Written by David Tebbutt, Director 09/90 - scanned

WINDOWS TO THE WORLD

Users and potential buyers of computers have always been easily bamboozled by the claims of computer suppliers. To a man, they claim that their system is the best one, the only one that can possibly satisfy your needs. Or they claim that their company may not be the most exciting but, by golly, they will always be around, always on hand to look after you and, of course, to sell you more products at premium prices. One or two companies, Apple and Compaq, for example, tend to work on the principle that their products are not only top quality but you gain a certain cachet from owning them.

Right now the opportunities for bamboozlement have reached new heights with what the computer industry terms Graphical User Interfaces, or GUIs (pronounced gooeys). In simple terms these are the systems whose displays feature `windows' and `icons'. A window is simply a rectangular area on the screen in which an application runs. You can have several of these on the screen at the same time. enabling you to switch quickly from one to the other.

An icon is a small graphical symbol which represents something else, such as a file or an application program. The theory is that if the user can see familiar objects on the screen - waste paper bins, sheaves of paper, pencils, drawing instruments and so on - they will be able to work more quickly. They act as reminders of what the application or file might do. Each icon is accompanied by a short description. This has the advantage that you don't have to think up a new icon for each word processor file. It has the disadvantage that, if you have too many files on your disk, you can't easily find the one you want so you have to occasionally resort to the more conventional listings of file names.

Such GUI systems are usually controlled by a device called a `mouse'. This can be rolled around on a small pad on your desk and causes a marker on the screen to move in direct proportion to your hand movements. This is useful when you want to activate one of the icons or file names mentioned earlier. You slide the mouse until the arrow is over the item you want and then press a button on the mouse. If you `clicked' on an application, then the application will be loaded. If you clicked on a file, then the application which created that file will be loaded, along with the file itself. It probably sounds complicated but, in practice, the selection and activation of files and programs takes only moments.

Until fairly recently the only players in this GUI game were Apple Computer, Atari and Commodore. All the other manufacturers were content to shove out machines which were controlled by typing instructions at the keyboard. The screens were predominantly text, which takes much longer to recognise than a distinctive icon. Eventually, of course, the PC world woke up and pinched the GUI ideas from Apple. (Apple incidentally, had pinched the original ideas from Xerox.) And this, dear reader, is where things start to get interesting.

You see, there are now GUIs and GUIs. One lot - the Apple variety - are an intrinsic part of the way the computer works. The machine was designed with a GUI right from birth. I believe that the Atari and the Amiga were too, although the Atari GUI was licensed from another company. What Apple did correctly was to establish a form of interaction for its machine and then publish a set of `Human Interface Guidelines' so that application developers for the Macintosh could create products which matched perfectly the ground rules adopted by Apple. The result of this approach is that applications can be learned very quickly, often with only the most cursory look at the manual. And, by promising `upward compatibility' to its users, Apple has ensured that all Macintosh applications ever written according to its published standards will still run on the full range of Macintosh computers. In short, the Apple Macintosh offers a depth and a consistency that the PC cannot emulate.

Mind you, the PC makers are having a go. The GUI layer which they have adopted is called Windows. It looks very nice. In some ways it's an improvement over the Macintosh GUI. And I'm not going to be alone in thinking this. If the average user goes to a computer show and sees PCs with Windows running alongside Macintoshes, they're going to be very tempted by the Windows product. It looks jolly nice and the whole system is bound to be a fraction of the price of a superficially equivalent Macintosh. Microsoft, the publisher of Windows 3, know this, and the company is planning to get even richer (the young founder is already a dollar billionaire) on this one.

A similar GUI to Windows has also been adopted on computers at the next level of sophistication. Without boring you with interminable details, bigger machines are often driven by an `operating system' called UNIX. Unfortunately for users, UNIX comes in a variety of different flavours, or versions. One manufacturer's consortium has adopted the Windows style of GUI, another has written its own and another consortium of computer manufacturers has chosen a third user interface style. Despite their detailed differences, all are following the Apple lead. IBM too has a more advanced operating system on some of its computers. Originally written by Microsoft, but later enhanced by IBM programmers, this too has a Windows-like GUI.

The advantage to the users of all these developments is that they should be able to move from one kind of computer to another without having to relearn the ground rules of how to operate them. The sad thing is that all the latter-day implementers of GUIs are cashing in on the fact that people will be bamboozled by superficial appearances. Unlike the Macintosh, their beauty is only skin-deep.

Thanks to the twenty or so Mensans who expressed an interest in a Mensa electronic conference. With such a small response the best bet is to give you the details of a reasonable free bulletin board and let you decide among yourselves where to go from there.