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Long Before FaceTime or Skype, There Was the Picturephone

“Someday you’ll be a star!” promised this 1968 Western Electric ad

1 min read
Photo: Randi Klett
Photo: Randi Klett

In the 1960s, AT&T and its manufacturing subsidiary, Western Electric Co., became convinced that the next big thing would be a video telephone on every desk. With great fanfare, AT&T launched the first Picturephone service in 1970, confidently predicting a million sets in use within the decade. But the offering was a spectacular flop. Its failure can be variously attributed to networking issues (it only worked if the person you were calling also had one); high cost (a lease was US $160 a month—about $970 in today’s dollars); and, most damning, general dislike. The Picturephone was, by default, always on, and people just did not want to be seen all the time. The irony, of course, is that today’s consumers most definitely do like to be seen, so long as they can choose when that happens. Through free services such as FaceTime and Skype, video telephony is now readily available, albeit on computers and smartphones, rather than dedicated sets operated as part of a wired telephone network.

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How the Graphical User Interface Was Invented

Three decades of UI research came together in the mice, windows, and icons used today

18 min read
Stylized drawing of a desktop computer with mouse and keyboard, on the screen are windows, Icons, and menus
Getty Images/IEEE Spectrum

Mice, windows, icons, and menus: these are the ingredients of computer interfaces designed to be easy to grasp, simplicity itself to use, and straightforward to describe. The mouse is a pointer. Windows divide up the screen. Icons symbolize application programs and data. Menus list choices of action.

But the development of today’s graphical user interface was anything but simple. It took some 30 years of effort by engineers and computer scientists in universities, government laboratories, and corporate research groups, piggybacking on each other’s work, trying new ideas, repeating each other’s mistakes.

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