In that article, I demonstrated that shapes and arrangements used in the presentation define a user interface's visual brand. In this way, the shapes influence our perception and create an association with a particular identity. Even without the distinctive wallpaper background, we can recognize particular arrangements of shapes and colors as different user interfaces. We recognize a particular arrangement and connect that pattern with a brand.
To demonstrate, I provided a visual "quiz" to demonstrate how a few colored shapes and simple symbols can depict a recognizable operating system interface.
Rather than simply reveal the operating systems listed in that little quiz, allow me to expand on that topic a bit. I thought it would be interesting to show a brief history of the visual brand of operating systems using that list. Through this brand history, you can see the evolution of operating system interfaces.
In the beginning was the command line. While early computers were programmed by means of wires, switches, and cards, the first recognizably "modern" computers used a simple command line. Evolving from teletype terminals, the command line provided the most fundamental interactive interface to the computer. The operator typed in a command, and the computer did the action requested.
The command line should be familiar to anyone who used Unix systems "back in the day." You will also be familiar with the command line if you used the original Apple computer, or MS-DOS or any of the other DOS systems from the 1980s and early 1990s. (In 1994, I created a free software version of DOS, called FreeDOS. Many people still use FreeDOS to play classic DOS games, to run legacy business software, or to support embedded systems.)
Today, the command line interface continues as a comfortable "power user" interface, especially when working on Unix servers.
|FreeDOS command line (Wikipedia)|
>In the mid to late 1980s, computer systems began to sport graphical user interfaces. The "desktop" concept was still nascent, but generally used separate windows for separate processes. Every user interface was different, but generally these windows used a tab or title bar over a rectangular display area.
The most recognizable consumer-oriented desktop from the era was MacOS (1984). Native to Apple's Macintosh computer, MacOS popularized several user interface metaphors still used today. A "trash can" contained to-be-deleted items, a file manager (Finder) used a graphical representation of files and folders, and desktop icons represented available disk volumes.
|Apple Macintosh original desktop (Wikipedia)|
|Apple MacOS X 'El Capitan' desktop (Wikipedia)|
|Windows 3.0 desktop (Wikipedia)|
|TWM desktop (Wikipedia)|
|NeXTSTEP desktop (Wikipedia)|
|OpenLook OLVWM desktop (Wikipedia)|
Windows 95 immediately became very popular, due to its ease of use—especially compared to previous versions of Windows. Other user interfaces mimicked the new look and feel of Windows 95, including FVWM95 (1995), KDE (1996), IceWM (1997), and GNOME 1 (1997).
|Windows 95 desktop (Wikipedia)|
|FVWM95 desktop (Wikipedia)|
|GNOME 1 desktop (Wikipedia)|
I'll add that Windows has changed the task bar color over different versions, but continued the brand element of the task bar. In Windows XP (2001), the task bar was a deep blue. Windows Vista (2007) switched to the Aero glass-like theme, and the the task bar became smoky grey. Windows 7 (2009) also used Aero, but with a light blue task bar. Throughout, the task bar remained a key branding element for the Windows desktop.
KDE has similarly maintained its visual identity, updating the look and feel over time. The latest versions of KDE use the Plasma desktop which incorporates the Air theme with a light "glass" look reminiscent of Windows 7 Aero.
|Windows 7 desktop (Wikipedia)|
|KDE Plasma 4 desktop (Wikipedia)|
While the two task bars deviated from other popular desktop environments at the time, the arrangement was not too dissimilar to more common graphical environments, so was easy to learn. At the time, I found GNOME 2 to be a sort of hybrid between Windows (bottom task bar shows running applications) and MacOS (launch applications using the top task bar).
Interestingly, the KDE 1 desktop (1998) had previously introduced dual task bars, although implemented differently from GNOME. The KDE interface used a bottom task bar to launch programs, but a separate top task bar displayed running applications and allowed users to switch between them. This approach was abandoned in KDE 2 (2000) to use the more familiar single task bar interface still in use today.
|GNOME 2 desktop (Wikipedia)|
|KDE 1 desktop (Wikipedia)|
GNOME 3 (2011) removed the traditional task bar, in favor of an "Overview" mode that shows all running applications. Instead of using a launch menu, users start applications with an "Activities" hot button in the black top bar. Selecting the Activities menu brings up the Overview mode, showing both things you can do (an application dock to the left of the screen) and things you are doing (window representations of open applications).
|GNOME 3 desktop in Overview mode (Wikipedia)|
The key to making this work is a user interface that truly unifies the platforms and their unique use cases. We aren't quite there yet, but GNOME 3 and Windows 10 seem well positioned to do so. I think MacOS X and iOS (Apple's mobile platform) feature similar interfaces without uniting the two. Perhaps Apple's is a better strategy, to provide a slightly different user interface based on platform. I think it will be interesting to see this area develop and improve.