In today's world, we take the graphical user interface (GUI) for granted. Even if you have no idea what I just said, you STILL take GUI's for granted. You almost certainly use one at some point in your life, even if you don't use a computer very often. Every time you use a bank machine, you do so with a GUI.
This timeline, from the blog Room 101, is a nice succinct history of the development of modern PC GUI's. It gives a very detailed pictorial view of the evolution of the GUI from the first Mac's, through today's Vista. I particularly like the inclusion of the oft-overlooked early MS Windows products. Windows 1 and 2 rarely get much mention these days ... to read most accounts, you'd think Windows 3.0 sprung forth from the loins of Microsoft as a wholly new product/idea, instead of a modification of two mostly unsuccessful attempts at a GUI. For people who think that Microsoft is the king of Windows, this is pretty clear evidence that in the early days, it was Apple, not Microsoft, that "did Windows." Comparing the crispness and clarity of the 1984 Macintosh System 1 with late 1985's Microsoft Windows 1, its easy to see that Apple was by far the more professional delivery. Even today, more than 20 years later, I marvel at the sheer simplicity and clarity of that 1984 Mac System 1.
But while the time-line was very interesting, I was a bit disappointed that it didn't start in the right place. There's little doubt that Macintosh System 1 represents the first large scale commercial application of GUI technology that got widespread consumer use, but it was by no means the first functioning GUI, nor even the first commercial GUI in a home computer system. Xerox, not Apple, deserves that distinction. Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) is legendary for a number of reasons, not least because they pioneered the first GUI computer with the Xerox Alto.
Alto was years ahead of its time, pioneering such GUI concepts as point and click, and the icon, as well as an Ethernet connection. For 1973, that was all pretty darned high-tech, and while the Alto was a technical success and in many ways represents one of the first desktop computers made, it never made a huge impact in the consumer market. Several thousand were made, but most saw use in educational institutions.
A Xerox Star Desktop
Alto's true legacy comes largely from it's offspring, the Xerox Star. The Star's desktop is the first real example of something that we would recognize today as a GUI interface. It was a commercial failure, largely because it was overpriced and under-powered, but it clearly represents the first GUI desktop in commercial production.
My second issue with this timeline is that it ignores a large niche segment of the desktop market, the UNIX/Linux desktop. UNIX was a late-comer to the GUI, and people who work with UNIX on a daily basis almost ALWAYS prefer to use a command line interface (CLI) over a GUI. But since the development of Linux in the early 90's, a variety of Linux desktops such as FVWM, AfterStep, and later KDE and Gnome have evolved to become full featured GUI's. Early UNIX desktops include Sun's OpenWindows, SGI's IRIX/X-Windows (open source versions of X-Windows became the backbone for early Linux window managers), and IBM's Common Desktop Environment, or CDE (KDE is an open source version of CDE) .
Overall, it's an excellent timeline. The fact it's somewhat incomplete will really only be annoying to a very geeky person, such as myself. It further omits DEC's OpenVMS/DECWindows, and the revolutionary (though overpriced) NeXT system from Steve Jobs, along with other niche desktops. That's really a minor complaint though ... it hits all the highlights of the development of the modern PC GUI.