchers had given hundreds of demonstrations to visitors, and they had already distributed more than a thousand Xerox Altos, the expensive computer developed by Lampson, Thacker, and Kay that used a graphical user interface and other PARC innovations. But Jobs was the first to become obsessed with the idea of incorporating PARC’s interface ideas into a simple, inexpensive, personal computer. Once again, the greatest innovation would come not from the people who created the breakthroughs but from the people who applied them usefully.

  On Jobs’s first visit, the Xerox PARC engineers, led by Adele Goldberg, who worked with Alan Kay, were reserved. They did not show Jobs much. But he threw a tantrum — “Let’s stop this bullshit!” he kept shouting — and finally was given, at the behest of Xerox’s top management, a fuller show. Jobs bounced around the room as his engineers studied each pixel on the screen. You’re sitting on a goldmine,” he shouted. “I can’t believe Xerox is not taking advantage of this.”

  There were three major innovations on display. The first was Ethernet, the technologies developed by Bob Metcalfe for creating local area networks. Like Gates and other pioneers of personal computers, Jobs was not very interested — certainly not as interested as he should have been-in networking technology. He was focused on the ability of computers to empower individuals rather than to facilitate collaboration. The second innovation was object-oriented programming. That, likewise, did not grab Jobs, who was not a programmer.

  What caught his attention was the graphical user interface featuring a desktop metaphor that was as intuitive and friendly as a neighborhood playground. It had cute icons for documents and folders and other things you might want, including a trash can, and a mouse-controlled cursor that made them easy to click. Not only did Jobs love it, but he could see ways to improve it, make it simpler and more elegant.