The Coming of Age of GUI

The Android GUI

I can’t remember whether my fascination with graphical user interfaces (GUI) began with Pong or the Mac SE, but somewhere along my long journey down the digital highway, I became convinced that the concept of GUI was as critical to the evolution of technology as the concept of brand management has been to the evolution of marketing.

Until recently, this conviction has diminished my technical credibility. In the ’80s, when I worked at SAS, I argued that statisticians were not computer scientists (what we called software developers back then) and therefore required a more intuitive manner with which to interface with our software. In the ’90s, when I worked at SGI, I fought the GUI battle for technologies such as email and web browsers, making little headway against UNIX engineers who believed GUI was a costly, inefficient, and irrelevant overhead to perfectly understandable command-line interfaces. I remember thinking then that if SGI—a company built on the vision of computer graphics—didn’t understand the power of graphical interfaces, no company would. Still, when I started my own company, Pie Digital, I stuck to my GUI guns. As my partners and I schlepped Sand Hill Road, I found myself eyed mockingly any time I would tout the holistic UX (User Experience, inclusive of GUI) of the Pie System. It was as if I were talking about our HR practices (nothing against HR—I’ve spent much of my career in HR—but other than being able to recruit engineers quickly, you don’t bring up the strategic relevance of HR practices in a VC pitch). My co-founders eventually convinced me to quell my UX/UI evangelism so we could appear more serious.

Then came the iPhone. Suddenly business folk from all walks are comparing capacitive versus resistive touch screens, arguing over the importance of muti-touch and gesturing, and engaging in all sorts human factors buzz talk. Last week Pie was visited by a CEO from an industry not known for caring a rat’s aorta for UI. He talked to me of the importance for anthropological human-computer interaction (HCI). Stunned, I opened once more the closet door of my evangelism and replied that I believed UX/UI was a primary differentiator for consumer-focused technologies. He nodded in agreement. It was liberating.

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