A brief history of Apple Computer Inc. and the Graphic User Interface
This article aims to highlight crucial advancements in personal computing and how they paved the foundations for the world’s most valuable brand and its robust ecosystem of devices.
The roots of Apple devices date back to the days of personal computing and the rise of Graphic User Interface (GUI).
In 1962, Douglas Engelbart, the father of GUI as we all know him today, published his ideas about how computers can serve as a tool to complement and amplify human comprehension in an essay named “Augmented Human Intellect”. He also pointed out various instances of computing usage, such as tools that could aid in architectural domains for structural design. Back in 1962, computers only existed in the form of mainframes that would require what was then commonly termed “batch processing” as the input and would generally take between several hours to days for the output to be delivered.
In the next four years, Douglas and his team developed iterations of various technical specifications and alterations. In 1968, they demonstrated a vector-based display unit named ‘oN-Line System display’ or the ‘NLS’ workstation accompanied by a primitive iteration of input peripherals like the keyboard and the mouse and could showcase uppercase letters. This demonstration also highlighted how personal computers could operate via a pointing device, like the mouse. The demo also included various other features of the NLS system like hyperlinking, an email client, a messenger, videotelephony, multi-window support, and text editing capabilities.
However, Douglas and his team could not transform these demonstrations into personal computing outcomes due to lack of resources and eventually discontinued in 1989 that paved the way for Xerox Corporation to create a more sophisticated iteration of the modern-day personal computer.
Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)
The NLS system demonstration particularly caught the traction of the Xerox Corporation because of the paperless future of digital computing that could potentially make their photocopier business obsolete. Xerox soon formed a research and development division named the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1970 to create the future of computing.
Over the next five years of R&D, various researchers at PARC contributed to the invention of their first computer named the Alto, a more sophisticated iteration of Engelbart’s ‘oN-Line System display’ with elementary capabilities of modern-day personal computing systems.
One of the most striking features of the Alto was its Graphic User Interface (GUI). Due to Alto’s limitations for app user interfaces, PARC researchers developed an alternative programming environment named Smalltalk which highly aligns with modern-day GUI concepts. Alto and Smalltalk combined had all the capabilities for office computing. Eventually, a much more condensed version named Xerox Star 8010 was made commercially available into the market landscape.
It was around the same time when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak got introduced to the Xerox Star, and they were early on to identify an opportunity for a commercially viable personal computer.
Lisa and Macintosh
As mentioned earlier, Apple Computer had a great kickstart with Alto and Smalltalk as design inspirations. Apple’s then product flagship line, Lisa was initially powered by a command-line interface, primarily targeted towards business use cases. Lisa got drastically revamped with the incursion of the need to make their products GUI-operated. Therefore, Lisa was overhauled to include a much more graphical approach towards design. During this time, contemporary design elements like iconography, scroll bars, interactions like drag-and-drop, double-click, highlighting on-screen selections, app windows, and dropdown menu bars started coming into the picture.
In 1983, Lisa was made commercially available. However, Apple managed to sell limited units due to its pricing. This underachievement called for the creation of a slightly affordable and liquified version of Lisa, the Macintosh. With the limited capabilities of the “System 1” operating system that its 128kb RAM could offer and pricing at around $2,500, the Macintosh delivered on a broader user base and paved the way for Apple’s Mac line of desktop computing products.
Development of NeXTSTEP and Apple’s acquisition of NeXT
One of the most important contributions to Apple’s current-day success lies in the software capabilities of NeXTSTEP, an operating system developed by Steve Jobs and his team at NeXT following his resignation from Apple in 1985.
Mac OS X
As the “System” operating system rollouts slowly transitioned from version 1 to 10, Apple rebranded it to Mac OS X since it started getting more desktop-class functionalities with incorporated frameworks from NeXTSTEP, before it was finally rebranded to the current day macOS 11.
Over the next few years, Apple gained popularity with its personal computers, even more so with the iMac that was perceived to be one of the most beautifully designed desktops of its time. From 1984 to 1998, Apple released various updates to the Macintosh line-up until the iMac G3 design pioneered by Jonathan Ive delivered to be the most successful Apple product to hit the market and saved the company at a time when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. The success of the iMac marked the beginning of Apple’s resurgence.
The transition from Apple Computer Inc. to Apple Inc.
The motto “Think Different” unfolded the influx of Apple’s aspirations to make a statement. For years to come, Apple slowly transitioned into exploring new mediums of making technology feel more personal and portable. With the success of its music streaming service iTunes and run-of-the-mill MP3 player options in the market, Apple took a shot at creating their own digital player for media consumption. Then Apple’s senior VP of hardware, Jon Rubinstein was dedicated to bringing this product to life. The key reason for the success of the iPod was FireWire, a high-speed data-transfer interface that makes faster media transfers possible. Although, the incorporation of a 1.8-inch 5GB hard drive was a real gamechanger. This achievement distinguished the iPod from other multimedia players and set the ball rolling for the iPod marketing tagline “5 million songs in your pocket”.
On par with the iMac, users loved the iPod primarily due to its navigational ease-of-use powered by the click wheel. The click wheel introduced four traditional buttons over a circular ring of capacitive touch-sensitive technology like the responsiveness of a MacBook trackpad. Rotating over the wheel enabled a broader range of user interactions like scrolling through lists of music, videos, photos, or even play games, while the circular button in the middle was the primary action for selection. A faster movement of the finger over the click wheel would correspond to faster haptic feedback scrolling. This unique User Interface made the iPod widely popular amongst the masses and accounted for its influence on pop culture.
While Apple made a range of iPod devices throughout these years, it was also fortunate enough to come across Multi-Touch technology right around this time. Multi-Touch technology allowed multiple user input through bare fingers without needing a stylus to interact with a bitmap display. Apple was early to recognize the true potential of Multi-Touch and incorporate it into the iPhone. When Apple started exploring ways of incorporating this technology into a mobile device, it had initial plans of creating an iPad-like device and a touchscreen Mac.
Defamiliarizing the perceived notion of a smartphone
In the earlier prototyping stages, Apple even tried creating iPhone designs with the primary user interface as the click wheel but later scrapped it due to its counterintuitive nature of the interaction. Eventually, the design and hardware teams iterated viable prototypes in the form of a handheld device that could reinvent the perceived notion of the then capabilities of a smartphone.
Before Apple came into the picture, flagship smartphones like the Motorola Q, Nokia E62, and the Palm Treo would comprise a squarish bitmap display controlled via a plastic QWERTY keyboard, stylus touchscreen input, or both.
The incorporation of Multi-Touch User Interface gave Apple the following UX advantages:
1. Intuitive fingertip gestures like tap, double-tap, swipe, scroll, pinch-to-zoom, swivel, drag, and long-press.
2. On-screen keyboard that could be displayed or kept hidden when needed to eliminate the physical keyboard.
3. Larger display due to removal of physical keys.
4. Independency from the stylus.
This set of UX enhancements gave the iPhone an edge over other smartphones in the market, and its design was perceived to be way ahead of its time and competition. With the introduction of the first-generation iPhone, Apple officially dropped the word “Computer” from its registered trademark to transition from Apple Computer Inc. to Apple Inc. because its product line-up now ranged from personal desktop computers to portable communication devices.
Building an ecosystem of products
In the coming years, Apple focused heavily on building an array of products with shared experiences for different use cases and market landscapes. As mentioned earlier, the iPhone prototype initially started off with a portable device in a tablet-sized form factor. With the success of the iPhone, Apple was keen on growing its legacy in the tablet market space. Apple positioned the iPad into the tablet market as a portable media consumption device for the family with its release in 2012.
In years to come, Apple expanded its ecosystem by releasing the Apple Watch, AirPods, Apple Pencil, HomePod, AirTags, Mac and iMac Pro line-ups, and proprietary MagSafe accessories.
An artifact ecology enabled by integration between hardware, software, and services
One of the most substantiative contributors to Apple’s industry success and customer loyalty is how well their products work in unison through seamless integration between the hardware, software, and services powered by the following experiences:
• iCloud: Keeps data for Notes, Photos, Calendar, Contacts, iCloud Drive, Mail, Reminders, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Safari, Find My Mac, Keychain, News, Stocks, Siri, and Home native apps across all devices.
• Keychain: A password manager that syncs between all devices and gives users the ability to set strong passwords and auto-fill them using authentication through Face ID and Touch ID.
• Universal Clipboard: Copy and paste across all devices.
• Handoff: Open apps and workflows on one device and continue where you left off on another device.
• AirDrop: Wireless file sharing across all devices.
• Pickup and receive calls, receive and send messages, listen to music, and FaceTime across all devices.
• Unlock Mac with Apple Watch when in proximity.
• Sidecar: Wirelessly connect iPad as a secondary display for Mac.
• Apple Pay across all devices.
• Instant Hotspot: Shared Wi-Fi passwords across all devices.
Interconnected experiences like these make the Apple Ecosystem one of the most robust artifact ecologies as of today.
Defamiliarization and the Reality Distortion Field
I firmly believe that Apple was able to create disruptive technological artifacts due to: 1. Its ability to defamiliarize the users with innovative products, and 2: The leadership’s potency to empower its employees by making them believe they can achieve great things through Reality Distortion Field.
On multiple occasions and across various product launches, Apple pioneered the techniques of defamiliarizing users from existing and prevalent ways of interacting with devices:
by reinventing perceived notions and concepts of Human-Computer Interaction and creating intuitive and interpersonal experiences through products like the iMac, iPod, and the iPhone.
Most importantly, Steve Jobs’ intense mental potential to make his co-workers believe they could achieve great things through his convincing abilities and charismatic conversational approaches acted as a framework of cognitive defamiliarization that empowered Apple employees to “Think Different” and work like visionaries who would change the world, not 9-to-5 mercenaries.