Shells vs. GUI's vs. Muhammed Ali
Date: Wed, 13 Apr 94 13:58:59 PDT
Subject: Shells vs. GUI's vs. Muhammed Ali
Forwarded-by: bostic@vangogh.CS.Berkeley.EDU (Keith Bostic)
Forwarded-by: firstname.lastname@example.org Wed Apr 13 07:15:09 1994
Forwarded-by: Glenn Gilbert <GGILBERT@mars4post.unitedkingdom.ncr.co.uk>
In response to the holy gospel of:
[Shells are great, GUI's are greater, Finder vs. Workbench, etc...]
I am getting TIRED of all you people comparing user interfaces,
shells and GUI's, etc, when you all have absolutely NO IDEA what you are
talking about!! I think you all need a lesson in user interface history.
The following text should make it all PERFECTLY CLEAR and stop these
POINTLESS "shell vs. GUI" arguments for good.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF USER INTERFACES
Thousands of years ago, back in Paleolithic times, user interfaces
were very primitive. They essentially consisted of a thick, wooden club
that was used to "access" your enemy's brains. Simple but effective, this
interface has since been adopted by the famed BLAZEMONGER "Customer
At first, there was little or no standardization; users had to
learn entirely new methods of "access" for human enemies, mammoths,
mastodons, Saber-C tigers, etc. But as time went on, people settled on two
basic modes of use:
(A) Run as fast as you can in a straight line, bashing
everything in sight.
(B) Stand in one place, swinging the club wildly in all
These 2 modes became so popular that they were given names that have
survived to this day: "sequential access" and "random access."
This went on for centuries, with users happily "accessing" each
others' bodily parts with bigger and bigger clubs, until the 20th century,
when the COMPUTER was invented. Tired of crushing each other's skulls,
users flocked to the new invention, eager to put their talents to new uses,
like playing video games and building "Star Wars" missile systems.
The first computer user interface consisted of a large button on
the front panel, labeled "0". By pressing this button repeatedly, users
could "program" the computer to do all kinds of tasks. Sadly, none of
these programs worked, and the scientists could not figure out why.
Then, in 1962, some dweeb finally had the idea to add a "1" button,
and the Computer Age officially began.
But pressing "0" and "1" buttons was not anybody's favorite
pastime, so some other dweeb invented the computer terminal. Thanks to
this clever device, with over 50 different keys, users were able to
create bugs and cause crashes dozens of times faster than before.
But at least the hardware was now in place, so it was time to address the
software issues of user interfaces.
First, there was the command-line interface. This allowed users
to type a line of text representing a "command", press the RETURN key, and
receive a response like "0x38754: ERROR_NOTEXT_PETUNIA". Thanks to this
handy software tool, the suicide rate rose almost overnight.
But in the mid 1970's, the clever folks at AT&T invented the UNIX
"shell". This was a SIGNIFICANT advance over ordinary command-line
interfaces, as the following example shows:
ORDINARY COMMAND-LINE INTERFACE:
$ cat myfile
Segmentation fault - core dumped
For many years, command-line interfaces dominated the computer
market. Smart computer buyers began to compare the power of different
operating systems by how much they let you tailor the command-line
prompt. For example, my friend John would only use computers that let
him set the prompt to:
Nobody knew why. Eventually, John was given a job in the Federal
But these years of happy command-lining were fated to end. Behind
the scenes, those clever folks at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto useR interfaCes)
were creating a completely graphic user interface. We modern computer users
are familiar with windows, icons, and clicking, but the first attempts at
Xerox PARC were quite different from this. For example, the early version
of the "mouse" was shaped more like a semi-automatic machine gun. To select
an icon, users would point it at the screen, click the button, and blast the
icon to pieces. This was great fun, and kept the Xerox programmers amused
for months. Eventually, the Xerox hardware engineers developed a device
more like the modern mouse, and the programmers used that instead -- point,
click, and the icon blows up. Alternatively, you could drag the icon around
the screen, smearing blood and guts all over the place.
After a few years of fun and games, some dweeb at Xerox PARC finally
had the idea that the icons could be used to represent FILES. WOW!!! The
world had many responses to the Xerox breakthrough. Computer users
congratulated Xerox for this brilliant manuever. The President of the
United Nations pinned a medal right on the Xerox building! And Apple
Computer stole the idea outright and created the Macintosh.
The "Mac" truly brought computing power to the common people. Even
the most naive, ignorant Mac user was able, with a simple mouseclick, to
cause a spectacular crash. This same philosophy has stayed with the machine
through the years. The most recent operating system version is called
"System 7", which to me sounds like a bad science-fiction TV show, and it
has many new and exciting features. One of the most novel features is the
"Help Balloon" mode, which allows the user to see what anything on the
screen is thinking to itself. Unfortunately, most computer icons and menu
items are very boring thinkers, so the balloons usually say things like "I
wonder when the user will click on me" or "Will you PLEASE move me away from
the 'HyperMoose' icon -- it smells really bad!"
In 1985, two new machines with GUI's appeared on the market:
the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga. The ST's graphic user interface
is called "GEM", which stands for "Graphic User Interface". Although
initially popular, the ST has died a slow death, partly due to operating
system bugs, such as the infamous "40 folder limit". If the user tried
to create more than 40 subdirectories inside a directory, Jack Tramiel
would come to his house and whack him on the head with a thick, wooden
club. This caused permanent braindamage in many ST users, and they can
still be found to this day saying things on the Net like "Tramiel is God"
and "Amigas can't multitask".
The Commodore Amiga was introduced with version 1.0 of its
system software. This combined a great CLI, a great GUI, and the
awesome ability to crash 12 times per hour. Following this success,
versions 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 were released rapidly over a short period of
only 25 years.
But the real Amiga breakthrough came with the introduction of
Amiga OS 2.04. Originally, this was available only on Amiga 3000's
sold in Albania to certified developers who knew the secret password and
Marc Barrett's social security number; but after a mere 400 years, it was
made available to the public.
OS 2.04 was the first version to make the GUI "Workbench" truly
usable. In previous versions, dragging an icon with the mouse required the
user to hold down seven or eight different keys simultaneously while dancing
the "Funky Chicken". In addition, not all files had icons, meaning that the
Workbench could not access them. But thanks to version 2.04, every file
now has over FOUR HUNDRED different icons, for a totally streamlined
and efficient interface.
SHELLS VS. GUI'S
With both shells and GUI's now in existence, each has its fans and
enemies. Proponents of GUI's say they can do ANYTHING as well as shells
In fact, street corners in major cities are often occupied by these people,
stopping random folks as they pass by, and saying things like "I can do that
in FEWER than THREE mouse-clicks!!" Currently, there is legislation pending
that will make such comments punishable by heavy fines and/or death.
On the other hand, proponents of shells say that GUI's are a waste of
time. They commonly cite examples like the "delete wildcard" problem. From
birth, all shell users are able to type ridiculously complicated "delete"
commands like the following:
1> delete #?.(a|A?)*&-2^5%%*.*vavoom!
which says, of course, to delete all files named #?.(a|A?)*&-2^5%%*.*vavoom!
"Let's see you do THAT with a GUI!" they cry. The GUI users are silent
about this, mainly because they are all out doing useful work instead,
like blowing up icons with a mouse.
In any event, most people today admit that the ease-of-use of a
shell FAR exceeds the "thick wooden club" interface of Paleolithic
times. But designers haven't stopped working on the problem of
friendlier and more useful interfaces. So we now have...
MORE MODERN USER INTERFACES
Extended keyboards. Touch screens. 5-button joysticks. Virtual
reality. MIDI synthesizers. Light pens. Cardboard boxes. Hand grenades.
Canned tuna. Vaginal warts. All of these concepts have affected the way
people use computers. Thanks to modern research, many new and "hybrid"
interfaces have been developed. The following is a brief description
of some of the more interesting ones.
(1) Point 'n hit-return
Clicking on the icon inserts text into the command line,
which can then be edited. Press RETURN when done.
(2) Type 'n click
The user types a command. Every key pressed on the keyboard
causes an icon to be displayed on the screen. When finished
typing, drag select or double-click the entire set of icons.
Or just drag them into the trashcan... whichever is more
(3) Point 'n spit
Instead of a mouse, the user chews a large wad of tobacco
or a small, dead animal. To activate an icon, merely
spit at the screen.
(4) The pepperoni pizza interface
The screen contains an image of a large pizza. The crust
represents the operating system, the cheese is the windowing
system, and the toppings are the individual files. Using
a digital pizza cutter, the user hacks off a piece of the
pizza and deposits it into an onscreen "mouth" which
then digests the information. A resounding belch comes
from the internal disk drive, and it is ready for the
(5) The BLAZEMONGER interface
This is, of course, the ULTIMATE interface. It consists of
a hunk of raw meat that is hurled with high velocity at a
"touch screen". If it hits the right icon, the user is
rewarded by NOT having his/her nipples torn off with
That ends our little tour of user interface history. This should
clear up all the .advocacy arguments from the past 3 or 4 months.
If you are interested in learning more about user interface history
and comparisons, I suggest that you check out some of the following
o "The History of User Interface Design", by Harold Dweeb,
Linda Dweeb, and the Dweeb-ettes.
o "Shell Design", by Ima Clam.
o "I'm a User... I'm a Loser... I'm a Mac Plus Chooser", by
The Steve Miller/Steve Jobs Band.
o "Deleting Files: It's Not Just For Shells Anymore",
by Peter Norton and Oliver North.
o "Really, Really, REALLY Graphic User Interfaces", by Adolf
Hitler and BLAZEMONGER INCORPORATED.
o "UI's for U and I", by the cast of Sesame Street.
| Dan Barrett -- Dept of Computer Science, Lederle Graduate Research Center
| University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003 -- email@example.com
© 1994 Peter Langston