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Even though text-based terminals still see specialty use cases, modern general-purpose computers generally run graphical software and have a graphical user interface (GUI). This includes everything from low-end cell phones and some computer peripherals like printers, to fairly high-end servers.

I'd like for computers to be roughly on par technically with what we have today, but with user interfaces that are predominantly text-based. It's okay if these computers work with text blocks and things like that (for example, like how the IBM 5250 series of terminals worked), but except for graphically oriented work such as image editing, there should be minimal graphics.

Given that in our world, personal computers started becoming graphical pretty much as soon as they were powerful enough to run a graphical user interface at acceptable speeds, and some even earlier, how can I reasonably explain that GUIs never became mainstream?

Note that these computers need not be expert-only systems; I just want their interfaces to be predominantly text-based rather than predominantly graphical as is the case today in our world.

Also, to clarify, since there seems to be widespread confusion about this: Lack of a graphical user interface does not imply a lack of graphical capability. Take the original IBM PC model 5150 as an example; with the exception of those equipped only with a MDA graphics card, the software running on those often used text-based data entry with graphical visualization modes (what we in modern terms might call more or less accurate "print preview"). For example, something similar to the early versions of Microsoft Word for DOS or how early versions of Lotus 1-2-3 used different graphics cards and monitors to display data and graphs. Instead of thinking "no graphics at all", think "graphics only as add-ons to text, rather than as a primary user interaction element".

And since lots of answers imply that the only alternatives are pure command-line based interfaces and GUIs, let me remind you of tools like Norton Commander. I used Norton Commander back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and still use look-alikes such as Midnight Commander to this day, and can guarantee that those can provide a perfectly useful environment for file management and launching applications that do not in any way depend on more than a text console. There is even a general term for these; Text-based User Interface, or TUI.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Dec 8 '16 at 2:58
  • $\begingroup$ It is also called "Pseudo-graphical user interface". $\endgroup$ – Vi. Dec 8 '16 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, many (most?) fairly high-end servers do not run GUIs. GUIs are usually assumed for client systems that connect to servers. Almost every "high-end server" I've worked on in the past 40+ years was minus a GUI. (Note, though, that functions such as X server/X windows or Java RAWT, etc.,are often available from servers, even if the servers themselves might not have native graphics capability.) $\endgroup$ – user2338816 Dec 9 '16 at 13:19
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    $\begingroup$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. $\endgroup$ – mg30rg Dec 9 '16 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ Question seems too specific, so it seems like you're wanting to examine a potential reaction to eventual introduction of GUIs or some related event. One difficulty is that detailed graphics is an almost necessary adjunct to development of many technologies resulting in "modern computers". Engineering diagrams, CAD/CAM, etc., lead naturally to manipulation of graphic elements; and inclusion of those methods in UIs fairly naturally follows. Engineering modern systems is hard. $\endgroup$ – user2338816 Dec 12 '16 at 2:37

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Obviously, you need to keep computers expensive. No cheap microprocessors means no cheap microprocessor-driven displays, and probably no multicore GPUs. Go back to the 60s vision of terminals in every home connecting to a central computer. Keep bandwidth low so graphics are mostly a non-starter (remember waiting minutes for web pages to download in the 90s?). Maybe have the local computer utility be something like a library, with lots of public-access terminals and some high-speed printers so people can print things out and take them home. I remember in college, the terminals in the dorm terminal rooms ran on 2400baud leased lines. When you went onto campus, the terminals were on 9600baud direct lines, it was a major incentive to do work in campus labs.

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Check this out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HAL_9000

HAL 9000 is an artificial intelligence. It is true that HAL has monitors to display things. But the "Interaction" part in GUI is verbal.

Only when HAL breaks down and loses his verbal communication abilities does he need keyboard input, which Dr. Chandra performs.

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Another possibility would be patent laws that weren't prepared to handle technology. A scenario where patents were a bit more broad than today, and had a period of 50 or more years, could allow somebody to patent the GUI display, movement-based interaction with a computer, and/or some other aspect essential to GUIs or GUI interaction.

To protect their brand, the owner of the patent prices the patent license outside the range of most consumers. Instead, they license it at exorbitant prices to industries that absolutely can't function without it. Perhaps they sell computers with GUI capabilities, or perhaps they sell software, or they sell a software toolkit for building software, or perhaps some combination like Apple.

The laws have since been changed to avoid that sort of problem, but they can't retroactively invalidate the patent.

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If we're talking humans, they will certainly come with ideas for GUI; using out eyes and hands in combination is one of your evolutionary advantages. We are so specialized for this and have been drawing things for thousands of years, to there is no circumventing the idea.

So you have to find ways to prevent these ideas from execution.

One possible angle is energy. Computing visual output and actually displaying it takes lots of energy. It's probably what most user-facing devices out there use the most energy for, even with modern display technology.

So if energy is, historically, much more expensive than it has been in our world (maybe fossil fuels were not a thing, or we caught on early and stopped using them as much?) then energy efficience becomes a factor in designing computing devices a lot earlier than it has in our world. Once text interfaces are ubiquituous, GUI has probably little traction outside of specialized applications.

Make sure to invent something else but screens for output. Our text interfaces still need one, and the more useful text interfaces use colors, too.

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Kill Doug Englebart before 1968, and blow up SRI's automation lab. To make doubly certain, ensure that Alan Kay is never born and drop a tac nuke on Xerox PARC. You'll also need to do something to reduce programmer productivity so that projects such as the ones that led to GUIs will never be undertaken - so ensure that computer programmers are federally licensed and regulated, programming tools require a license to purchase and the costs are insanely high, outlaw the production of any computer smaller than a mini-van, and make COBOL the One True Sanctioned Programming Language. (Sorry, Grace, but by today's standards it's a pig...). That oughta do 'er..!

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Kill Windows

Have the company that invents GUIs to make their name worse than mud, for example by them planting spyware in the GUIs. Then GUIs are linked to the name of the most infamous company in the world. Also point out that GUIs use a lot more CPU power, RAM, etc. than TUIs. The combination of these two factors (no GUIs and more available hardware for your software (which is not being eaten by your OS (which actually is just running smoothly in the background, only using 0.5 k of RAM))) is a lot more effort going into making useful stuff, like voice recognition, AIs and other stuff like that.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Windows"? Anti-microsoft chip on shoulder detected. Computers had GUIs (1973) before Microsoft existed, and it was 10 years after Microsoft was founded until they started on Windows. And they can't really use "a lot more power" if 1970s computers could be used for GUIs, but 1990s IBM PCs were often used for DOS only interfaces, the twenty year older computers just weren't a lot more powerful. $\endgroup$ – TessellatingHeckler Dec 7 '16 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ @TessellatingHeckler Windows 10 - spec pc-s without windows are much better than 1970 computers $\endgroup$ – Mark Gardner Dec 8 '16 at 15:39

protected by Community Dec 6 '16 at 13:26

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