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GUI Gets a Makeover

Sleeker, more contextual user interfaces with support for very large screens and gesture-based interaction are in the offing.

September 25, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The graphical user interface — keyboard, mouse, windowing system — has dominated personal computing for the past 20 years. GUIs today represent the culmination of innovative work at organizations ranging from Xerox PARC in the ’70s to Apple Computer Inc. in the ’80s. But it was Microsoft Corp. that popularized it for mainstream business computing in the ’90s. Today, Windows and the Office productivity suite have become the GUI standard-bearers for the business desktop.

With major revisions of both products ready to roll out, the enterprise desktop GUI is getting its first significant face-lift in years. Most of those changes, such as the Aero 3-D features in Windows Vista, are small steps forward. Others, such as Office 2007’s ribbon bar, represent a bigger leap — both for the GUI and for end users.

More changes lie ahead. The GUI will get better at simplifying user options by filtering them down based on social or operational contexts — or where a mobile computing device is being used, researchers say. Tomorrow’s GUIs will adapt to bigger screens and multiple displays by rearranging the desktop and relegating different content to primary and secondary displays. Larger display acreage could also push gesture-based input devices such as touch screens, digitizing pads and the stylus into the mainstream.

The increased complexity of today’s computer systems is forcing change upon the GUI. As the number of features has exploded, users have been overwhelmed with layer after layer of icons, tool bars and menu options.

Both Office 2007 and Vista include user interface changes designed to the reduce visual clutter and help users find what they’re looking for. Vista’s Thumbnail Taskbar, for example, shows images of running applications in the task switcher or when the user moves the cursor over program icons in the taskbar. Live icons allow similar visual navigation for documents.A new Sidebar feature introduces a transparent pane of “Gadgets” — single-function applets such as a clock or calendar. And Aero’s 3-D effects make the desktop appear less cluttered by making windows transparent.

Office 2007 tweaks include previews that show how selected text will look when the cursor hovers over a style option, and font options that now show what the desired font looks like. But the biggest changes Microsoft has made involve the removal of traditional pull-down menus and the introduction of a contextual ribbon bar. Perhaps no productivity software has suffered more from features bloat than Microsoft Office, so it’s no surprise that Microsoft has attacked this problem in Office 2007.

“Creators of the paradigms of menus and tool bars never anticipated that software would be able to do as much as it does today,” says Jensen Harris, principal lead program manager for Office. While Word and other early programs had 10 to 30 features each, the word processing application now has some 1,500 and the Office suite has more than 10,000.

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