Things and stuff and things.
Starting with the (now ancient) Xerox Alto and moving into today's Windows 10
Published on November 12, 2020 By Tatiora In Stardock Blog

Do you remember when you (or a family member) brought home your first computer? I do.

It was right around 1995 when my dad purchased a Packard Bell (when I called him to talk about this blog, he informed me that his first PC was a Commodore Vic 20). At 10 years old, this technological marvel that he brought into our home fascinated me and drew my attention right from the second it was plugged in. The main draw? Packard Bell’s Navigator, an alternative shell for Windows 3.1 - specifically, Kidspace.

I spent a lot of time playing using the Navigator Kidspace and playing games like 3-D Dinosaur Adventure
that came with my dad's Packard Bell.

Just look at the GUI and the icons here! We’ve come quite a long way since 1995, haven’t we? Today I’m going to take a look at how icons have developed and changed over the years. To start, we’re going to have to jump back quite a bit before my first computer memories into a time before I was born: 1973.

Xerox Alto

The Xerox 8010 Star’s icons laid the foundation for how future icons would develop.
As you can see, Calculator, Document, Folder, and Trash have barely changed!

The Xerox Alto debuted in March of 1973 and was the world’s first GUI (Graphical User Interface) based computer system. With only 2,000 machines worldwide, the Alto was originally built as a research computer and wasn’t available for commercial release. In 1981, the Xerox Star came out as the first consumer GUI computer. It incorporated many of the design features of the Alto and was the basis for how a lot of our computer icons developed over time.

1983 Apple Lisa

You can see that Lisa’s icons aren’t all that different from Xerox’s, except for the size and single pixel outlines.
The “preferences” icon, as time has gone on, has been replaced to look like a cog in most cases.

Apple’s goal with the Lisa was to make navigation easier for new users. To do this, they implemented drop-down menus, folder-based directories, and movable “Desk accessories” that were basically early widgets.

1984 Apple Macintosh

This was the first time an artist was brought in to design the icons.
Apple hired Susan Kare, who went on to do many other icon designs in the future.

Only a year later, Apple released its first Mac. The icons for this machine were clear and concise, plus they carried over certain things from their predecessors that made them instantly recognizable (notice that “Trash” and “file” are still very distinct). Apple’s goal was to remain user-friendly and boost themselves in the commercial market.

There are a few other developments between the 1984 Mac and what’s next on our list, but for brevity’s sake I am going to skip over them and into 1985, when Microsoft breaks into the market.

1985 Windows 1.0x

The Windows 1.0x icons weren’t all that fancy, and they didn’t include color.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft released its first GUI in 1985, just two years after Apple’s Lisa debuted. By the time it was released, Windows had color and all the usual GUI elements like scrollbars, window control widgets, and menus. Each application actually had its own menu bar (just below the title bar) attached to it, unlike the single menu bars on Lisa and Macintosh.

1991 Macintosh System 7

This was the first Mac OS with colors!
The icon images have changed slightly to be a little more dimensional - they appear slightly raised.

System 7 was codenamed “Big Bang” and was introduced on May 13, 1991. It remained Mac’s main OS until OS 8 in 1997, and added features like virtual memory, personal file sharing, QuickTime, QuickDraw 3D, and of course, an improved user interface.

1992 Windows 3.1

Microsoft hired Susan Kare to greatly improve the icon design for 3.0. For 3.1, she refined the colors and designs of the icons.

Windows 3.1 is my earliest memory of an OS (and of course, at the time, I didn’t even know what the heck an OS was). I rarely used it as intended, however, since I spent most of my time using the Navigator “alternative shell” that came with my dad’s Packard Bell computer. Although, the icon design pictured above was still evident throughout even Navigator.

1995 Windows 95

Hooray for isometric designs! Windows 95 was a complete design overhaul and includes elements that are still part of today’s designs.

The Start button made its big debut in Windows 95. The icons here have more color to them, and this version of Windows would also include updated elements for the taskbar, the menu, and of course, the famous Start button.

2001 Mac OS X v10.0

Skipping ahead a bit! According to one article I read, this Mac apparently earned the nickname “jelly mac”
for its ultra shiny and jelly-like finish on its icons.

This is the OS style I remember most vividly, since I used mostly Macs for video editing during my college years that started in 2003.

These icons are a huge leap in design from previous Mac OSes. Mac also added the Dock, which renders the icons from either a straight forward or slightly above point of view. These icons showed reflections and textures, and were a great draw for the user. 

2001 Windows XP

Don’t forget about Windows! Microsoft overhauled their OS system again,
introducing a brand new OS with a saturated color palette and an illustrative look.

The icons in Windows XP use a single light source and have a semi-transparent drop shadow. Continuing with the isometric style, these icons were attention grabbing and cutting edge for the time.

2007 Mac OS X Leopard

Apple decides to up its game even further, opting for a very clean, flashy, exciting look.

Check out that 3D reflective doc! The icons sit on them and the use of chrome and glass reflections make this even more popular than before. The icons themselves are pretty much the same as they were in 2001.

2007 Windows Vista

It seems like Vista wanted to get in on the more “reflective” look of its icons in order to keep up with Mac’s innovations.

Interestingly, the icons in Vista are pretty different-looking from what Microsoft releases with Windows 7 later. The Windows 7 icons almost seem like a step back from the glossy, updated look that Vista showcases.

2009 Windows 7

I don’t know about you, but I clung to Windows 7 as long as humanly possible before I finally had to switch to Windows 8.

Windows 7 re-imagines its icons almost completely differently from Windows XP. These icons are “softer” and appear to be more glassy than their predecessors.

2012 Windows 8

I definitely did NOT love this version of Windows. If I’d known about Start8 back in college,
I’d have downloaded it immediately to avoid all of the menu headaches.

The successor to Windows 7 introduced some pretty big changes to the OS’s platform and user interface. Windows 8 was meant to be touch-optimized in order to compete with mobile operating systems like Android and iOS. The Start screen presents programs on a grid of tiles; white icons on backsplashes of color. Admittedly, I like the look here, but I hated the OS as a whole.

2015 Windows 10

Windows 10 is where we’re at today.

Ah, good old Windows 10. It supports universal apps and the UI was revised in order to handle transitions between mouse-oriented interface and a touchscreen-optimized interface. It also introduced the Edge browser...which, admittedly, I never use personally.

The icons for Windows 10 are modern, sleek, and above all, recognizable. 

Honestly, I really loved digging back through the last 40+ years of computer innovation and seeing how icons and imagery have evolved.  If you're a fan of custom icons for your PC, make sure you check out IconPackager from our Object Desktop suite! You can replace the default Windows icons - lovely as they are - with cohesive and customized packages of icons that the app provides, or you can make your own! You can also change individual file type icons or recolor entire packages. I wrote a blog about it once upon a time.

IconPackager will let you build your own icon sets with the included Package Builder!

Which OS has your favorite look? Did you ever use a Xerox Alto? Let me know in the comments!

on Mar 02, 2021

Hard to beat the Windows 7 icons and desktop for intuitive usability, which is why I used Start8 when Windows 8 came on the computing scene, and STILL use Start10. The Xerox Alto was WAY too expensive for us regular folks back in the day. A friend and I put together an early personal computer in 1977 or 1978 with an S100 bus (that's what we called motherboards back then), and an Intel 8080 processor for the CPU. The computer had a massive 16K of RAM (you read that right--16K, not megs or gigs), and we loaded BASIC from a cassette tape (the "disc drive" for poor starving student computer nerds of that era). The BASIC took up 11K of the RAM, leaving us 5K of RAM for writing programs (apps to you young whippersnappers). Needless to say, programs were not bloated back then. Ah, those were the days!

on Mar 03, 2021

What got me into GUI modding was a little program called Icon Do-It for Win 3.0.  Impulse buy at Fry's one day in the early '90s.  Ultimately led me here.

on Mar 03, 2021


 A friend and I put together an early personal computer in 1977 or 1978 with an S100 bus (that's what we called motherboards back then), and an Intel 8080 processor for the CPU.

This isn't accurate. motherboards were not called S100 bus. the S100 bus was a standard for expansion cards. This is analogous to the IBM ISA standard, PCI, and the current PCI-E to name a few expansion buses. A motherboard was still called a motherboard (or Planar if you had a PS/2 from IBM 10 years later but I digress). The S100 standard is still alive and well with hobbyist producing new boards for it. For example, you can get a full fledged 486 system on the S100 bus.

on Mar 03, 2021

I never really liked the default GUI of any of the Windows OSes and always looked to customise them to better suit my tastes.  Back in the days of '95 and '98, I used a program called Desktop Architect to customise those OSes and it was good at what it did back then, but when I upgraded to XP it was a little lacking, which led me to Stardock and purchasing ObjectDesktop, IconPackager, Cursor XP and others. 

I never liked the look of XP, it reminded me too much of Fisher Price kids toys, so Stardock's apps were a blessing because I could change every aspect of it.  The Windows 7 GUI was somewhat better than its predecessors but after a while it got boring and I was continually customising it to suit myself.  Windows 8 had to be customised to add back the start menu and get rid of those fugly tiles it came with... and Windows 10, well it's better than Win 8 to look at but still I have to change its appearance every so often.