When applications were written for character-only displays, if an application had a menu, it was all in text. Some applications did not even have command bars, toolboxes, or menus — keystroke combinations controlled everything.
As the GUI rose to prominence, developers could use icons as a “pictographic language” for input. However, icons are not universally understood, and sometimes it’s difficult to design an icon that conveys its purpose very well. Of course, users often do not read text, and it takes up more space.
Some GUIs use icons and text to indicate function; and textual input widgets seem to be making a comeback, thanks to the Web application boom. Windows, for example, is introducing more and more standard widgets to allow large chunks of clickable text; this is a radical departure from the one or two word buttons of the past.
Disclosure of Justin’s industry affiliations: Justin James has a working arrangement with Microsoft to write an article for MSDN Magazine. He also has a contract with Spiceworks to write product buying guides.