Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Little GUI That Could

A look back at a piece of computing history. Audio player and transcript below.

Back in 1990, the world of personal computing was divided into two camps; IBM Personal Computers and their clones running the ubiquitous MS-DOS, and Apple's Macintosh and its Graphical User Interface, or GUI. Text-based DOS ruled the business world, while the Mac had established a beach head in the graphic design, desktop publishing, and educational markets. But it was becoming clear that the future was a graphical one. Microsoft, the purveyor of MS-DOS had made early attempts with an environment called Windows that ran on top of DOS, but it was not very useful at that stage, and very few programs required it.

There were other attempts to bring DOS into the graphical world. Digital Research had tried to get its GEM Desktop accepted, but it gained very little traction in the marketplace. Part of that was because of an infringement lawsuit against Digital Research filed by Apple. Yet just when Microsoft was about to release its first really usable version of Windows, version 3.0, another program hit the shelves, that was in many ways superior to the Microsoft product. That program was called GeoWorks Ensemble.

GeoWorks was created by a small company named Berkeley Softworks, that had created GUIs for other computing platforms, such as the Commodore 64 home computer. GeoWorks was written in assembly language, making it extremely fast and responsive, even when running on an Intel 80286 chip. Like Windows, it still needed MS-DOS underneath its pretty shell, but it claimed several advances that Windows didn't yet have. These include filenames longer than the eight-plus-three format that DOS required, scalable typefaces, WYSIWYG desktop publishing, and a scalable interface. For neophytes, GeoWorks had a basic, iconic interface option, somewhat akin to the modern iPhone screen. For more advanced users there were two steps up, that resemble modern GUI design.

So why are we not all using GeoWorks 9.0 today? I see at least three reasons. First, although Geoworks was sold with several great applications, such as GeoWrite, GeoDraw, and GeoDex, it initially lacked a spreadsheet application. At at time where Lotus 1-2-3 had set the bar for financial modelling, a spreadsheet was a must. Secondly, the developer's kit for GeoWorks was prohibitively expensive, dissuading software coders from developing for the platform. Finally, it was a pure case of being outmarketed. With the DOS cash cow, Microsoft could easily bury the smaller firm in an avalanche of advertising and public relations noise.

Over the years, GeoWorks was sold twice...first to NewDeal Software, and then to BreadBox. But development remains stuck at least a decade in the past, and the niche markets that have been identified for the product have failed to respond.

How great it would be to see someone buy the rights who really cares about GeoWorks. It could be given modernized graphics, drivers for new hardware, support for OpenType, and perhaps even run on top of the Linux kernel. After all, Google's new operating system, Chrome, will use that kernel as its basis, and Linux is a solid base. Then perhaps we would see some real competition!

Still, that will remain only a dream. I doubt there is any chance of that becoming reality. But for those of us who found GeoWorks a viable, and advanced operating environment, it will always remain the little GUI that could!