GUI’s Useless?

The other day, Steve was telling me about an email based debate over the “bloat of the Windows GUI” layer and how a computer should only ever need a command prompt to be useful. I was going to leave it alone – Steve is very much in the “we all need GUIs” camp – because the comment strikes me as completely ridiculous, but I decided to go ahead and comment on it anyway, if only because someone needs some digital pity.

Well, either needs digital pity or a two by four upside the head. I know which would be more useful at this point.

I come from the “old days” of computers, when a command prompt was all you had. Back from the days of the Commodore 64, the Vic 20, and the Basic Programming cartridge for the Atari VCS 2600. What could you do? Not much. Back then, the hobby of computers was using the computer. I need to stress this point, because back then, computing was not in the mainstream. Not a lot of people were using computers in their everyday working life, much less their non-working life. They were a novelty, and using them was mostly a hobby or a casual past time. And guess what? The selective group of people that used computers were willing to change their thinking or their outlook to adapt to a command line driven process. I also think that this needs to be pointed out, too.

Then came GUI environments, like GEOS for the C64 and the Macintosh OS for the Mac (and yes, the Amiga OS, the Lisa and Xerox’s work, etc.) People outside of the computing hobbyist realm started to take an interest… why? Because they didn’t have to change their thinking as much to use a computer. Take the average business person cerca 1980: what was on their desk? Address book for contacts, a phone for communication, a clock, some pictures, maybe a typewriter. They were used to that. The OS’s from the mid-80’s took this type of “work environment” and put it into bytes: have a desktop. Have a clock, a calculator, a word processor, and even let them show pictures to customize their monitor.

*gasp* Suddenly the average business worker could move and manage files and documents without remember the parameters of copy or mkdir or other DOS related commands. They could type their own documents without using white out! They could even share documents with other people using floppy disks (SneakerNet) and everything! But, without the GUI, could see trying to explain to someone why they had to type LOAD “*”,8,1 to launch an application? Why 8? What’s the 1 for? Is the application named “star”? The GUI helped people to work without changing their mindset too much, and this was a huge innovation. So much so that every OS after the mid-80’s started including a GUI layer, including Windows, BeOS, NeXT, OS/2, OS/2 Warp, and OS-X.

Is the command prompt gone? Nope. In fact, after ten versions without a command prompt, Apple’s OS-X suddenly has one and it’s a welcomed edition. Longhorn (Windows 2005-6-7-ish) has invested a lot of time and study into an object-based command shell, and early betas show that it is (and will be) extremely powerful. It’s still around and will always be a part of most OS’s, but it is not the end-all be-all interface for OS’s and computers.

And that’s the heart of the argument: “computer users shouldn’t need a GUI, a command prompt should be enough”. Well, why don’t we review some technological milestones, hm? Accountants in ancient China used were credited for using an abacus to help in their calculations. Does that mean that we should all have a rack with beads available whenever we want to do a quick calculation? I mean if the “original” method was all we should ever need, then this would make sense, right? Throw out the wrist watch for a sundial? Instead of spreadsheets we should go back to ledgers kept with pen and paper. If you want toast, don’t bother using a toaster; start a fire with some dry brush and hold the bread over it. Butter from a store? Churn some cream, you sissy.

That’s about the extent of it. If there’s “bloat” in Windows GUI, I’m alright with that, because so far their bloat has made my life easier. The average user of a computer today is not a computer user. Their hobby is not using a computer: they’re using a computer as a tool to do something else like writing, composing music, editing pictures, etc. The hobby isn’t “what can I make this computer do” anymore – it’s “what can I do, by using this computer”. It’s a subtle difference on paper, but the fact is that it’s a huge difference in reality. People want to use a computer without having to learn how to use a computer. They want to move a file with a thought: they don’t want to learn and memorize a lot of tedious commands. They just want to do stuff: the computer should be a helpful and silent partner in that stuff.

And the GUI is there to be to make a computer as useful as possible. Does it replace the need for an occasional descent into a command line shell? No, that needs to be there too: GUI’s shouldn’t be able to live without one, but the average user should be able to go for days or weeks without having to see it… it just makes for a better tool overall.

Oh, and if HD space is a concern or lack of RAM is an issue, stop bitching. Hardware has never been cheaper given the power that you get for the price being paid, so there’s no excuse to short change yourself on ‘hertz and bytes.

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