1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

Summary: ZDNet's 20th anniversary: In 1991, the world received the graphical user interface. Here's a look.


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    Perhaps the first "Killer App" for PC's, Lotus' 1-2-3 character mode DOS spreadsheet was still king in 1991, even though Microsoft's Excel had already been out for several years on Windows, Mac and OS/2. In 1989, Lotus released 1-2-3 version 2.2, which used "Expanded Memory" in order for users to take advantage of the larger memory capabilities of the Intel 286 and 386 chips.
    In 1990, Lotus 1-2-3 had a 54 percent share of the market, with Microsoft way in behind at 12 percent. Lotus 1-2-3 had numerous competitors in the space, including Borland's Quattro Pro. While 1-2-3 continued to be popular for many years, eventually, its dominance came to an end with the rise of Windows 3.1 and Excel.
    Lotus eventually produced a graphical version for Windows as part of its SmartSuite series of office suites (which included the Ami Pro word processor and the Freelance Graphics presentation application) but it never was able to to return to its glory days and its market share waned.
    Today, Lotus 1-2-3's spirit lives on as the Spreadsheet app IBM's Symphony 3 office suite, which is a cross-platform free product that runs on Windows, Linux and Mac.

    While the name is virtually unknown today, Ashton-Tate was a prosperous software company in its day. Its flagship product, dBase, was the first widely-used database management system (DBMS) for PCs. Like Lotus 1-2-3, it was a character-mode app. dBase was a hierarchical database, in that it organizes data in a tree-like structure. Prior to the introduction of PC databases such as Borland's Paradox, Clipper, FoxPro and Microsoft Access which introduced relational database capability into their products, dBase was considered to be one of the most important and popular productivity apps.
    Numerous clones of dBase, known collectively as "xBase" were all over the market.  
    In 1991, Ashton-Tate merged with Borland, a company primarily known for its development of its C++ and Pascal language products. dBase's and xBase-type systems fell in popularity when the industry moved to Microsoft Access, Visual FoxPro and SQL-based systems using client-server technology. 

    Long before there was PowerPoint, there was Harvard Graphics. If you wanted to do presentation graphics with charts and graphs -- the types of things we take for granted today, you had to go to the Software Publishing Corporation (SPC). 
    First released in 1986, Harvard Graphics could import data from Lotus 1-2-3, and export graphics so that word processing programs could embed them in documents. While extremely primitive by today's standards with modern presentation applications such as Microsoft PowerPoint, OpenOffice/LibreOffice Present, IBM Lotus Symphony Presentations or Apple's Keynote, it was an important component of the 1990-1991 office productivity repertoire until PowerPoint took the stage. SPC and Harvard Graphics was purchased by British company Serif in 2001.

Topic: Apple


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • No mention of Mac OS?

    Seriously? You mentioned NeXT, OS/2, and a host of non-GUI programs but failed to mention Mac OS (aside from the brief mention of OS X in the NeXT description)?
    • RE: 1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

      @ye: apple crybaby
      • LOL! That's a new one. Usually I'm branded a Windows shill.

        @poch333: <i>apple crybaby</i><br><br>And pointing out Mac OS is missing hardly qualifies as being a cry baby. Mac OS was an important part of history.
    • RE: 1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

      @ye I agree, Macintosh had the GUI in 1984 and yet they get no mention of that. Then they show Photoshop and Corel Draw, both of which are on the Mac OS. What a bunch of poor research and writing.
    • RE: 1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

      @ye NeXT IS Mac OS X. I also discussed system 7 on the slide about Photoshop.
      • I said Mac OS, not OS X.

        @jperlow: [i]NeXT IS Mac OS X.[/i]

        Mac OS pre-dated OS X by approximately 17 years. I think it was a gross omission.

        [i] I also discussed system 7 on the slide about Photoshop.[/i]

        And? A cursory mention is all you can give it? IMO Mac OS was certainly deserving of its own mention. Especially when you spoke to DOS, DESQView, Lotus 1-2-3, dBase, WordPerfect , etc which aren't even GUI programs.
      • RE: 1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)


        Yes but you imply that the first GUI OS was made in 1991, and that is not even close to being accurate.
  • RE: 1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

    In 1993 I was using Lotus 1-2-3 2.2 to generate data I would copy and paste into Lotus Freelance 3.01 for DOS to generate charts that I would save as .EPS files before importing them into WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS.

    In 2011 I use MS Excel to generate data that I copy and paste into PowerPoint to generate charts that I export as enhanced Windows metafiles that I import into Word documents.

    The more things change....

    (OLE has never worked, ever, for anyone!)
    • RE: 1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

      @meyestone <br><br>In 1993 I was doing the same as you.<br><br>But in 2011 my life is very different from yours. OLE works for me and gets used occasionally. But I don't need OLE all the time, since each of the Office apps is so powerful that I can often use one to do the whole job (especially Excel, which does deep analysis and can present to results beautifully).<br><br>Finally, the object model behind Office allows us to automate the process of making the tools work together. An Excel workbook which with one click creates a complete presentation in PowerPoint (using a PowerPoint template embedded with the OLE - which works just fine).<br><br>One could say. "In 1993 we typed on a keyboard and saw the result on a video monitor. And that is exactly the same as we do today". Equally you can make what we both did with 1-2-3, Freelance and WordPerfect sound like what we do today. But in my case, it is totally different.
  • 1984 was the year the world got GUI

    Hey folks, I know that XEROX's PARC has GUI goodies running before 1984, but that was the date that Macintosh brought GUI to the world. I'm a Windows guy, and even I know that :-)
    • RE: 1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

      @SteveMak - Mac *popularised* the GUI to the world; however, as you acknowledge, Apple most certainly weren't the first, contrary to what most Mac users seem to have been brainwashed to think.

      The Xerox Alto launched in **1973** with a full GUI (icons, windows, scrollbars etc), mouse and ethernet networking (the latter of which Apple didn't add to the Mac for years, believing the floppy disk to be an acceptable alternative!).

      That said, I agree the title of this article is bizarre - I don't see how 1991 was a particularly important milestone in the history of GUIs! :/
      • RE: 1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

        @techrepublic@... How many did they sell to the general public? Exactly ZERO.


        The Xerox Alto was an early personal computer developed at Xerox PARC in 1973. It was the first computer to use the desktop metaphor and mouse-driven graphical user interface (GUI).

        It was not a commercial product, but several thousand units were built and were heavily used at PARC, other Xerox facilities, and at several universities for many years. The Alto greatly influenced the design of personal computers in the following decades, notably the Apple Macintosh and the first Sun workstations. It is now very rare and is a valuable collector's item.
    • RE: 1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

      The "ALL" part of the title makes it clear that the assumption is that most people started using GUI through Microsoft software. Which is true given Microsoft's popularity. Therefore the article is not about the year GUI was invented, but more about when GUI became accessible to everyone.
  • Novell

    I think one of the things that caused Novell to shrink in its market share was the lack of a GUI long after Win 95 came out. The menu driven system was good if you knew what parts of the menu tree to use for different functions; but it was distracting to have to exit a submenu and move to different submenus in a heirarchical way that was rigid.
    • Novell

      @sboverie@... lack of a GUI

      Well you are talking about a NOS here, not your standard desktop. I was maintaining a OS/2 network and several Novell networks at the same time and it was far easier to navigate around the Novell admin programs than OS/2. A GUI didn't really do anything to help the server.
  • RE: 1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

    The Atari and Amiga had it long before!
    • RE: 1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

      @kjrider@... Absolutely. I was using GUI based Dr. T's Tiger sequencing software on the Atari 1040st around '88 or '89, not to mention other software for graphics, word processing and spreadsheet/data base.
  • And what about GEOS?

    GEOS OS for the Commodore 64 was relased in 1986. No love for the Commodore either.
  • OS/2 is still used in some

    Up until 1998 I was consulting for a major utility company which was deploying new custom software to over 3,000 OS/2 warp desktop computers. I'm certain that OS/2 still dominates the desktop there, perhaps it's unusual.

    As recently as a few years ago I was able to find OS/2 drivers for modern hardware and install OS/2 Warp 4 on a desktop.. No sound card support, but I found network drivers.
  • RE: 1991: The Year We All Got GUI (photos)

    I was using GS/OS (on the Apple ][GS) in 1987. And, as everyone knows, Mac's GUI came out in 1984. I didn't use Windows as my primary OS until around 92 or 93, but by then, I'd been using GUI's for 5 or 6 years. Also, Windows 1.0 came out in 1985, so I'm not sure what the significance of 1991 is in regards to GUIs. The "world" was certainly "introduced" to GUIs when the Mac came out in 1984.
    Software Architect 1982