This ancient netnews article was posted some years back. I saw it under Now you see it too.

Article: 25276 of comp.sys.amiga.advocacy
From: (Daniel Barrett)
Subject: Shells vs. GUI's vs. Muhammed Ali
Keywords: alien blintzes
Date: 20 Jun 92 02:21:15 GMT

In response to the holy gospel of:

> [Shells are great, GUI's are greater, Finder vs. Workbench, etc...]

I am getting TIRED of all you people comparing user interfaces, shells and GUI's, etc, when you all have absolutely NO IDEA what you are talking about!! I think you all need a lesson in user interface history. The following text should make it all PERFECTLY CLEAR and stop these POINTLESS "shell vs. GUI" arguments for good.


Thousands of years ago, back in Paleolithic times, user interfaces were very primitive. They essentially consisted of a thick, wooden club that was used to "access" your enemy's brains. Simple but effective, this interface has since been adopted by the famed BLAZEMONGER "Customer Service" Department.

At first, there was little or no standardization; users had to learn entirely new methods of "access" for human enemies, mammoths, mastodons, Saber-C tigers, etc. But as time went on, people settled on two basic modes of use:

(A) Run as fast as you can in a straight line, bashing everything
in sight.

(B) Stand in one place, swinging the club wildly in all

These 2 modes became so popular that they were given names that have survived to this day: "sequential access" and "random access."

This went on for centuries, with users happily "accessing" each others' bodily parts with bigger and bigger clubs, until the 20th century, when the COMPUTER was invented. Tired of crushing each other's skulls, users flocked to the new invention, eager to put their talents to new uses, like playing video games and building "Star Wars" missile systems.

The first computer user interface consisted of a large button on the front panel, labeled "0". By pressing this button repeatedly, users could "program" the computer to do all kinds of tasks. Sadly, none of these programs worked, and the scientists could not figure out why. Then, in 1962, some dweeb finally had the idea to add a "l" button, and the Computer Age officially began.

But pressing "0" and "1" buttons was not anybody's favorite pastime, so some other dweeb invented the computer terminal. Thanks to this clever device, with over 50 different keys, users were able to create bugs and cause crashes dozens of times faster than before. But at least the hardware was now in place, so it was time to address the software issues of user interfaces.

First, there was the command-line interface. This allowed users to type a line of text representing a "command", press the RETURN key, and receive a response like "0x38754: ERROR NOTEXT PETUNIA". Thanks to this handy software tool, the suicide rate rose almost overnight.

But in the mid 1970's, the clever folks at AT&T invented the UNIX "shell". This was a SIGNIFICANT advance over ordinary command-line interfaces, as the following example shows:

               type myfile
               0x9852: ERROR_FILE_LACTOSE_ANAL
               $ cat myfile
               Segmentation fault - core dumped

For many years, command-line interfaces dominated the computer market.

Smart computer buyers began to compare the power of different operating systems by how much they let you tailor the command-line prompt. For example, my friend John would only use computers that let him set the prompt to:


Nobody knew why. Eventually, John was given a job in the Federal Government.

But these years of happy command-lining were fated to end. Behind the scenes, those clever folks at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto useR interfaCes) were creating a completely graphic user interface. We modern computer users are familiar with windows, icons, and clicking, but the first attempts at Xerox PARC were quite different from this. For example, the early version of the "mouse" was shaped more like a semi-automatic machine gun. To select an icon, users would point it at the screen, click the button, and blast the icon to pieces. This was great fun, and kept the Xerox programmers amused for months. Eventually, the Xerox hardware engineers developed a device more like the modern mouse, and the programmers used that instead -- point, click, and the icon blows up. Alternatively, you could drag the icon around the screen, smearing blood and guts all over the place.

After a few years of fun and games, some dweeb at Xerox PARC finally had the idea that the icons could be used to represent FILES. WOW!!! The world had many responses to the Xerox breakthrough. Computer users congratulated Xerox for this brilliant manuever. The President of the United Nations pinned a medal right on the Xerox building! And Apple Computer stole the idea outright and created the Macintosh.

The "Mac" truly brought computing power to the common people. Even the most naive, ignorant Mac user was able, with a simple mouseclick, to cause a spectacular crash. This same philosophy has stayed with the machine through the years. The most recent operating system version is called "System 7", which to me sounds like a bad science-fiction TV show, and it has many new and exciting features. One of the most novel features is the "Help Balloon" mode, which allows the user to see what anything on the screen is thinking to itself. Unfortunately, most computer icons and menu items are very boring thinkers, so the balloons usually say things like "I wonder when the user will click on me" or "Will you PLEASE move me away from the 'HyperMoose' icon -- it smells really bad!"

In 1985, two new machines with GUI's appeared on the market: the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga. The ST's graphic user interface is called "GEM", which stands for "Graphic User Interface". Although initially popular, the ST has died a slow death, partly due to operating system bugs, such as the infamous "40 folder limit". If the user tried to create more than 40 subdirectories inside a directory, Jack Tramiel would come to his house and whack him on the head with a thick, wooden club. This caused permanent braindamage in many ST users, and they can still be found to this day saying things on the Net like "Tramiel is God" and ''Amigas can't multitask".

The Commodore Amiga was introduced with version 1.0 of its system software. This combined a great CLI, a great GUI, and the awesome ability to crash 12 times per hour. Following this success, versions 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 were released rapidly over a short period of only 25 years.

But the real Amiga breakthrough came with the introduction of Amiga OS 2.04. Originally, this was available only on Amiga 3000's sold in Albania to certified developers who knew the secret password and Marc Barrett's social security number; but after a mere 400 years, it was made available to the public.

OS 2.04 was the first version to make the GUI "Workbench" truly usable. In previous versions, dragging an icon with the mouse required the user to hold down seven or eight different keys simultaneously while dancing the "Funky Chicken". In addition, not all files had icons, meaning that the Workbench could not access them. But thanks to version 2.04, every file now has over FOUR HUNDRED different icons, for a totally streamlined and efficient interface.


With both shells and GUI's now in existence, each has its fans and enemies. Proponents of GUI's say they can do ANYTHING as well as shells can. In fact, street corners in major cities are often occupied by these people, stopping random folks as they pass by, and saying things like "I can do that in FEWER than THREE mouse-clicks!!" Currently, there is legislation pending that will make such comments punishable by heavy fines and/or death.

On the other hand, proponents of shells say that GUI's are a waste of time. They commonly cite examples like the "delete wildcard" problem. From birth, all shell users are able to type ridiculously complicated "delete" commands like the following:

               1>  delete #?.(a|A?)*&-2^5%%*.*vavoom!

which says, of course, to delete all files named #?.(a|A?)*&-2^5%%*.*vavoom! "Let's see you do THAT with a GUI!" they cry. The GUI users are silent about this, mainly because they are all out doing useful work instead, like blowing up icons with a mouse.

In any event, most people today admit that the ease-of-use of a shell FAR exceeds the "thick wooden club" interface of Paleolithic times. But designers haven't stopped working on the problem of friendlier and more useful interfaces. So we now have...


Extended keyboards. Touch screens. 5-button joysticks. Virtual reality. MIDI synthesizers. Light pens. Cardboard boxes. Hand grenades. Canned tuna. Vaginal warts. All of these concepts have affected the way people use computers. Thanks to modern research, many new and "hybrid" interfaces have been developed. The following is a brief description of some of the more interesting ones.

(1) Point 'n hit-return

Clicking on the icon inserts text into the command line, which can then be edited. Press RETURN when done.

(2) Type 'n click

The user types a command. Every key pressed on the keyboard causes an icon to be displayed on the screen. When finished typing, drag select or double-click the entire set of icons. Or just drag them into the trashcan... whichever is more efficient.

(3) Point 'n spit

Instead of a mouse, the user chews a large wad of tobacco or a small, dead animal. To activate an icon, merely spit at the screen.

(4) The pepperoni pizza interface

The screen contains an image of a large pizza. The crust represents the operating system, the cheese is the windowing system, and the toppings are the individual files. Using a digital pizza cutter, the user hacks off a piece of the pizza and deposits it into an onscreen "mouth" which then digests the information. A resounding belch comes from the internal disk drive, and it is ready for the next command.

(5) The BLAZEMONGER interface

This is, of course, the ULTIMATE interface. It consists of a hunk of raw meat that is hurled with high velocity at a "touch screen". If it hits the right icon, the user is rewarded by NOT having his/her nipples torn off with tweezers.


That ends our little tour of user interface history. This should clear up all the .advocacy arguments from the past 3 or 4 months.

If you are interested in learning more about user interface history and comparisons, I suggest that you check out some of the following references:

  • "The History of User Interface Design", by Harold Dweeb, Linda Dweeb, and the Dweeb-ettes.
  • "Shell Design", by Ima Clam.
  • "I'm a User...I'm a Loser....I'm a Mac Plus Chooser", by The Steve Miller/Steve Jobs Band.
  • "Deleting Files: It's Not Just For Shells Anymore", by Peter Norton and Oliver North.
  • "Really, Really, REALLY Graphic User Interfaces", by Adolf Hitler and BLAZEMONGER INCORPORATED.
  • "UI's for U and I", by the cast of Sesame Street.
     | Dan Barrett -- Dept of Computer Science, Lederle Graduate Research Center |
     | University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA  01003  -- |

    Copyright 1992 by Daniel J. Barrett. All rights reserved. This article may be freely distributed as long as it is distributed in its entirety. It may not be included in any publication without the written permission of the author.

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