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ArticlesGUIs Get a Facelift


July 1996 / State Of The Art / GUIs Get a Facelift

New grahical user interfaces will change the way developers write software.

Tom R. Halfhill

GUIs are sticky, or at least stuck. Except for relatively minor refinements, they haven't changed much since Apple introduced the Macintosh in 1984. But now they're about to break loose. It's no longer enough for a user interface to offer a graphical view of the local file system of a stand-alone computer. The coming trend in GUIs is to unify a rapidly expanding information space that includes LANs, WANs, the Internet, and the World Wide Web. Users will soon have new and more efficient ways to manage and navigate these vast repositories of digital information.

Some of these changes are coming fast, and they'll impact everything from operating systems to spreadsheets to Web browsers. Whether you're a commercial-software author, an in-house corporate developer, a hobbyist programmer, or a casual user, your work will almost certainly be affected as GUIs struggle through their next stage of evolution.

This summer, for instance, Microsoft plans to introduce an upgrade for Windows 95 and Windows NT that will extend the graphical metaphor of Web browsers to encompass the entire file space, both local and remote. By using familiar-looking Web browser tools and controls, you'll be able to find and display information that resides on your local disk drives, your company's LAN, a private intranet, or the global Internet.

Another influential company that's rethinking the GUI is Apple. Upcoming versions of the Mac OS (code-named Copland and Gershwin) will introduce sophisticated search-and-retrieval tools and a scalable desktop that's easily customized for a wider range of users.

Looking further ahead, even more radical changes are comi ng from the famous user-interface experts at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and from the designers of low-cost network computers. At PARC, researchers are experimenting with fascinating 3-D views and graphical representations of file systems and databases. Meanwhile, the companies leading the charge on network computers--notably Oracle and Acorn--are working on simplified GUIs for business users, students, and consumers who don't necessarily need a conventional graphical desktop.

The Web Metaphor

It's not that today's GUIs are obsolete. Indeed, GUIs have transformed the face of computing over the past 12 years, starting with the Mac and culminating with Windows PCs. But some aspects of GUIs are not keeping pace with changing markets and demands.

First, there's the need to make computers accessible to a broader range of users. As computers become more pervasive in business and society at large, the pool of enthusiastic, knowledgeable use rs becomes a smaller part of the whole. Just because some people aren't thrilled to embrace the wonderful world of computing doesn't mean they don't deserve well-designed software that helps them accomplish their tasks.

Another factor driving GUI evolution is the information explosion. Computers are storehouses for a huge amount of information, but it's of little use if you can't find it. This information is widely distributed across local storage devices (which may exceed a gigabyte), private networks (which may hold terabytes), and the Internet (whose resources surely add up to petabytes). The GUIs, file systems, and applications of the '80s weren't designed for cataloging or navigating such large and widely dispersed archives.

Netscape Navigator, the most popular Web browser, is largely responsible for redefining how users explore the on-line part of this information. Navigator also supports a growing collection of plug-in components that are revolutionizing the way users interact with the da ta they retrieve. Why not extend that metaphor to all the search-and-retrieval functions that users perform on their systems?

"The information space shouldn't have arbitrary boundaries between local information and information that's found elsewhere in the world," says Bruce Horn, a computer-science consultant who formerly worked at Xerox and Apple, where he played a major role in designing the original Mac GUI in the early '80s.

Microsoft is jumping on this idea. The company plans to soon ship an add-on package for Windows 95 and Windows NT that contains a number of Internet-related components. (This package was once referred to as the "Nashville" upgrade for Windows 95, and may be called the Internet Plus Pack when it's released.) Among other things, there will be a new option in Windows, tentatively known as Web View or Page View, that brings the look and feel of a Web site to your local file system and network.

For example, instead of maneuvering through nested f iles and folders with the traditional tree view in Windows Explorer, you can browse your disks with a user interface that resembles Netscape Navigator's. You click on buttons labeled Forward or Back to surf through Web-like pages that Windows creates on the fly in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). You can jump directly to any file or folder by typing a path name, as if it were a uniform resource locator (URL) on the Web. If you enter an actual URL address, you'll link to a real Web page on a remote server.

Web View is similar to the graphical front ends we now see on private intranets, except it doesn't require an HTTP server or separate Web client software. The browser interface is part of Windows and floats above the existing network stack.

Developers can adapt this Web-like GUI to their own programs, and even modify how the OS displays Web Views on the screen. The foundation beneath Web View is an open API that's accessible from any tool that can use ActiveX controls (formerly known as OLE Co ntrols, or OCXes), including Microsoft's Visual Basic, Visual C++, or Borland's Delphi. In the future, says Microsoft product manager Michael Ahern, advanced users will be able to access these features with Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), the scripting language built into some Microsoft Office programs.

The Windows upgrade package installs the new APIs in the form of DLLs and ActiveX controls. For instance, one ActiveX control displays HTML pages; another returns a data stream from a URL-addressed server. There's also a new ActiveX software-development kit for developers. Armed with these components, you can write Internet-aware custom applications that integrate seamlessly into the Web View environment, without understanding the intricacies of HTTP and HTML.

You can also hack the Web View pages that Windows displays. Windows keeps HTML templates for these pages, then calls ActiveX controls to fill in the dynamic data on the fly. By modifying the templates, you can customize the Web Views. A corporation could flash its corporate logo on every page, or automatically display a readme file of pertinent information whenever a user accesses a particular file, folder, or server.

Microsoft is extending the Web metaphor to documents, too. Applications that support the Windows DocObjects API (such as Microsoft Word, Micrografx Designer, and Visio) can display binder documents in Web-like containers. In other words, the document appears on the screen as a highly formatted Web page. This opens the door for third-party developers to write custom applications that also take advantage of the Web metaphor.

Not everyone is convinced this metaphor should be pushed that far, however. "Weaving together content-viewing and information navigation is a neat idea, but not everything makes sense if presented as a Web page," says the consultant Horn. "You could navigate your address book as a Web site, but do you want to? Does a CAD drawing make sense if presented as a Web page?"

Fortunately, Web V iew is only an option--you can ignore it and use Windows the same way you always have. If the Web metaphor turns out to be merely an interesting experiment instead of a significant step forward in GUI evolution, it'll go down in history as just another of the periodic makeovers that Windows users have come to expect. (No GUI has changed as much as Windows has in the past decade.) But even if it's not the Holy Grail of GUIs--a one-size-fits-all solution--the idea of browsing the entire information space with a common front end has a lot of appeal.

Scaling the Wall

Microsoft and Apple are by far the leading vendors of system software, so they exert irresistible influence over the look and feel of applications that run on their OSes. Now they are traveling along paths that are both convergent and divergent. For example, both companies are developing advanced file systems that apply object-oriented principles and database technology to the problem of managing vast stores of inform ation. But Apple is taking a different approach to browsing that information within a GUI.

Instead of adopting the Web metaphor, Apple is working toward a more conventional user interface that's scalable, somewhat like a computer game with multiple difficulty levels. Apple's goal is to present a graphical desktop that grows with users and allows them to transfer their newly learned skills to higher levels. But unlike a game, it won't have distinct stages. Users (or system administrators) will be able to customize nearly every aspect of the interface for a wide range of skill levels.

"People talk about computer users as if they belong to discrete categories, such as beginners or experts," says Paulien Strijland, manager of Apple Computer's Human Interface Design Center. "But some users are beginners in some areas and experts in others."

Some of this thinking will show up in Copland, the next major release of the Mac OS, which will probably ship in early 1997. More elements will appear in G ershwin, a later release. Copland will incorporate most of the features of Apple's At Ease, a stand-alone product for today's Macs that strips down the Finder to single-click buttons for launching applications, a limited selection of menu items, and restricted access to software folders. Copland will allow multiple users sharing the same machine to have their own customized environments, or workspaces, which can be optionally protected by passwords. (Apple says two-thirds of all Macs are shared by more than one user.)

These workspaces will include user-selectable themes, or personalities that radically alter the appearance (though not the basic functions) of the GUI. You can customize the Finder to display windows, menus, and dialogs with bright colors and squiggly lines, or configure it to mimic the dark, brooding tableaux of cyberpunk science-fiction films.

These changes shouldn't cause problems for software developers. Apple is implementing the new features in the Mac OS Toolbox, so existing applications will automatically inherit the behaviors. One notable exception: The simplified options in the Finder don't echo throughout applications. Developers who want to offer similar features will have to add new customization options to their programs.

Apple is also building Web-like search-and-retrieval tools into Copland, though within the framework of a conventional GUI. On the Web, you don't usually search for information by looking for specific filenames; you look for topical keywords by using search engines, such as Yahoo or Alta Vista. Copland will dynamically and transparently maintain an index of all textual information contained in the Mac file system, just as Web crawlers, like Alta Vista, do for the Web. You can quickly retrieve files by searching for keywords. After each search, Copland displays a list of hits sorted heuristically by relevance , much like the hit lists returned by Web searchers. You can save your search parameters as a clickable icon, and Copland will dynamically update the results to match the changing contents of your file system.

For now, however, Apple is not offering a common user interface for all search functions--whether local or remote--as Microsoft is doing with its Web View. Copland's designers say they don't rule out this option, but they hesitate to move away from a stable and successful GUI that millions of people are comfortable with. "We don't take lightly the introduction of new user-interface gadgets or widgets, even if they're something we personally think is cool," says Mitch Stein, Apple's director of human interface technologies.

Thus, for the first time, Microsoft is adopting a GUI that wasn't pioneered by Apple. It will be an ironic turnabout if Microsoft's Web View proves so popular that Apple feels compelled to follow suit.

On the Horizon

Two more developments that could radically change our concept of GUIs are network computers and 3-D graphics. Interestingly, software designer s seem to be taking these technologies in opposite directions. Some prototype network computers have greatly simplified GUIs, even discarding such familiar elements as overlapping windows and pull-down menus. But the GUIs built with 3-D graphics and other advanced techniques are cramming more information than ever onto the screen.

Network computers will probably be extremely diverse, so it's risky to make generalizations based on early prototypes. However, the reference design that Oracle previewed in February sported a GUI that was obviously intended for computer-illiterate consumers. No windows, no menus, no complicated file system. Instead, there were just a few one-click icons that launched a Web browser, an e-mail program, and a selection of games.

Of course, network computers aren't just for neophyte consumers. In schools and businesses, where they're supposed to dramatically reduce administrative costs, the GUI will be tailored for specific applications. An order-entry program or a databa se-retrieval system might abandon the complexity of a full-powered GUI in favor of a single-purpose front end that's less vulnerable to tampering and is therefore easier to maintain. The goal of this kind of GUI is to limit, not expand, the user's choices. It's an indication that future GUIs might be more targeted for particular types of users--a departure from the one-size-fits-all quest. (See "Inside the Web PC," March BYTE.)

Perhaps that's why the early examples of GUIs that take advantage of 3-D and higher-resolution graphics appear to be aimed at power users. With an extra dimension and more pixels to play with, designers can't seem to resist creating more complex views that allow users to navigate file systems and databases in new ways. At Xerox PARC, for example, researchers are experimenting with perspective views and hyperbolic graphics that can extend infinitely into virtual space, just like the file systems and databases they represent.

It's becoming clear that the relatively slow pro gress of GUIs over the past decade was only a transition period; PCs needed time to complete their move from DOS to graphical desktops. But that was just the first step. GUIs will continue to evolve because today's desktop metaphor isn't ideal for all kinds of users, and new demands are straining the ability of conventional GUIs to keep up. Tomorrow's graphical interfaces will reflect the growing diversity of users and the new tasks they need to accomplish.


Where to Find


Apple Computer

Cupertino, CA
Phone:    (800) 776-2333 or (408) 996-1010
Internet: 
http://www.info.apple.com


Microsoft

Redmond, WA
Phone:    (800) 426-9400 or (206) 882-8080
Fax:      (206) 635-6100
Internet: 
http://www.microsoft.com


Xerox PARC

Palo Alto, CA
Phone:    (415) 812-4000
Internet: 
http://www.parc.xerox.com


HotBYTEs
 - information on products covered or advertised in BYTE


Recommended Reading for Software Developers


The Windows Interface Guidelines for Software Design

Microsoft Developer Network Development Library (CD-ROM)
Internet: 
http://www.microsoft.com


Programming the Windows 95 User Interface

Nancy Cluts, Microsoft Developer
Network Technology Group
Microsoft Press, 1996

Making It Macintosh: The Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines Companion (CD-ROM)

Apple Computer
Internet: 
http://www.apple.com



Tomorrow's Interface

illustration_link (28 Kbytes)

Tomorrow's GUIs will be simple, customizable, and able to display local and remote data.


GUIs Go Network

screen_link (38 Kbytes)

Microsoft's new Web View for Windows 95 (top) and NT extends the metaphor of Web browsing (note the toolbars) to the entire file system and network.


Copland's New Search Tool

screen_link (47 Kbytes)

Apple's new search tool in Copland displays a hit list ranked by relevance (at bottom) , much like the search engines on the Web .


Visual Recall

screen_link (61 Kbytes)

XSoft's Visual Recall, based on technology developed at Xerox PARC, displays a 3-D perspective view of a large database.


Tom R. Halfhill is a BYTE senior editor based in San Mateo, California. You can reach him at thalfhill@bix.com .

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