The desktop metaphor is modelled after a real life desk with files and folders on top and useful items (calculator, trash bin...) nearby. And when we take something in our hands to examine it more closely ("open it"), we suddenly have a window in our hand - wait what?

I've always wondered where this terminology came from and why it was chosen, as opposed to something more fitting for a desk (i.e. call it sheets or something like that).

  • Wasn't the term "widget" used for just about everything including windows on X? Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 12:56
  • I always thought that making the computer screen resemble a desk made as much sense as making a car resemble a horse. Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 17:04

3 Answers 3


From A history of Windows:

1982–1985: Introducing Windows 1.0

Microsoft works on the first version of a new operating system. Interface Manager is the code name and is considered as the final name, but Windows prevails because it best describes the boxes or computing “windows” that are fundamental to the new system.

From Wikipedia:

The first independent version of Microsoft Windows, version 1.0, released on 20 November 1985, achieved little popularity. It was originally going to be called "Interface Manager" but Rowland Hanson, the head of marketing at Microsoft, convinced the company that the name Windows would be more appealing to customers.

The term 'window' actually makes a lot of sense when you're running an application that shows documents of some kind. At any given time, you're only viewing part of the document through a 'window'.

  • 4
    While Microsoft's Windows may have popularized the term, the creators of Smalltalk used 'window' to describe...umm...a window several years before Microsoft's first release of Windows. Search for 'window' in this Smalltalk 72 user's guide. Most likely, they were influenced by NLS which had windows. Commented Aug 28, 2013 at 17:31
  • Windows 3.1 had a viewing command called 'tile' which would equally spread out the open windows across the screen, creating the appearance of say 4(or 6, or 8) windows containing 4 different lots of information. (so you could look at 4 things at the same time and copy and paste in between them). I don't think anybody used it much and it may well have been removed.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 13:48

The desktop metaphor and windows is not the same thing at all.

One could implement a desktop instance with no windows, where you'd only be able to view an entire document. That would not be a very useful implementation, but I mention it to make the point that the desktop metaphor was extended to make use of the affordances that technology made available.

The idea was that since a digital desktop is being made, why not make it better than the physical one? That's why we have windows, icons, app docks, and menus, all of which do not exist on physical desks.

It might seem trivial now, but in early days alternatives were being discussed and we might have ended with an implementation of desktops with other viewing systems than windows.

Edit: A gem from the original Guided Tour of Macintosh from 1984: Why do I have windows?

  • 1
    As @user1757436 said, there were windows before Windows. For us developers a "window" is a rectangle capable of displaying content and with a set of properties and behaviors, bah, an object. MS seized the word. A few years ago they almost lost a case against a small company using the name "Lindows" (Linux + Windows). They settled giving Lindows a lot of money to change their name, because by the USA law a company can't register as a brand a common word.
    – Juan Lanus
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 21:49

The term "window" was, early on, conceptually a view upon or into an object, not the object. A view or window upon a sheet paper, not the sheet paper.

This conceptual elegance was somewhat lost on Apple's Lisa/Mac team, and completely lost on Microsoft when it began to develop GUIs.

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