Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: Platforms and User Interfaces
This first interlude deals with the intertwined history of platforms and user interfaces (UIs). It’s not a matter of forcing two issues into one discussion. Standardized user interface paradigms are in fact a kind of platform—platforms used by developers to deliver standardized user experiences to end users.
The computer represents a profound discontinuity in the history of technology, and though the term platform is relatively new to the scene, the idea that it describes goes to the heart of that discontinuity. Computers as such don’t actually do anything useful. Their utility lies in their ability to serve as a medium (read platform) for software. Much of the action in the evolution, business, and politics of computing is intimately related to the evolution of various hardware and software platforms.
For a long time, the only platforms were large boxes of hardware. In the 1950s and 1960s, if you were a business with a need for computing,1 you bought or leased a mainframe from IBM, Burroughs, UNIVAC, or RCA, or later, a minicomputer from DEC, Data General, or Prime. Difficult as it is to imagine today, nobody to speak of had yet conceived of the possibility of making money on software. What little software came with these machines from the manufacturer had to do with low-level hardware bookkeeping and was considered a necessary evil. The manufacturers would no more consider charging for it than they ...