The surface of a secretary’s desk is not the only – nor necessarily the best – possible metaphor for computers. Engelbart’s early 60’s demo introduced many of the basic ideas of visual interfaces without it. The Alto itself was built on a concept called the Dynabook, whose creator, Alan Kay, envisioned it as an educational computer designed for kids who might never have seen the inside of a desk. When developing Lisa, interface designer Bill Atkinson was inspired by MIT’s Spatial Data Management System, a custom computing environment called “Dataland” with a map that users could hover over using a joystick. In the 1980s, Amiga released an operating system built on the metaphor of a utility workshop.
But by then, the major IT players were showcasing their products to an audience of administrative assistants and other office workers. “Engelbart’s idea was that the computer was a tool to augment the human mind, allowing us to solve the great problems of the world, of society,” says Hansen Hsu, a historian at the Computer History Museum. He introduced the idea that knowledge workers could dramatically amplify their capabilities with a better interface. At Xerox and then at Apple, this idea translated into the creation of the office of the future.
The benefits were not just practical, they were cultural. In computer havens like MIT, typing was an accepted part of coding. But in the business world, it was associated with secretarial work — or women’s work — and not something executives should deal with. When PARC held demonstrations for Xerox executives, the Alto’s graphics enabled him to compose a visual application called “SimKit” that would allow them to simulate running a business without ever touching the keyboard. “It was just pointing and clicking,” recalls PARC researcher Adele Goldberg in Lightning Merchants. “We knew these guys wouldn’t hit. It wasn’t macho back then.
Even without the Lisa or the Xerox Star, the idea might have ended up seeming obvious. As Lisa’s team struggled to define its design, they came across a 1980 IBM research concept called Pictureworld, which envisioned a then-nonexistent powerful computer that came as close to a desktop computer as possible: you wouldn’t just knock send on an email – you would put it in a virtual envelope and drop it in an outbox. But IBM’s report described Pictureworld as moot, and publicly it made computers feel good by describing their behind-the-scenes value for banking or booking flights. “If living with computers makes you nervous, consider another troubling possibility. Live without them,” an early 1980s ad warns above a clip art of a man hiding from a bank of mainframe computers.
And without testing, Apple’s vision of a “desktop” might have looked like nothing users expect today. Lisa’s original design, for example, did not use the now ubiquitous file and folder system. He considered the idea and dismissed it as ineffective, instead settling on a text file that asked increasingly specific questions about how and where to create, save, move, or delete a file.
The filer was considered the best system on paper, but as the team watched people use it, they realized it wasn’t fun. The constant prompting, designers Roderick Perkins, Dan Smith Keller and Frank Ludolph wrote in a 1997 retrospective, “made users feel like they were playing a game of Twenty Questions”. They took their concerns to Atkinson, and the group crafted an alternative inspired by Dataland and Pictureworld, then presented it to Lisa’s director of engineering, Wayne Rosing.
But there was a problem: Twenty questions had already been locked away in the Lisa, and the shipping deadline was approaching. Rosing didn’t want other teams to start adding new systems, and according to Herzfeldhe also had a bigger fear: if Apple co-founder Steve Jobs learned of the idea before it actually worked, he might delay the entire timeline to get it off the ground.
The result was a subterfuge that wouldn’t seem out of place in Stop and catch fire. Atkinson and the interface team spent two weeks building a prototype in secret, hastily giving up every time they heard Jobs approaching. Jobs realized they were hiding something, made them show it, and quickly fell in love with it – but, luckily for Rosing, only after they had solved most of the problems.
The team learned that icons and folders did not make creating or moving files more efficient. But users universally preferred them to play Twenty Questions. They invited people to explore the interface with the kind of familiarity they might give to a physical space. “The screen became, in a sense, real,” Lisa’s creators later wrote. “The interface started to disappear.”
To look at the Lisa now is to see a system that is still seeking the limits of its metaphor. One of its unique quirks, for example, is its disregard for app logic. You don’t open an app to start writing or composing a spreadsheet; you look at a set of pads with different types of documents and tear a sheet of paper.
But the desktop metaphor also had more concrete technical limitations. One of Lisa’s core tenets was that it should allow users to multitask like an assistant would, allowing for constant distractions as people moved between windows. It was a fancy idea that’s taken for granted on modern machines, but at the time it pushed Apple’s technical boundaries and drove up the Lisa’s price dramatically. And while Apple was finishing the Lisa, it was already working on another machine: the cheaper and simpler Macintosh.
“The problem Xerox and Apple had with a $10,000 machine is that the users end up being secretaries, and no company is going to want to buy a $10,000 machine for a secretary,” Hsu says. “The Macintosh really needed to reduce that cost to a quarter of that.”
And after all that, says Hsu, the real breakthrough for GUIs wasn’t that it made the virtual world more familiar — it was that you could more easily push things into the physical a. “It wasn’t until desktop publishing became available, with PageMaker and PostScript and the laser printer, that [you got] a compelling use case for a GUI-based computer – something you couldn’t do with a command-line-based computer.
Non-graphical interfaces never completely disappeared. At Apple, modes have been resurrected as hotkeys, a hugely powerful system but mysterious enough to periodically surprise even the most experienced users. Of course, engineers regularly dive into the command line 40 years after Lisa was launched. But for most people, a graphics system is all they’ve ever known.