Xerox PARC

In human–computer interaction, WIMP stands for ‘windows, icons, menus, pointer.’ denoting a style of interaction using these elements of the user interface. It was coined by Merzouga Wilberts in 1980. Although its usage has fallen out of favor, it is often incorrectly used as an approximate synonym of ‘graphical user interface’ (GUI). Any interface that utilizes graphics can be termed a GUI, and WIMP systems are a derivative of such systems.

However, while all WIMP systems utilize graphics as a key element (namely the Icon and Pointer element) and therefore all WIMPs are GUIs, the reverse is not true – some GUIs are not based in windows, icons, menus and pointers and thus are not WIMPs. For example, most mobile phones utilize icons (graphics represent and result in an action being performed) and some may have menus but very few include a pointer or run their utilities/programs in a window.

WIMP interaction was developed at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in 1973 and popularized with Apple’s introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, where the concepts of the ‘menu bar’ and extended window management were added. WIMPS are systems where a Window will run a self-contained program, isolated within that window from other programs running at the same time (used to create multi-program operating systems), Icons act as shortcuts to actions to be performed by the computer (such as execute a program), Menus are text-based or icon-based selection systems to again select and execute programs or sub-programs. Finally, the Pointer is an onscreen symbol that represents the movement of a physical device to allow the user to select elements on an output device such as a monitor. The primary benefit of this style of system is to improve the HCI (human-computer interface) by enabling better ease of use for non-technical people. Know-how can be ported from one application to the next, given the high consistency between interfaces.

Due to the nature of the WIMP system, simple commands can be chained together to undertake a group of commands that would have taken several lines of command line instructions. Due to this nature many technically proficient computer users deride WIMP systems since these act as a barrier between the user and the computer system. However, for the average computer user the introduction of the WIMP system has allowed for an expansion of users beyond the potential possible under the previous command line systems.

User interfaces based on the WIMP style are very good at abstracting workspaces, documents, and their actions. Their analogous paradigm to documents as paper sheets or folders, makes WIMP interfaces easy to introduce to novice users. Furthermore their basic representations as rectangular regions on a 2D flat screen make them a good fit for system programmers. Generality makes them very suitable for multitasking work environments. This explains why the paradigm has been prevalent for more than 20 years, both giving rise to and benefiting from commercial widget toolkits that support this style. However, several HCI researchers consider this to be a sign of stagnation in user interface design as the path of least resistance forces developers to follow a particular way of interaction. There are applications for which WIMP is not well suited, they argue, and the lack of technical support increases difficulty for the development of interfaces not based on the WIMP style. This includes any application requiring devices that provide continuous input signals, showing 3D models, or simply portraying an interaction for which there is no defined standard widget. Andries van Dam calls these interfaces post-WIMP GUIs.

The term is also used in some circles as a pejorative, to indicate someone cannot perform useful work unless a graphical environment is present, and therefore relies too heavily on GUIs. This assumes of course that CLI (command line interface) tools of equal or greater functionality are available for the tasks at hand.


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