Watch on YouTube:

How Apple Ruined GEM - And Nearly Windows, Too!


Digital Research’s Graphics Environment Manager - or GEM - was released for PCs and the Atari ST in 1985. Unfortunately it was a liitle bit too close in look-and-feel to Apple’s recently released OS on the Macintosh (and earlier the Lisa), leading to legal pressure to remove certain features. This is the story of how GEM 1 ultimately ended up being by far the most feature-packed release as a result, and how this may well have lead to Apple and Microsoft becoming the dominant desktop platforms throughout the 90s and beyond.


This is GEM or - to give it its full name - the Graphics Environment Manager - as released by Digital Research Incorporated in 1985 and ably demonstrated here on the Atari ST. GEM is a graphical user interface designed to sit on top of an underlying operating system such as Digital Research’s own CP/M, Microsoft’s MS-DOS, IBM’s PC-DOS, or in this case Atari’s TOS - yep, TOS.

In a computing world that was predominantly text-based, GEM provided a more user-friendly mouse-driven experience for managing files and launching applications - a whole 8 months before the first release of Microsoft Windows.

In addition to the ST, GEM is best known for being the GUI on Amstrad’s PC range and indeed Atari’s own PCs when they decided to have a crack at that market too - but those later releases were actually a pretty big step backwards from the version that ST users got - and the person responsible for that - oddly enough - was Steve Jobs.

Allow me to explain. 2 years before GEM was released, Apple had unveiled the Lisa, a GUI-driven computer all of their very own, and although it was a commercial flop due in part to its eye watering price, its mouse-driven user interface was adapted for use on their much cheaper and more successful Macintosh, famously released a year later in 1984, with Jobs himself leading the development on both projects.

Apple’s user interface consisted of windows that could be resized, moved around and even overlap each other, a menu bar with drop down menus and a so-called desktop with icons representing disk drives and a trash can for deleting files, all clickable and draggable with a mouse. These all made an appearance in Digital Research’s first release of GEM the following year - which Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs was not best pleased about.

The irony is that these elements and a whole lot more had actually been invented much earlier by Xerox - yep, the photocopier people. Xerox’s infamous Palo Alto Research Center - or PARC for short - had come up with their own mouse driven GUI-based machine called the Alto a whole 10 years earlier in 1973. Thing is, the technology was pretty much unknown as outside a small handful of university computer labs, Altos were only used inside Xerox itself. So when Jobs managed to wangle a private demo of the machine in 1979, he knew that he was onto something good.

Regardless of the fact that he and his team hadn’t actually invented any of this stuff, Jobs put legal pressure on Digital Research to remove certain elements that he considered “his” - and, despite the fact that one of the developers of GEM - Lee Jay Lorenzen - had been on the Alto team at Xerox years before, Digital Research founder and CEO Gary Kildall decided it would be best to come to a settlement with Apple, which included the removal of certain specific elements in the next release.

As a result, March 1986’s GEM 2 was a shadow of its former self. Such frivolities as resizable windows - alright, you could make one of the 2 fixed panes double size I suppose - all of the animations, and even the desktop icons were now gone.

After all, even without some of this flashy graphical stuff GEM still had a few tricks up its sleeve that Apple’s OS at the time didn’t - including support for newfangled colour displays and perhaps more importantly - multitasking when used in conjunction with their own CP/M operating system.

Thankfully, Apple’s legal team were indeed appeased by these changes, saving Kildall the expense of actually having to fight them in court.

Of course, the mid-to-late 80s marked the beginning of the GUI revolution and Digital Research wasn’t the only company in Apple’s sights - alright, Jobs was gone by this point, but it didn’t stop his old company embarking on a huge 4 year lawsuit starting in 1988 against Microsoft regarding Windows version 2 and later 3, which HP and even Xerox themselves also managed to get dragged into.

Ultimately it was ruled in Microsoft and HP’s favour even after a 2 year appeal process, so the whole spectacle ended up being a massive waste of time and money for an already struggling Apple as it turned out that Microsoft actually had a valid licence from them to use these user interface elements. Xerox had tried to grab their slice of the pie amid the madness, but the judge ruled that they’d left it far too long to try to stake a claim to any of it and so they also left empty handed.

You might be wondering why Apple didn’t go after Commodore as well considering the Amiga had a very advanced UI in 1985 that also incorporated these elements. Well, it turns out that Apple did consider it, but didn’t see the Amiga as a viable platform, their belief being that Apple and IBM compatible Windows PCs would come to dominate the home computer industry. Ouch. I mean they were right, but… Ouch.

In fairness, the same can also be said for the ST, which Atari continued to sell with the original GEM interface, also apparently not worthy of the Apple legal department’s time. In fact, Atari had a licence from Digital Research to continue developing GEM for their own machines, which they did, all the way up until the final release of MultiTOS on the Falcon030 in 1993 - which compared to its contemporaries was actually a pretty solid attempt at a desktop user interface.

Back in the world of DOS for a second, GEM’s graphics libraries were used in an early desktop publishing application called Ventura Publisher - from our old friends Xerox of all people. This was a standalone product that ran under DOS without the need for GEM to be installed. The final GEM-based release was in 1990 before Ventura abandoned DOS for good and moved over to Windows.

As for GEM itself, networking giant Novell put the whole project on hold when they acquired Digital Research in 1991. Caldera did revive it when they purchased the assets in ‘96 and went on to open source it under the name FreeGEM in 1999, with an official fork called OpenGEM that continued development until 2008. On the Atari side we have XaAES - I think that’s how you say it - which is a modern open source continuation of Atari’s work on GEM in the early 90s.

So, that’s the story of how GEM version 1 came to be superior in many ways to the releases that came after it - and how it was all Apple’s fault. No doubt another important factor in Microsoft and Apple becoming the dominant platforms throughout the 90s and beyond.

So I just want to say a big thanks to my patrons, channel members and Ko-Fi supporters whose names you see on screen as I speak, a big thank you very much for watching and I’ll hopefully see you next time.

Support the channel!
Become a Member:

If you liked this video please consider subscribing to ctrl.alt.rees on YouTube!