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David A. Wimsett
Providing Technological Solutions

David's interest in technology extends back to his teen years with science fairs and amateur radio. He is fascinated with hardware, but his real interest is how people use technology. David's goal in providing technological solutions has always been to listen to the end users.


In Part I of The Birth of the Mouse, we met Dr. Douglas Engelbart and his team from the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Palo Alto , California who created the graphic user interface (GUI) that allows people and computers to interact directly. They first demonstrated their work on December 9, 1968 at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco . The capabilities were crude compared to Windows or MAC OS X, but it had many of the elements that later went into both those interfaces, including the mouse, menus, windows, networking, and hyperlinks.

Dr. Engelbart, a true visionary, was a researcher. He had no intention of building a commercial product. His goal was to establish what could be done and suggest ways of doing it. Few knew of his work. Yet, within the computer science community, word of the GUI spread quickly.

Visionaries are not always scientists and engineers. Many business leaders also peer into the future and imagine what might be. Peter McColough became CEO of Xerox in 1968. Xerox had pioneered a dry copying process, called Xerography, in 1959. It was based on the work of Chester Carlson who first produced a crude image in 1938.

For a decade, Xerox had a virtual monopoly of plain paper copying due to its voluminous patents. Xerox's sales reached over $1 billion in 1968. But, McColough saw that this could not last. For one thing, Xerox's patents would soon expire and competitors such as IBM and Kodak were waiting in the wings. For another, the United States Department of Justice had brought anti-trust action against Xerox for its monopolistic practices. If you wanted a plain paper copier in the 1960s, you had to lease it from Xerox. They would not sell you one. Once installed, you had to purchase paper, toner and other supplies exclusively from Xerox. Long after a copier paid for itself, it was still generating revenue. This plan was the same profitable business strategy used by IBM to sell computers.

McColough felt certain Xerox had to diversify, and he felt the most important direction was to create, as he called it, the office of the future. He did not know for certain just what that would look like, but he was certain it involved computers. He established a computer research center in Palo Alto , California , near Stanford University , to create the new technology.

The lab was named the Palo Alto Research Center , but was known as PARC. A team of the best and brightest in the computer science field were recruited. One of the key players was Bob Taylor. He had worked with some of the largest government agencies in devising new computer technology such as networking and timesharing where a computer supported several users at a time instead of just one.

Taylor had strong views on what the office of the future would look like. He inspired his team to come up with new and innovative ideas. These included Ethernet to allow computers to communicate with each other and share data. PARC also devised the laser printer, based on a Xerox copier. It was a good six feet long and four high and cost $40,000.

In 1970, computers were either large main frame machines run by trained operators or they were mini-commuters that were used for specific purposes. Both required programmers to create the instructions that would manipulate the data and specially trained operators. Both used punched cards, printers, teletypes, and occasionally, a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). If the marketing department needed a report, a clerk would sent a request, along with sales figures, to the keypunch operators who would produce the punched cards. These would be batched together as a job and scheduled, sometime weeks in the future. When the job was to be run, an operator fed the cards into the computer and let the program work. It would produce output that the operator would print and send back to marketing.

The notion of an interactive computer, let alone having untrained people use computers at all, was unfathomably to some, especially those in the computer field. The operation of these main frame machines had created a whole social and political hierarchy in which little fiefdoms grew up and were vigorously defended. Many jobs relied on the slow, methodical processing of data and both IT managers and computer companies liked it that way.

Bob Taylor, and the scientists he had hired for PARC, saw things differently. They were familiar with Dr. Engelbart's work on human/machine interfaces and were certain it was the office of the future. This created tension and disagreement between PARC and some elements within Xerox. Many saw the notion of interactive and even multiuser computers to be an absurd pipe dream that the public would never embrace. One person even decried the laser printer because is housed a “death ray”. Although PARC's budget was minuscule compared to the rest of Xerox, many felt the California facility should concentrate on practical research that could be put into existing products.

However, the scientists at PARC took Peter McColough's vision literally. They explored the idea of a computer system that was so easy to use that anyone, secretaries, managers, clerks, etc., could be quickly trained to operate it. At first, they looked at the idea of using time sharing with a distributed network of computers, each assigned to a specific task such as file storage or printing. But, it was very complicated and required a lot of computer power. Instead, they devised a new scheme called multitasking. A computer does many small jobs to accomplish larger ones. In multitasking the machine shuffles these small tasks to fill in idle time. More than one job can run at the same time and the main controlling program, called the operating system (OS), coordinates them.

Instead of using a CRT that just displayed characters, they took a standard monitor, turned it on its side so it had the same dimensions as a piece of paper, and used graphics to represent images and text. This was done with a new concept called a bitmap. The screen is actually made up of tiny dots of phosphor that are lit up by a scanning electron gun. Computer memory was set aside so that every phosphor dot was represented by one bit (or on/off switch) in memory. To form an image on the screen, they painted it in memory and hardware transferred this to the CRT.

To make text, they devised hardware and software called the Character Generator that defined how to form typeset letters and graphic images. We know the character generator today as Postscript. It drove both the CRT screen and the laser printer.

Instead of large computers, PARC saw the office of the future as smaller “Personal Computers” on everyone's desk that were networked together through an Ethernet connection. The network also allowed each computer to share a laser printer. Instead of teletype machines to control the computer, the new system would display an image on the CRT that showed the user exactly what they would see in the printed output. It was dubbed WYSIWYG for “What You See is What You Get”. It used a keyboard and the pointing device created by Dr. Engelbart and his SRI team, the mouse. The new computer was named the Alto.

The Alto was a marvel of its time. With it, office workers could be trained to perform filing, word processing and graphic tasks in minutes. The PARC scientists were elated. Though each work station cost $16,000 to build, it was still a fraction of a main frame and even a mini-computer. As well, the cost of integrated circuits used to build the Alto were dropping every year. Taylor and his team were certain that once the Alto was in production the cost would drop even lower.

This view was not shared by everyone at Xerox. Since the company had been founded with an entrepreneurial spirit, it had grown into a large, politically charged corporation. Many people did not see the worth of the Alto and felt that computers would always be large main frames. Others saw it as a distraction from Xerox's primary business, copiers. Some felt PARC trampled on their turf . Repeated attempts to authorize production of the Alto were met with firm refusals.

In 1979, Xerox considered forming a joint venture with Apple Computer, the most successful and popular of all the new microcomputer manufacturers. Steve Jobs visited PARC for a demonstration and was astounded that Xerox was yet not selling the Alto. He was certain it would dominate the market. The venture never happened, but Steve Jobs went back to Apple with a new perspective.

Finally, on April 27 th , 1981, Xerox unveiled its GUI computer, now named the Star system. I remember seeing it when I was working as a programmer/analyst in Berkeley , California . It had mouse, a menu bar , a desktop with icons for files and folders, in/out boxes, and more.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that, coming from a main frame background, it was difficult to understand exactly how the Star system was to be used. The notion of a computer on everyone's desk was too new to fully grasp. Worse, being used to command strings to control computers, it looked like a video game and seemed rather silly. Never again in my IT career was I so wrong.

Still, I was not the only one who could not grasp the GUI. The Star was a hard sale. There was the shock of the new as well as the $16,000 cost when other personal computers were selling for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Xerox also took the same approach to marketing the Star as they did for copiers, they did not sell them. They leased them. Unlike computers such as the Apple II that anyone could write programs for, thus spawning a huge third party industry, the Star was a closed system. Xerox supplied all the software as well as the hardware. And it was not exactly what we would call a desktop computer today. The display and keyboard fit easily on a desk, but the computer itself was a huge cube that sat on the floor.

Xerox sold thousands of Star systems, but they failed to have the impact the PARC designers envisioned. Worse, just a few months later, on August 24 th , 1981, IBM entered the microcomputer game with its IMB PC. By the end of the year, IBM owned the microcomputer market. Where businesses were once sceptical of the microcomputer, equating them with video games, IBM legitimized the smaller machines in the eyes of executives and managers. As well, the PC ran VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet program that had been the reason that many businesses had experimented with microcomputer to begin with. The original Xerox Star offered WYSIWYG word processing and a drawing application, but no spreadsheet.

The IBM computer did not have a graphic user interface. Indeed, to display even simple graphics required added hardware. It used a character based operating system called PC DOS that had been developed by Microsoft. The display showed 80 fixed spaced characters per row on 25 lines. It ran the popular software packages of the time that people were familiar with such as VisiCalc, WordStar and dBase. Microsoft, to the chagrin of IBM, released a version of the operating system called MS DOS that ran on other computers and established a standard environment for which third party developers could build new applications.

Though Xerox continued to market the Star system, even releasing the first television commercial for a personal computer, sales were disappointing and the Star faded into obscurity.

In 1985 the Star was retooled with more robust components and released as the Viewpoint. By 1989, hardware production ended.

So, why did Xerox fail to capture the microcomputer market when it had such a head start and all the brightest scientists? Why are we all using Windows or Macs or Linux instead of Xerox? Many people blame Xerox management for not recognizing the opportunity and allowing it to waste away. They point to the bureaucracy and political infighting between divisions as different managers vied for power and influence. Xerox managers are accused of having a lack of vision and being so conservative that they overlooked opportunities that could have made Xerox into what Microsoft is today. But, these critics may be too harsh.

To be fair, the technology and concept were so new it was hard for many people, myself included, to grasp it at first. But, even if the business community had embraced the GUI from the start, for it was business that the Star was aimed at, the hardware of the time was slow and expensive and simply could not keep up with the software being developed, even though the scientists at PARC continually pointed out that new integrated circuits were continually being designed that were faster and cheaper.

Although Xerox abandoned the Star system, the GUI did not die. Other visionaries took up the call. One of them was Steve Jobs of Apple. After his tour of PARC, he retuned to Apple and immediately started a GUI project himself. Soon, he was joined by some of the scientists from PARC who had designed the Alto and were disenchanted with Xerox's lack of support. Together, they created the Lisa in 1983, a GUI computer based on the PARC design. It was a financial failure due to problems with the machines and a price tag of $10,000. Undaunted, Jobs retooled and in 1984 released the computer that popularized the GUI in the consumer's mind and established it as the new standard. This was the Macintosh, known affectionately as the Mac. It became, overnight, the de facto standard for the burgeoning desktop publishing industry. Several years would pass before the GUI would supplant character based DOS. People still had to get used to it and see its advantages. When they did, there was no turning back.

Though Apple blazed the trail, it was Microsoft, with its huge install base of MS DOS and its ties to IBM, that built the GUI super highway and took 80% of the market share with its various versions of Window, again draw from the work at Xerox PARC. In fact, other PARC scientists who left Xerox joined Microsoft.

Still others left to form their own companies such as 3COM and Adobe Systems. They took with them the philosophy and vision first expressed at SRI by Dr. Engelbart and his team, to make computers easier to work with through a human/machine interface.

References: Fumbling The Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, The First Personal Computer (Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander – 1988 - ISBN 0-688-09511-9) – Dealers Of Light: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age (Michael Hiltzik – 1999 - ISBN 0-88730-891-0)


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