30 years before Samsung: When Apple sued Microsoft

In 1988, Windows 2.0 triggered Apple's first interface trial. That copyright suit offers a key lesson in innovation: There's more than one way to paint a GUI.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

For longtime watchers and users in the Mac market, last week's verdict feels like a bit of payback. Yes, this time it's Apple against Samsung, but it's really a win against the rival OS vendor Google. Back in the early days of the Mac OS, it was Microsoft, and Mac fans are still a bit rankled by how that fight went down 25 or so years ago. Yet, the history offers a bit of hope that there's more than one way to paint a GUI.

It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the only GUI computer on the market was the Macintosh (okay, and maybe the Lisa, later known as the Mac XL). Programs associated today with the Microsoft Windows platform such as Word and Excel started out on the Mac platform.

In November 1985, Microsoft launched Windows to little impact in the PC market. DOS users and business leaders really believed in batch and command-line computing and distrusted the expensive GUI systems. We can't understand this today since there's a GUI interface on almost every computing device, from your phone to your printer.

However, over several years, Microsoft refined the interface — in other words, making it more like the Macintosh. In 1988, Microsoft released Windows 2.0, which incorporated more Mac features, and this triggered a copyright suit over interface elements. Microsoft countersued saying that Apple had given permission to make derivative works from the Mac OS and Mac programs.

Unlike its position in latest suit, Apple wasn't the big player in the market; it had a solid market share, especially if you added up Apple computers and Macintosh. But Microsoft DOS and Windows computers were the primary platforms for business computing and then for personal computing.

The trial went on and on for years. There were no injunctions. Microsoft kept refining Windows and released Windows 3.0 in 1990 (and the popular, stable version 3.1 in 1992). Each new version was added to the case.

But as the years came and went, the market became increasingly familiar with the conventions of graphical interface computing — again meaning Macintosh idioms, although in the guise of Windows. The older, predominant DOS computing was ignored and Windows became the new, natural way to compute.

In the trial, this market reality was reflected in 1992 by a drastic narrowing of the issues. If an interface element was considered the only way to accomplish some task or function, then it couldn't be copyrighted. The scope of the trial was reduced by declaring the Mac elements to be natural. When the confusion of the early derivative work license and the changed computing culture were combined, Apple's innovation and evolution were dismissed.

Nowadays, the situation is different: we're still in the beginning stages for mobile computing. There may still still be an opening for non-Apple interface innovation. But they will have to get on with it.

The example of the early work on the Finder offers an example of what can be created in a short while. When the Finder was first being authored by Steve Capps and Bruce Horn it didn't look much like anything we would recognize.

In a special issue of MacWEEK celebrating the first decade of Macintosh (Jan. 3, 1994), intellectual-property lawyer Marie D'Amico wrote about the early days of the Finder. The story included previously unpublished screen shots that had been exhibits in the Apple vs. Microsoft lawsuit. Since the images are a part of the public record, I will include some of them here.

Some of the interface ideas are based on assumptions that we find laughable today. But some basic ideas such as overlapping widows and icons are there.

Early Finder Overlapping Windows

In the summer of 1982, the Finder had the Macintosh represented by a window containing icons for disk drives, a printer and a power supply. Menu commands included icons to the left of the command name. An icon was opened by selecting it and choosing the View It command, represented by an iconic pair of eyeglasses. Prior versions used the term "Do It," but users refused to choose this command, thinking it was "Dolt."

Early Finder Documents

In the View It version, the disk drive, when opened, was represented by a life-size floppy disk with applications and documents shown as rectangular buttons on the disk. Both the windows and the icons could be overlapped by other windows or icons. Steve Jobs liked the giant floppy Finder because a user could hold the disk, point to the spot where he saw the icon and say, "This is where my document is stored."

Early Finder1 Diskette

In other Finder incarnations, many variations on each feature of the user interface were tested. At one point, window titles were displayed in tabs at the top of the window and in a title bar. Bars were eventually chosen because tabs didn't leave enough room to grab and move the window. The close box also spent some time as a rectangular Go Away button, but this was later rejected.

This display of progress encourages me. And it should serve as an example to Google and Microsoft (and Apple too). Get creative and make new ways of computing. Perhaps we could look at a globe and say "my file is here." Or somewhere.

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