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What is a GUI?

WindowsXP Windows XP - Source:3.bp.blogspot.com

It is my understanding that the visual elements that we use to interact with our computers—namely, resizeable windows, icons, drop-down menus, desktop environments—are in fact an extra layer added to the operating system for our convenience. A more direct way of engaging with your device is through typed commands, which we call using the command line.

The visual layer is typically referred to as the Graphical User Interface, or, GUI. In the early days of home computing, both Microsoft and Apple moved away from ugly green or yellow & black screens to a colourful desktop on your screen which could be custom designed and navigated with a mouse.

Microsoft's operating system, Windows, gets its name from a key feature in its GUI, namely, the windows that pop up when we activate a software tool or open a file. I had my first experience using a Windows computer in high school. Triumphantly rolled in on a metal trolley by my physics teacher, the school's single Windows computer allowed us to input data and see and print out graphs for our physics labs. Students had to line up to enter their data, but what a time-saver, compared to plotting graphs by hand!

But before that, it was normal for any consumer to be expected to type in pages of commands in order to get anything out of their home computer. In the very early days of home computing, this was done with a language called BASIC.

I feel lucky to have experienced that more hands-on, active approach to home computing as a child; having to copy my first video games by hand from printed magazines has made me a little less fearful of trying the command line later in life.

Wrapping up

Ubuntu Ubuntu GUI - Source:3.bp.blogspot.com

The operating system, whether it be Windows, macOS or Linux, is a software layer in itself, which sits above some more core programming, and functions as the go-between for the user and the installed software.

For a beginner-friendly read about all of this, I recommend Brain W. Kernighan's book Understanding the Digital World, the second edition of which was published in 2021 by Princeton University Press.


Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security, Second Edition by Brian W. Kernighan, 2021.

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#digitalprivacy #glossary #gui