Contributor(s): Brien Posey

A desktop is a computer display area that represents the kinds of objects one might find on top of a physical desk, including documents, phone books, telephones, reference sources, writing and drawing tools, and project folders.

A desktop can be contained in a window that is part of the total display area or can be full screen, taking up the total display area. Users can have multiple desktops for different projects or work environments they have and can switch between them.

The history of desktops

It is tempting to think of the desktop as being synonymous with the Windows graphical user interface (GUI), but the concept of a desktop has existed for longer than the Windows operating system.

Tandy released a text-based desktop called DeskMate in 1984. Like modern desktops, users could work with DeskMate to open applications and documents and to browse disk contents. Microsoft released Windows 1.0 near the end of 1985.

Windows has included a graphical desktop ever since the release of Windows 1.0. Although Windows 10 still bears some similarities to Microsoft's early desktops, the Windows desktop has evolved considerably over the years. As Windows matured, for example, the desktop included higher video resolution and color depth.

One of the more significant changes Microsoft made to the Windows desktop was the introduction of Active Desktop. The company introduced Active Desktop along with Internet Explorer 4.0 in 1997. It was first intended for use on Windows 95, but was eventually supported by Windows 98 and Vista before the company eventually discontinued it. The Active Desktop feature displayed HTML content directly on the Windows desktop.

In Windows 8, Microsoft broke away from using the traditional desktop layout. The release eliminated the Start menu and introduced a new interface called Metro, which Microsoft designed to compete with mobile operating systems, such as Apple iOS.

Windows XP virtual desktop
Windows XP virtual desktop

Although Windows 8 included a desktop layout, it forced users to toggle back and forth between the desktop interface and the Metro interface depending on which application they were using. The hallmark of the Metro interface was live tiles, which were tiles that could display application data, such as weather information or stock market reports, as opposed to acting as static desktop icons.

In Windows 10, Microsoft brought back the Start menu, and it merged Metro and the legacy Windows desktop into a single, blended desktop interface.

Other GUI desktops

Although Microsoft is largely credited with the introduction and evolution of the GUI desktop, nearly all modern desktop operating systems include a GUI desktop. This is true of Windows, Apple macOS and Linux.

Virtual desktops

A virtual desktop refers to a desktop operating system, such as Windows 10, that runs on top of an enterprise hypervisor. End users access virtual desktops through thin clients. A remote desktop protocol transmits screen images and keyboard and mouse inputs between the user's device and the server on which the virtual desktop runs.

How consumer desktops differ from enterprise desktops

From a functional standpoint, there is no difference between a consumer desktop and an enterprise desktop. Even so, enterprise desktops tend to be more tightly controlled. Enterprise desktops are commonly branded with a wallpaper containing the organization's logo, and they typically include a set of icons that the IT department has approved.

This was last updated in January 2018

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What do you think the future of the desktop looks like in the enterprise?
I've often been impressed by reportage by Margaret Rouse. The historical detail on the GUI origins begs for correction, however. Design pioneers in the early 1970s at Xerox PARC (including Alan Kay, Larry Tesler, Dan Ingalls, David Smith, and Clarence Ellis, building on ideas Doug Englebart worked up at SRI in the late 1960s) developed the point-and-click graphical user interface and the mouse to go with it. Xerox did not release an early commercial product featuring the GUI to popularize it but made many Alto PCs for internal use that used the GUI. (I saw and used one at Xerox PARC in 1974, but they had been in use at the Xerox lab for some time by then.) Apple's Lisa (1983) and then the Mac (1984) marked commercial release of PCs with a desktop-metaphor GUI. Meanwhile MS-DOS continued to rely on a command-line interface or a text-based UI due to the inability of the PCs' manufacturer-installed graphics processor to display bit maps at high enough resolution to support a GUI. Windows 1.0 was late to the party in 1985, and arguably it didn't compare favorably to other GUIs until Windows 3.0 in 1990. --Nancy Dunn