The Why of the New UI (Part 1)

This is the first in a series of entries in which I outline some of the reasons we decided to pursue a new user interface for Office 2007.

Any discussion about the graphical user interface of computers today has to start all the way back at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s. An amazing and ultimately historic collection of brainpower came together to work on the Alto and later Star systems. A remarkable collection of technologies and concepts that are now commonplace were first incubated at PARC: WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get), the use of the mouse, the desktop metaphor (including folders and icons), overlapping windows, Ethernet, laser printing, and a number of the controls that now encompass the modern user interface: menus, scroll bars, edit controls, check boxes. This picture gives you some idea of what the Star interface looked like. (Some idiosyncrasies of the Star, such as the fact that you had to click on inactive windows in order to cause them to paint, are largely forgotten today.)

(Click to enlarge)

The Star was not a commercial success, and today many technology historians point out that Xerox did not do very much to protect the intellectual property they created. As a result, most people today think of Xerox as just a copier company despite the essential role PARC played in incubating the modern user interface.

Many of the influential contributors to the ideas behind the Star found their way to other companies, notably Microsoft and Apple. Apple was first to borrow and expand upon the ideas of the Star, first in the failed high-end Lisa system and then later in the Macintosh. Lisa standardized a number of designs that are still used in many modern user interfaces: the top-level menu bar, the concept of checking selected menu items and graying out those that are disabled. (The changes weren't all good--some PARC ideas abandoned by Apple, such as proportional scroll bars, didn't make their way back into the mainstream until Windows 95.) If you're interested in a more detailed history with screenshots, Jeremy Reimer has an interesting site.

The Macintosh went on to to inherit much from the Star and Lisa and, of course, the Mac brand name carries on today. Microsoft worked with early Apple prototypes to develop Word 1.0, which shipped in 1984 with the original Mac. Multiplan and Chart were also under development for the 512K Mac, and they eventually shipped together in 1985 as Microsoft Excel 1.0: the first blockbuster retail program available for the Macintosh (and the stated reason many people purchased early Macs.) Here you can see pictures of early Microsoft productivity apps in Apple advertising from 1984

Thus, the roots of the early Microsoft Office programs were rooted in the Mac and of course, the user interface reflected that. As the Mac's first and biggest provider of software (a title Microsoft still holds today), some of the UI decisions made in the original Macintosh were influenced by the needs of Microsoft's development teams. While the extent to which it is admitted this happened varies widely depending on the personal account, it is safe to say that the programs were developed with an intimate understanding of the system and vice versa. Certainly, the basic outline of Office's graphical user interface (especially the use of a top-level menu bar) has its roots in that first Macintosh version.

Next time, we visit "Ye Olde Museum of Office Past" and look at Word for Windows through the ages.