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Today I recieved a couple queries from a reader, one I could answer moderately easily (“IS IT ILLEGAL […]

Today I recieved a couple queries from a reader, one I could answer moderately easily (“IS IT ILLEGAL TO COPY SOFTWARE AND HOW I KNOW WHICH SOFTWARE WILL WORK ON MY COMPUTER?”) and one that I thought I’d let you folks take a stab at as well…


I’d say the answer to the GUI (graphic user interface) popularity is twofold

1. GUI’s are easier to learn. It can use a combination of both images based on symbols we might already know –such as an pencil for draw– as well as text to express meaning.

2. GUI’s are easier to relearn. The human memory is finite. Command line interfaces require you memeorize hundreds of unique commands, which, unless you use them daily, you forget. But GUI combines text with images, and allows for nice touches like tooltips to supliment the fallable human memory.

What’s the alternative to GUI? Command-line interfaces, where users must learn and memorize a set of commeands. Take Vi, a command line editing tool. I used to know it fairly well, and could edit html in it quickly. Now I barely remember the commands, but I do recall doign things like ctl-j to out two lines on the same line, or wq to save a file and quit editing it. It took me a long time to learn to use it in a limited fashion, I became very swift with it for a short time, and now I can barely recall it enough to use it (possibly not enough to use it).

Now that I think about it, it’s also possible that typing might be a piece. To use a command-line interface well, you must be a fairly swift and accurate typist. You can get away with being a so-so typist wiht a GUI. The mouse makes up for a lot.

Also images are pleasurable to look at. a GUI gives you words *and* pictures and humans like rich sensory experiences.

This is my five minute version– what do you all think?


Add Yours
  1. 1

    I understand that he asked why GUIs are “so popular”, and not “best”, but:

    Command-line interfaces are a sort of GUI too, for the desktop metaphore is not the only possible GUI. CLIs can be more flexible,faster,easier to learn, better for experts – or not. IT DEPENDS! I use both at the same time all the time.

    But friends don’t let friends use VI

  2. 2

    Honestly, no way I’m going to say GUI are “best” or even “better.” I can only hazard a guess why they are “more popular.” The ability people to adapt to a given technology is part of adaptation rate… look at this ancient post on Napster. Best doesn’t always win (cough– betamax– cough), and best for one person is not always best for another.

  3. 3

    All other things being equal there is a good chance that the best will win. Gnutella is still around since it had “better” technology that could not be shut down by the music industry. 🙂

  4. 4
    Randolph Fritz

    I believe to use a CLI effectively, one has to learn a new and very limited language. I have come to believe that intense natural-language literacy and mathematical knowledge are the tools necessary to make the best use of a CLI, and individually neither is all that common & both together still less so.

    On the other hand, images can be their own tyranny. Some people, it turns out, have difficultry “reading” simple line drawings, responding instead more strongly to color and value. To such people, all existing GUIs are of little value. And, of course, there is no value at all in making people decipher complex images; it’s a much less certain process than simply reading text. Hence I generally find the use of images representing verbs to be counter-productive.

  5. 5

    Actually gnutella is still around– but now it’s supplanted by the easy-to-use kazaa (who is built on gnutella, i know).

    And again, i think the widespread popularity of GUI is the fact it is a combination of all– images and words, point-and-click and keyboard shortcuts. GUI gives you a little boost into using computers, and thus is popular– i.e. used by a lot of people. This means people who are good at keyboard shortcuts *and* people who can’t remember any of them and need to mouse over icon to see a tooltip. Lots of redundancy, lots of different layered concptual model, and popular.

  6. 6

    I think one thing that’s been skirted around here but not explicitly mentioned is the most important difference between a command line and a GUI. A command line provides you with no hints as to commands; a GUI places the commands in front of you. Compare these two examples:

    [Apple] File Edit View Window Special Help [App Name]


    Which one gives you a better head start and something of an idea of where to begin?

    As the saying goes, UNIX is user-friendly, it’s just picky about which users it’s friendly with.

    (I used to write books using vi. And when I started creating web sites, it was with vi. I don’t think I’ll ever lose the muscle memory for that….)

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