Desktop is an IT term for the most fundamental and basic element of a personal computer’s graphical user interface. The desktop display is the default display on the computer when it is booted up; auxiliary features like docks provide end users with options for working from a desktop.
The desktop is the primary user interface of a computer. When you boot up your computer, the desktop is displayed once the startup process is complete. It includes the desktop background (or wallpaper) and icons of files and folders you may have saved to the desktop. In Windows, the desktop includes a task bar, which is located at the bottom of the screen by default. In Mac OS X, the desktop includes a menu bar at the top of the screen and the Dock at the bottom.
The desktop is visible on both Windows and Macintosh computers as long as an application or window is not filling up the entire screen. You can drag items to and from the desktop, just like a folder. Since the desktop is always present, items on the desktop can be accessed quickly, rather than requiring you to navigate through several directories. Therefore, it may be helpful to store commonly used files, folders, and application shortcuts on your desktop.
Both the Windows and Macintosh operating systems allow you to customize the appearance of your desktop. In Windows 7, you can change the desktop background and select the default desktop icons within the "Personalization" control panel. In Mac OS X 10.6, you can change the desktop background using the "Desktop & Screen Saver" system preference. You can choose what items are shown on the desktop by selecting Finder → Preferences… and checking the items you want displayed.
NOTE: The term "desktop" may also be short for desktop computer.
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.
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.