What is a graphical user interface?

We explain what a graphical user interface is, what they are used for and the benefits over command-line interfaces

A windows GUI

It's hard to imagine, particularly now as almost everything comes with a touchscreen, that computers didn't initially come with a graphical user interface (GUI). One of the reasons it is hard to image is because computers need them to become more user-friendly and, as such, more sellable. 

The invention of the GUI ushered in a new era for computers and brought them into the lives of more people - not just those that knew how to code. It linked the monitor with keyboards and mice, and today they allow a range of different inputs, such as touchscreens and even voice commands

Websites are also hugely dependent on GUIs, particularly blogging platforms like WordPress which are almost entirely hinged on GUI systems. Previously a website could only be built with extensive coding skills, but WordPress users can create with icons and images, rather than HTML or CSS.

Apple was one of the first companies to fully embrace GUIs, implementing one on its Lisa and Macintosh computers. Since those early days, the technology has advanced into a wide range of applications and use cases. Not just on computers, but mobile phones, car dashboards, websites and even TVs. 

What are the benefits of a graphical user interface?

The major benefit of a GUI is that systems using one are accessible to people of all levels of knowledge, from an absolute beginner to an advanced developer or other tech-savvy individuals. They make it simple for anyone to open menus, move files, launch programmes or search the internet without having to tell the computer via the command line to carry out a function.

GUIs also provide instant feedback. Clicking an icon will open it up, for example, and this can be seen in real-time. Using a command-line interface, you won't know whether it's a valid entry until you hit return; if it's not valid, nothing will happen.

What are the disadvantages of using a graphical user interface?

Because the elements are graphics rather than text, GUIs can use a lot more processing power compared to a standard text-based UI.

Additionally, advanced users can find GUIs frustrating, because often a chain of actions will have to happen (such as opening up a menu, navigating to the file you want to open, clicking it) before the process is complete. With a text or command-line UI, one single line can be inputted and it will be actioned.

The history of graphical user interfaces

The first graphical user interface was developed in 1981 at Xerox PARC by Alan Kay, Douglas Engelbart alongside other researchers who realised that having a graphical representation of an operating system would make it more accessible to the masses.

The first commercial use of a GUI was in the Apple Lisa computer in 1983. Before this, computers such as MS-DOS and Linux used command-line UIs, as their usage was limited to advanced business users rather than consumers.

Apple's Lisa computer

A year later, the Apple Macintosh became the most popular commercial computer with a GUI. Microsoft followed suit in 1985 with Windows 1.0, although Windows 2.0 was a significant improvement when it was launched in 1997. It wasn't until 1995 and the launch of Windows 95 that Microsoft caught up with Apple's commercial success in the world of GUI systems.

What could a graphical user interface be used for?

GUIs are used for the majority of computer operating systems, mobile operating systems and software in existence. Although some operating systems, such as Linux, still use command-line interfaces, this makes them less mainstream because they are only suitable for those who have an in-depth knowledge of commands.

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