Websites to Spend Countless Hours On: GUIdebook

15. October 2020
Even though Marcin Wichary’s GUIdebook has “been moth­balled in 2006” its value has only grown over the years. The meticulous collection of screenshots of different versions of over 30 operating systems — many of them historic turning points of UI design —, spanning over 25 years, offers great insights to the discerning designer.
interaction design
operating systems

When I started using computers the consumer desktop operating system wars had already solidified into the still prevailing bipolarity of Microsoft’s “Windows” and Apple’s “Mac OS”/“macOS”. So to me, the idea of someone leaving Apple to found a company with the goal of developing an operating system, as Jean-Louie Gassée did with BeOS, seems insane.

Maybe this incredulity is what makes browsing GUIdebook so fun for me: the breadth of different operating systems is something I can barely imagine. Some reasons for this are explored in Rob Pike’s 2000 talk “Systems Software Research is Irrelevant”. Overall, Wichary has collected screenshots from 68 versions of 30 different OSs. The collection’s earliest sample is the interface of the 1981 “Xerox 8010 Star”, its latest a 2007 preview version of “Windows Vista”.

Recently George Cave’s amazing article “The UX of LEGO Interface Panels” made the rounds. In it, he derives categories for comparing interfaces, based on the design of the interface panels printed on LEGO bricks. When I visited my parents this summer, I couldn’t help but dig out some old LEGO from my childhood bedroom and analyze the UI panels I found. It’s funny how you could tell I’m from a different generation than Cave — I found some of the panels he mentioned, but also many that were clearly designed much more recently, for example, some designed as semi-transparent flat-screens and even a stand-alone keyboard. He positions them on two axes, highlighting their differences. Wichary’s approach is slightly different, focusing on the similarities of various interfaces. He develops a comparative approach to studying UI by trying to find the same states, applications, or windows across all the systems. This means there are two ways you can browse GUIdebook: you can look at all screenshots from one OS version (e.g. this page which shows all screenshots from “Rhapsody”, a liminal OS marking the transition between NeXT’s “OpenStep” and Apple’s “Mac OS X”), or you can look at the screenshots that show the same screen in different OSs (e.g. this page showing all operating system settings dialogs).

GUIdebook also contains collections of OS sounds, splashscreens from many apps, scans of more than 150 ads, transcripts of more than 200 articles and loads of assorted trivia and facts. It is a great place to dive into and spend your time, wishing the development of operating systems had continued at the same pace as it did in those 25 years.

My favorite pages §

  • Interface Grid: A grid that shows the empty desktops in all interfaces that are documented on the site. You can click on any screenshot to go to the specific GUI. This is a great starting point to explore from.
  • Icons — Components: This is a chart maps (502!) icons for typical applications from various OSs. It is lovely to look at and many icons are a real throwback. There is also this article which chronologically looks at the development of icons in graphical interfaces.
  • Spotlight — Lisa: The Apple “Lisa” holds a special role on the site: It’s the only computer documented and gets a special spotlight page, collecting loads of information about it. I particularly love this transcription of the Lisa User Interface Standards, an internal document from 1980, and this article telling the history of its development. It feels like most of the credit nowadays goes to the “Macintosh”, so it is interesting to see the “Lisa” in its glory. Of course, you shouldn’t miss the screenshots from its operating system, “Lisa Office System”.
  • BeOS 5: Probably the most beautiful historic OS is “BeOS”. Especially its icons still look breathtaking!
  • Tutorials: I also love thinking about how difficult it must have been to explain paradigms that seem “intuitive” to us now to new users, back when they were groundbreaking. My favorite tutorials documented on GUIdebook are this “Guided Tour of the Macintosh” (Favorite page: “What’s the Finder?”) and this tour documenting General Magic’s “Magic Cap” The heartbreaking story of General Magic is captured in last year’s documentary of the same name..

The website §

GUIdebook — A website dedicated to preserving and showcasing Graphical User Interfaces, as well as various materials related to them.

The series §

In my series “Websites to Spend Countless Hours On” I write about my favorite wholesome websites. I focus on those that are slow-growing, personal, opinionated, or fastidiously comprehensive. They are like the websites that first drew me into the web: Quaint personal spaces by real people.