The Birth, and Abandonment, of the Modern PC

Xerox Star/8010Xerox AltoMost people see the history of the modern PC as an epic battle between Microsoft and Apple, and in many ways, thats exactly what it is. Those two companies have certainly been the most influential over the longest period, and their implementations of technology and ideas have shaped what we see today as a modern computer. What most people don’t realize, I think, is that “the modern PC” actually started with a company that we tend to think of far more closely associated with photocopiers than computers.

In a previous post, I talked a bit about the evolution of the computer desktop, and how the innovative work of the research teams at the Palo Alto offices of Xerox, more commonly known as Xerox PARC (or the Palo Alto Research Centre) was the beginning of the modern desktop. The Xerox Alto, and the commercial Star (or 8010), as I pointed out there, represented the real beginnings of the GUI desktops we all take for granted today. If that were all that could be traced back to PARC and the Star/8010, it would certainly be worthy of a large mention in the history of computers, but those systems were really the genesis of everything we see today as “modern computing.”

I stumbled across some of the old promotional video for the Xerox Star (in 3 parts here, here, and here), as well as a great report that includes a wonderfully candid interview with Steve Jobs about his tour of PARC, that highlights just how revolutionary the Star/8010 was.

“It consists of a processor, a large display screen, a keyboard, and a pointing device called the mouse. Star’s are normally connected together using the Ethernet local area network. This not only allows Stars to communicate with one another, but it also lets them share resources such as file servers and printers.”
David Smith, Xerox, Xerox Star Introduction and Promotional video, part 1

That, in a nutshell, is everything we think of today as a modern computer. The LAN connections allowing for large scale communication between machines is the pre-cursor to today’s intranets and file/print servers, not to mention the birth of office email. The 3 part demo is a fascinating tour of where the standards we take for granted today on the desktop started. Drag and Drop, icon, window, point and click are all phrases that are a part of our daily lexicon today, but the Xerox Star is where those phrases were first implemented. As I watched the Star word processing demo, I was struck by just how many of today’s standards go back to those humble beginnings … even the standard of selecting text using two clicks for a word, three clicks for a sentence, etc goes back to the Star.

Its fascinating to hear Jobs talk about his tour through Palo Alto, at least as much for his comment on what he missed as for his comment on what he saw. The Mac, the machine that became iconic for Apple and Jobs himself, was the realization of his tunnel vision, seeing the GUI operating system of the Star/Alto and not seeing the stuff around it. Jobs says …

“And they showed me, really, three things, but I was so blinded by the first one that I didn’t really see the other two. One of the things they showed me was object oriented programming. They showed me that, but I didn’t even see that. The other one they showed me was really a networked computer system. They had about 100 Alto computers, all networked, using email, etc, etc … I didn’t even see that. I was so blinded by the first thing they showed me, which was the Graphical User Interface. I thought it was the best thing I had seen in my life. … Within 10 minutes, it was obvious to me that all computers would work this way.”
Steve Jobs on his tour of PARC, from “Xerox gives away the kitchen sink to Apple Computer

The three main trends that make up the modern world of PC’s were all there in Palo Alto, in the late 70’s when Jobs went for his tour. It would take an entire post to discuss the contributions of the object oriented programming model to modern computing, and why it is particularly suited to GUI programming, but suffice to say that the best examples of today’s systems are very much an expression of that object oriented model. The notion of networking our machines together is so fundamental to our idea of modern computing that we would often overlook it as being as mundane as the power connections, but “about 100 Alto computers, all networked, using email, etc, etc” in the late 70’s was a revolutionary look at an almost science fiction future.

We can argue about the various contributions of firms like Apple and Microsoft, and even Atari and Commodore and Sinclair to the growth of the personal computer industry, and its worthwhile to talk about what firms like Apple did with the GUI in the early Mac, as one example. But there should never be a question who the parent of the industry is … Xerox. Pretty much everything we think of today that makes up the modern PC can be traced back to one of the projects from PARC. Its very true that companies like Apple and Microsoft took these ideas and developed them into the systems we use today, but the birth of those ideas, ironically enough, is traced back to a company whose very name, in some parts of the world, is synonymous with photocopies.

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