Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

The Death of Windows


Many people credit Xerox’s PARC with the creation of today’s ubiquitous Graphic User Interface (GUI). This was also known, less formally, as WIMP: Window, Icon, Menu and Pointing device. Today we point with fingers, then it was the new mouse.

There wasn’t much new about Menus, but Icons were new, being necessary to graphically represent things. What was really new, and absolutely essential to all GUIs past and present, was the concept of Windows. (Years before Microsoft took the name.)

I saw my first mouse a good ten years before Xerox PARC got started. About the same time, Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad hit the conference circuit and everyone saw the computer’s graphic capabilities. Windows came twenty years later.

Demonstrations showed what windows could really do, and a number of things were immediately evident. Each window was like a separate screen, running anything from numbers to graphs to entire operating systems.

You could move windows to any position on the screen and resize them. Change the size, and the window added vertical and horizontal scroll bars—no matter its size, you could still see all its contents. Each window was its own virtual monitor.

Early demos of various windows-based operating systems showed many windows of various sizes. Nowadays, not only do you rarely see screens doing this, most software makes the assumption that its window requires the whole screen.

The massive shift to smaller devices with smaller displays no longer needs windows. There may be many millions of larger displays on desktops and full-size laptops, but Windows 8 shows the push to simpler displays on all devices.

I have to wonder which came first: less need for windows or programmers who lacked the necessary skills? Is it possible that the majority of new programmers come from the world of small devices and have no experiences with resizable windows?

Given the quality of the windows I see, I have to believe that too many programmers lack experience with full-sized displays. Is this simple reason why so many windows don’t work correctly?

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