Relive six decades of the computer desktop's changing face

This trip down memory lane traces major milestones in the evolution of the desktop environment

Do you ever look at your computer's screen and think, “How on Earth did we get here?” Windows, Mac, GNOME, KDE, and Ubuntu's Unity are all born from a common history of desktop environment design stretching back to the 1960's. Let's take a visual voyage from the very beginning right up to the present, looking at the “1.0” releases – those very first versions – of the Desktop Environments and graphical computing platforms that made the biggest impact. (Or, at the very least, that I thought were coolest.)

In the interest of time, we aren't going to hit all of the early graphical systems here. Some very noteworthy systems, such as IBM's GDDM (and plenty of others), have been left out.

oN-Line System

December 9, 1968: Douglas Engelbart gave a demo of a system his team had developed called NLS (oN-Line System). That demo, which is now affectionately called “The Mother of All Demos,” was truly amazing. The mouse, the concept of multiple, overlapping windows in a user interface, hypertext -- all were shown here in a fully functional way. If you've never watched it, you owe it to yourself. Remember: This was all brand new. What you are seeing was invented by those people.

Quote of the day: "The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate. I have tolerated a lot.”
- Douglas Engelbart

Xerox Alto

March 1, 1973: Xerox announced the Alto, the first shipping computer system with a mouse-driven graphical interface. Well, “shipping” may be a strong word. Roughly 2,000 of these beauties were produced and, predominantly, used within Xerox and schools. Look at that screenshot. Look familiar? Doesn't look all that different than your current computer, does it? And this was more than 40 years ago. Movable, overlapping windows. Bitmap graphics. WYSIWYG text editing. And, for the software developers out there: Bit Blit. First done, right here.

Aegis, Domain/OS

1981: Apollo introduced the “Domain” line of computer workstations. Powering these new workstations was the Aegis operating system (later renamed to “Domain/OS”). The user interface was simply named “DM” (aka “Display Manager”). Interestingly, Aegis was a very simple beast ... at least from a GUI perspective. The idea is that you really only need these computers for a few purposes, so you could just launch them from the command line when needed.

Randomly Nerdy Anecdote: My first job out of high-school involved repairing these aging Apollo workstations. They were old and dusty, and their cases were getting that “really old computer case” look to them. But getting one of these beauties running again made that 19-year-old nerd feel like Indiana Jones.


January 19, 1983: Apple unveiled the Lisa. And while the Lisa didn't technically bring anything brand new to the table, it did provide an interesting feature set (which included multitasking, graphical file browsing, document stationary, and more) coupled with a graphically appealing (and quite easy to learn) look and feel.

Fun Fact: The “Lisa” computer is named after Steve Jobs’s first daughter. The official stance was that “LISA” was an acronym for “Local Integrated System Architecture.” Some said it stood for “LISA: Invented Stupid Acronym.”

Apple Mac System 1

January 24, 1984: Just over one year after Apple came out with an advanced, multitasking, graphical desktop computer ... it decided to come out with a cheaper computer. So Apple created the Mac System Software, an operating system that looked roughly like that of the Lisa. It only lacked some of the more cutting-edge features like multitasking. But it did have sound. Which was cool.

Fun Fact: The very first public release did not have an “About Box.” This was added with the first ”.1” release a few months later.

Window System X

June 19, 1984: “Window System X” (what we now usually call “X Windows”) was announced to the world in an email from Robert Scheifler. “I've spent the last couple weeks writing a window system for the VS100. I stole a fair amount of code from W, surrounded it with an asynchronous rather than a synchronous interface, and called it X,” Scheifler wrote in the email, concluding with, “anyone who wants the code can come by with a tape.” This system has undergone many changes over the years, but has proven to be critically important.

Fun Fact: The W Window System ran on the V Operating System. So V ran W, whose code was stolen for X.


February 28, 1985: Digital Research, Inc. released GEM for its CP/M operating system. Apple promptly sued DRI, claiming that the features and design of GEM was similar to its Lisa and Macintosh graphical environments. Apple won. As a result, GEM for DOS was forced to restrict the ability for users to have windows that overlap and eliminate icons representing disk drives on the desktop. We'll ignore the fact that Apple didn't actually invent overlapping windows and the like, shake our heads in disbelief, and move on.

Fun Fact: “Digital Research ,” founded by Gary Kildall (co-host of the Computer Chronicles show on PBS), was originally named “Intergalactic Digital Research.” Because Gary Kildall was awesome.

Amiga Workbench

July 23, 1985: Just a few short months after the launch of DRI's GEM, Commodore International released the first “Amiga” computer, running its display server, Intuition, and desktop environment, Workbench. Amazing graphics, sound, and video, combined with a highly customizable look and feel, made for some astoundingly impressive demos. This advanced system also featured preemptive multitasking and, I kid you not, file icons that could be different sizes.

Fun Fact: “Amiga” was chosen to be the name for this amazing system because it came before both “Apple” and “Atari,” alphabetically.

Windows 1.0

November 20, 1985: Just four months later (Phew! 1985 was a busy year!) Microsoft joined the party with Windows 1.0. The user interface consisted of tiled windows (overlapping windows were added in Windows 2.0, for which Apple sued Microsoft.) Properly written MS-DOS software could run in a multitasking environment. This gave Microsoft a bit of an advantage in the number of software packages available for its fledgling graphical environment.

Fun Video: Watch ex-CEO Steve Ballmer pitch Windows 1.0.


1986: Berkeley Softworks released GEOS (“Graphic Environment Operating System”) for the Commodore 64. (Yes, that C64 -- the Guinness World Record holder for the highest-selling computer of all time.) One rather interesting bit: The file manager didn't use scrollbars. Instead, it used a page turning metaphor when multiple pages worth of file icons needed to be displayed. GEOS became so popular that Commodore began bundling it by default with some versions of the C64 computer, and for a spell, GEOS was the third-most popular operating system in the world, behind only MS-DOS and MacOS.

Arthur (RISC OS)

June 1987: Acorn Computers shipped the first version of Arthur (later known as RISC OS) for Acorn's ARM-powered line of Archimedes computers. One of the most notable features was the introduction of what was called an “Icon Bar” -- something most of us today refer to as a “dock.” It was a collection of icons that represented various aspects of the system, including running applications and disks. RISC OS had another first for the computing world: spatial anti-aliasing of fonts. This was a seriously advanced system.

Awesome Fact: RISC OS isn't dead. You can download a free edition for your Raspberry Pi. How cool is that?

OS/2 1.1

October 31, 1988: IBM officially shipped OS/2 version 1.1, which was where the graphical environment, called “Presentation Manager,” was first introduced (1.0 had no GUI). Co-developed by Microsoft and IBM, the OS/2 Presentation Manager bore many graphical resemblances to Microsoft's Windows. Presentation Manager's graphical API was a bit more advanced (having more powerful drawing API's) but was never as successful. Shortly after launch, the relationship between Microsoft and IBM soured. IBM went on to develop OS/2 on its own.

Fun Fact: Steve Ballmer stated that if IBM shipped OS/2 2.0 before the end of 1991, he would eat a floppy disk. IBM shipped a “Limited Availability” release of OS/2 2.0 in November of 1991. Steve never ate that floppy.


September 18, 1989: NeXTstep 1.0's introduction was an important one even if it wasn't, technically, all that revolutionary. This new system contained many user interface features already present in older systems. What made NeXT so interesting was the inclusion of such a wide variety of such concepts coupled with an excellent visual design. Despite these advanced features, the first hardware (and accompanying software) was, unlike nearly every graphical system to ship in the previous half decade, all in black and white. They fixed that later. NeXTstep failed to really catch on until Apple purchased the company in 1996 and re-used it for a new version of MacOS.


June 1993: The “Common Desktop Environment” was a joint venture with Sun, HP, IBM, and the Unix System Laboratories. Based on X11 and Motif, CDE was heavily based on HP's VUE (“Visual User Environment”) that debuted in 1988. It included a dock-like “Front Panel,” virtual desktops, resizable windows, and was a modern and powerful desktop environment. CDE was the king of graphical environments for UNIX throughout much of the 1990's and became open source in 2012.

Interesting Related Tidbit: The same month CDE was announced, “Unix System Laboratories” was purchased by Novell from Bell Labs. Remember the big “SCO v. Novell” case? This is where Novell picked up the rights to UNIX.

Windows 95

August 24, 1995: Microsoft rolled out a pretty major change to Windows user experience. It was big enough of a change and caused enough of an impact in the computing world that it warrants mentioning here. Windows 95's most noteworthy user interface changes over its predecessors were the addition of a taskbar and a menu-based application launcher (aka “The Start Button”). Not groundbreaking, but not poorly done, either.

Horribly Painful Video: Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry starred in a half-hour long promotional video for Windows 95. Microsoft calls it “the first Cyber-Sitcom.” It might be, quite literally, the worst thing on the Internet. Go watch it. All of it.


1997: The Enlightenment desktop environment was released, helmed by a developer named Carsten Haitzler. Specifically, a version known as “E16.” The number of features of E16 were (and still are) truly astounding: Up to 2,048 virtual desktops, the ability to group and move windows together, the ability to reduce the window of a running application down to an icon (which can then be moved around within a desktop), extreme theme-ability and customizability (including the ability to change or entirely remove window borders), and definable key-bindings (and shell commands) for interacting with the graphical interface.

Worth Thinking About: It is now nearly 20 years later, and most modern desktop environments don't even come close to offering some of these features.

KDE 1.0

July 12, 1998: The K Desktop Environment 1.0 was unveiled, spearheaded by a software developer named Matthias Ettrich. Truth be told, this wasn't a revolutionary system. It was a fairly easy-to-use and relatively polished open source desktop environment for UNIX-style systems (including Linux). It did include many of the mainstays of Linux Desktop Environments, including virtual desktops and a fairly high level of customizability. If CDE and Windows 95 had a baby and that baby were open source, it might look something like KDE 1.0.

Extremely Important Tidbit: The “K” originally stood for “Kool.” It was the “Kool Desktop Environment.” Which is both horrible and wonderful all at the same time.


March 3, 1999: GNOME 1.0 was released by a team of open source developers, in large part, as a response to KDE. You see, KDE utilized the Qt UI toolkit, which many felt wasn't compatible with Free Software. In contrast to that, GNOME opted to utilize the Gtk toolkit, which was licensed under the LGPL. Beyond that, truth be told, GNOME didn't really bring many new ideas. But as time went on, the GNOME desktop continued to evolve and refine. Eventually, it managed to grab an incredibly large share of the Linux desktop market.

Fun Fact: GNOME stands for “GNU Network Object Model Environment.” And its logo is a foot. Who says developers don't make great marketers?

Project Looking Glass

2003: Sun Microsystems rolls out an experimental 3D Desktop Environment called “Project Looking Glass.” This 3D environment, available for Linux, Windows, and Solaris, never really caught on itself, but the impact it’s had on newer environments is noticeable. For example, reversible windows -- the ability to flip a window around and have additional controls (notes, settings, etc.) on the back. There are other examples, like the Windows feature where you can scroll through all open windows in a sorta-3D view, or the glassy, 3D-ish looking Dock on MacOS X.

Fun Diversion: This wasn't the only attempt at 3D desktop interfaces. Some less successful attempts can be found at the Croquet Project and Microsoft's TaskGallery.

KDE Plasma

January 11, 2008: A decade after KDE 1.0 helped kick-start the Linux Desktop Environment scene, the KDE team set out to change things. The result was KDE Plasma, a Desktop Environment (or multiple environments) built around re-usable, heavily customizable components. One noteworthy addition was the scalable and rotatable components (thanks in part to heavy usage of vector graphics). The end result is an environment that is fairly adaptable to a variety of form factors and resolutions.

I don't have a fun fact for KDE Plasma. Other than that the K initially stood for “Kool.” Which we talked about previously. This is now something you will never forget, and you will bring up in parties to make you super popular.


June 9, 2010: The team behind the Ubuntu Linux distribution created an application launcher for Netbooks called “Unity.” It consisted of a vertical list of application categories, took up the entirety of the desktop space, and bore similarities to many other “simplified” application launchers over the years. The Ubuntu team liked this approach so much that they opted to build an enhanced version of the Unity interface as the default for Ubuntu. Over time, some interesting new features have found their way into Unity. Most notable was the Unity HUD, which allows the user to access menu items via a shell-like heads-up terminal that learns your common actions. Want to “Copy” some text? Open the HUD and type “Copy.”


April 6, 2011: The initial release of GNOME Shell, a complete redesign of GNOME that accompanied the 3.0 release, ushered in a new era. GNOME Shell contains many usability features that have been around for a long time now: Docks, Window management options where all windows are visible at once, virtual desktops, and many others. Likewise, GNOME Shell's application launcher has a fair bit in common with Ubuntu's Unity application icon grids with searchability. One interesting new feature is a refinement to the way virtual desktops are handled: There is no longer a set number of them. When you open an application, a new empty desktop is created, essentially insuring that you will always have one empty virtual desktop.

Just the surface...

It's amazing how far we've come... yet how little progress has been made. Take another look at the 1968 “Mother of All Demo's” and the 1973 Xerox Alto. Those were over 40 years ago. There were some astounding advancements over the years, but even our mobile devices use a large portion of the same metaphors and concepts (with minor variances). I have to wonder what advancements in the user interface of computing we will see over the next 40 years. Will another remarkable person follow in Douglas Engelbart's footsteps and give “The Mother of All Demo's 2: The Mother of All Demo's-er”?

And, if that demo is given, how long will it take for us all to realize that it has happened?