Xerox parc: A birthplace of GUI

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Atif Nagi, July 26, 2015 Essay 02: Digital Revolution: Place Professor David Edwin Meyers IXDS5503 Media History and Theory Master of Arts Degree in Interactive Design Lindsey Wilson College, Columbia, Kentucky



In 1970 the Xerox Corporation followed in the footsteps of the Bell System by launching a lab dedicated to pure research. In order that it not be contaminated by the mind-set of the corporation’s bureaucracy or the day-to-day demands of its business, it was located in the Stanford industrial park, some three thousand miles from the company’s Rochester, New York, headquarters.


HISTORY In 1969, Chief Scientist at Xerox Jack Goldman approached





specializing in nuclear magnetic resonance and provost of Washington University in St. Louis, about starting a second research center for the company. Pake selected Palo Alto, California, as the site of what was to become known as PARC. While the 3,000 mile buffer between it and Xerox headquarters in Rochester, New York afforded scientists at the new lab great freedom to undertake their work, the distance also served as an impediment in persuading management of the promise of some of their greatest achievements. PARC’s West Coast location proved to be advantageous in the mid-1970s, when the lab was able to hire many employees of the nearby SRI Augmentation Research Center as that facility’s funding from DARPA, NASA, and the Jack Goldman

U.S. Air Force began to diminish. Being situated

Jack Goldman 4

on Stanford Research Park land leased from

Systems Research Center until 1996. His awards

Stanford University allowed Stanford graduate

include the National Medal of Technology and

students to be involved in PARC research

Innovation and the Draper Prize.

projects, and PARC scientists to collaborate with academic seminars and projects. Much of PARC’s early success in the computer field was under the leadership of its Computer Science Laboratory manager Bob Taylor, who guided the lab as associate manager from 1970 to 1977

Taylor is known for his high-level vision: “The

Internet is not about technology; it’s about communication. The Internet connects people who have shared interests, ideas and needs, regardless of geography.”

and as manager from 1977 to 1983.


Among those recruited to lead Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, known as Xerox PARC, was Bob Taylor, who had recently left ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office after

Bob Taylor

helping to build the ARPANET. Through his

Bob Taylor (born 1932), is an Internet pioneer,

visits to ARPA-funded research centers and the

who led teams that made major contributions to the personal computer, and other related technologies. He was director of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office from 1965 through 1969, founder and later manager of Xerox PARC’s Computer Science Laboratory from 1970 through 1983, and founder and manager of Digital Equipment Corporation’s

conferences he hosted for the brightest graduate students, he had developed a radar for talent.

“Taylor had worked with and funded many of the leading computer science research groups during this period,” recalled Chuck Thacker,

who was one of Taylor’s recruits. “As a result, he was in a unique position to attract a staff of the highest quality.”

Bob Taylor 5

PARC beanbags 6

Alan Kay Alan Curtis Kay (born May 17, 1940) is an American computer scientist. He has been elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society of Arts. He is best known for his pioneering work on objectoriented programming and windowing graphical user interface design. He is the president of the Viewpoints Research Institute, and an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is also on the advisory board of TTI/Vanguard. Until mid-2005, he was a Senior Fellow at HP Labs, a Visiting Professor at Kyoto University, and an Adjunct Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After 10 years at Xerox PARC, Kay became Atari’s chief scientist for three years. Among Taylor’s first recruits was Alan Kay, whom he knew from ARPA conferences. When he went to PARC for his formal interview, Kay was asked what he hoped his great achievement there

would be. “A personal computer,” he answered. Asked what that was, he picked up a notebooksize portfolio, flipped open its cover, and said, “This will be a flat-panel display. There’ll be

a keyboard here on the bottom, and enough power to store your mail, files, music, artwork, and books. All in a package about this size and weighing a couple of pounds. That’s what I’m talking about.” His interviewer scratched his head and muttered to himself, “Yeah, right.” But Kay got the job. Kay saw the future with great clarity, and he became impatient to invent it. “There would be millions of personal machines and users, mostly outside of direct institutional control,” he realized. This would require the creation of small personal computers with graphical displays easy enough for a kid to use and cheap enough for every individual to own. “It all came together to form an image of what a personal computer really should be.” In his doctoral thesis he described some of its traits, most notably that it should be simple

Alan Kay 7

(“It must be learnable in private”) and friendly

would cost less than $500 “so that we could give

Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the

(“Kindness should be an integral part”). He was

it away in schools.” It also had to be small and

Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

designing a computer as if he were a humanist

personal, so that “a kid could take it wherever

In describing how children (of all ages) would

as well as an engineer. He drew inspiration

he goes to hide,” with a programming language

use a Dynabook, Kay showed he was in the

from an Italian printer in the early sixteenth

that was user-friendly. “Simple things should be

camp of those who saw personal computers

century named Aldus Manutius, who realized

simple, complex things should be possible,” he

primarily as tools for individual creativity rather

that personal books would need to fit into


than as networked terminals for collaboration.

saddlebags and thus produced ones of the size

“Although it can be used to communicate with

now common.

others through the ‘knowledge utilities’ of the future such as a school ‘library,’ ” he wrote, “we

Likewise, Kay recognized that the ideal personal

think that a large fraction of its use will involve

computer had to be no larger than a notebook.

reflexive communication of the owner with

“It was easy to know what to do next,” he

himself through this personal medium, much as

recalled. “I built a cardboard model of it to see

paper and notebooks are currently used.

what it would look and feel like.”

The Dynabook, Kay continued, should be no


larger than a notebook and weigh no more

Kay realized that he needed a catchy name for the little personal computer he wanted to build, so he began calling it the Dynabook. He also came up with a cute name for its operating system software: Smalltalk. The name was meant to be unintimidating to users and not raise expectations among hard-core engineers. He was determined that his proposed Dynabook

than four pounds. “The owner will be able to Kay wrote a description of the Dynabook, titled

maintain and edit his own files of text and

“A Personal Computer for Children of All

programs when and where he chooses. Need

Ages,” that was partly a product proposal but

we add that it be usable in the woods?” In other

mostly a manifesto. He began by quoting Ada

words, it was not just a dumb terminal designed

Lovelace’s seminal insight about how computers

to be networked into a time-shared mainframe.

could be used for creative tasks: “The Analytical

However, he did envision a day when personal 8

Dynabook prototype 9

computers and digital networks would come

as an editor, reader, take-home context, and

continue to pursue those opportunities? After a

together. “A combination of this ‘carry anywhere’

intelligent terminal are fairly obvious,” he told

rapid-fire series of such questions, Kay felt like

device and a global information utility such as

the engineers and managers sitting in beanbag

crawling away. When it was over, he cried. His

the ARPA network or two-way cable TV will

chairs. “Now let’s build thirty of these things so

request that a set of interim Dynabooks be built

bring the libraries and schools (not to mention

we can get on with it.

was denied.

enticing vision of the future, but one that would

It was a romantic pitch confidently delivered,

Kay scaled back his dream and proposed an

take another two decades to invent.

as tended to be the case with Kay, but it did

interim-interim plan. He would use $230,000 that

not dazzle Jerry Elkind, the manager of PARC’s

he had in his budget to emulate the Dynabook

To advance his crusade for the Dynabook, Kay

computer lab. “Jerry Elkind and Alan Kay were

on a Nova, a footlocker-size minicomputer

gathered around him a small team and crafted

like creatures from different planets, one an

made by Data General. But the prospect didn’t

a mission that was romantic, aspirational, and

austere by-the-numbers engineer and the other

really thrill him.


a brash philosophical freebooter,” according to

stores and billboards) to the home.” It was an

Michael Hiltzik, who wrote a history of Xerox

That is when two stars from Bob Taylor’s group

An “interim” machine

PARC. Elkind did not get stars in his eyes when

at PARC, Butler Lampson and Chuck Thacker,

In order to take the first step toward realizing

imagining children programming toy turtles on

popped into Kay’s office with a different scheme.

the Dynabook, Kay proposed an “interim”

Xerox machines. “Let me play devil’s advocate,”

machine. It would be about the size of a carry-

he responded. The other engineers perked up,

“Do you have any money?” they asked.

on suitcase and would have a small graphical

sensing that a merciless evisceration was in the

“Yes, about $230K for Novas,” Kay replied.

display screen. In May 1972 he made his pitch

offing. PARC’s mandate was to create the office


to Xerox PARC’s hardware bosses to build thirty

of the future, Elkind noted, so why should it be

“How would you like us to build your little

so that they could be tested in classrooms to

in the business of child’s play? The corporate

machine for you?” they asked, referring to the

see if students could do simple programming

environment lent itself to the time-sharing of

interim Dynabook that Elkind had shot down.

tasks on them. “The uses for a personal gadget

corporate-run computers, so shouldn’t PARC

“I’d like it fine,” Kay allowed. 10

Thacker wanted to build his own version of a personal computer, and he realized that Lampson and Kay also had the same general goal in mind. So the plot was to pool their resources and proceed without waiting for permission. “What are you going to do about Jerry?” Kay asked about his nemesis Elkind. “Jerry’s out of the office for a few months on a corporate task force,” said Lampson. “Maybe we can sneak it in before he gets back.”

Butler Lampson

Chuck Thacker 11

Xerox Alto Lampson, Thacker, and Kay—collaborating on the project. The team had a push-pull dynamic: Lampson and Thacker knew what was possible, while Kay set his sights on the ultimate dream machine and challenged them to achieve the impossible. The machine they designed was named the Xerox Alto (although Kay stubbornly continued to refer to it as “the interim Dynabook”). It had a bitmapped display, which meant that each pixel on the screen could be turned on or off to help render a graphic, a letter, a paintbrush swipe, or whatever. “We chose to provide a full bitmap, in which each screen pixel was represented by a bit of main storage,” Thacker explained. That put a lot of demands on the memory, but the guiding principle was that Moore’s Law would continue to rule and that memory would get cheaper in an exponential way. The user’s interaction with the display was controlled by a keyboard and mouse, as Engelbart had designed. When it was completed in March 1973, it featured a graphic, painted by Kay, of Sesame Street’s Cookie

Monster holding the letter “C.”

The Alto was revolutionary because it was a personal workstation for one, not a room-sized,

By keeping children (of all ages) in mind, Kay and

time-sharing computer for many, meant to sit

his colleagues advanced Engelbart’s concepts

on a single desktop. It is credited as being the

by showing that they could be implemented in

first “personal computer” (PC) in a world of

a manner that was simple, friendly, and intuitive

mainframes (note that some would argue for

to use.

other PCs being first, like the Olivetti P101). The Alto had a bit-mapped display, a graphical user

Engelbart, however, did not buy into their vision.

interface (GUI) with windows and icons, and

Instead he was dedicated to cramming as many

a “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG

functions as possible into his oNLine System,

or “wizzy-wig”) editor. It also had file storage,

and thus he never had a desire to make a

a mouse, and software to create documents,

computer that was small and personal. “That’s

send e-mails, and edit basic bitmap pictures.

a totally different trip from where I’m going,” he

Also in April 1973, Dick Shoup’s “Superpaint”

told colleagues. “If we cram ourselves in those

frame buffer recorded and storeed its first video

little spaces, we’d have to give up a whole

image, showing Shoup holding a sign reading,

bunch.” That is why Engelbart, even though

“It works, sort of.” It was the first workable paint

he was a prescient theorist, was not truly a


successful innovator: he kept adding functions and instructions and buttons and complexities

In February 1975, PARC engineers demonstrated

to his system. Kay made things easier, and in

for their colleagues a graphical user interface for

so doing showed why the ideal of simplicity—

a personal computer, including icons and the

making products that humans find convivial and

first use of pop-up menus. This concept would

easy to use—was central to the innovations that

later be stolen by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and

made computers personal. 12


be developed into the Windows and Macintosh

paid keynote speaker), the Alto system was put

interfaces of today.

on display. In the morning there was an onstage

A lost opportunity As things turned out, however, although Xerox PARC pointed the way to the land of personal computers—devices you could call your own— the Xerox Corporation did not lead the migration. It made two thousand Altos, mainly for use in Xerox offices or affiliated institutions, but it didn’t market the Alto as a consumer product. “The company wasn’t equipped to handle an innovation,” Kay recalled. “It would have meant completely new packaging, all new manuals, handling updates, training staff, localizing to different countries.” Taylor recalled that he ran into a brick wall every time he tried to deal with the suits back east. As the head of a Xerox research facility in Webster, New York, explained to him, “The computer will never be as important to society as the copier. At a lavish Xerox corporate conference in Boca Raton, Florida (where Henry Kissinger was the

demo that echoed Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos, and in the afternoon thirty Altos were set up in a showroom for everyone to use. The executives, all of whom were male, showed little interest, but their wives immediately started testing the mouse and typing away. “The men thought it was beneath them to know how to type,” said Taylor, who had not been invited to the conference but showed up anyway. “It was something secretaries did. So they didn’t take the Alto seriously, thinking that only women would like it. That was my revelation that Xerox would never get the personal computer.” Instead, more entrepreneurial and nimble innovators would be the first to foray into the personal computer market. Some would eventually license or steal ideas from Xerox PARC. But at first the earliest personal computers were homebrewed concoctions that only a hobbyist could love.

Xerox Innovation Xerox sent Alto systems to research centers around the country, spreading the innovations dreamed up by PARC engineers. There was even a precursor to the Internet Protocols, the PARC Universal Packet, that allowed different packetswitched networks to interconnect. “Most of the tech that makes the Internet possible was invented at Xerox PARC in the 1970s,” Taylor later claimed.” Accomplishments Xerox PARC has been the inventor and incubator of many elements of modern computing in the contemporary office work place: • Laser printers • Computer-generated bitmap graphics • The Graphical user interface, featuring windows and icons, operated with a mouse • The WYSIWYG text editor • Interpress, a resolution-independent graphical page-description language and the precursor to PostScript • Ethernet as a local-area computer network • Fully formed object-oriented programming 14

in the Smalltalk programming language and integrated development environment. • Model–view–controller software architecture

The GUI Xerox has been heavily criticized (particularly by business historians) for failing to properly commercialize and profitably exploit PARC’s innovations. A favorite example is the GUI, initially developed at PARC for the Alto and then commercialized as the Xerox Star by the Xerox Systems Development Department. Although very significant in terms of its influence on future system design, it is deemed a failure because it only sold approximately 25,000 units. A small group from PARC led by David Liddle and Charles Irby formed Metaphor Computer Systems. They extended the Star desktop concept






communicating office-automation model and sold the company to IBM. 15

TIMELINE: PARC MILESTONES Since its founding as Xerox PARC in 1970, Palo Alto Research Center has been home to several of computing’s most important inventions and technological advancements.

1971: The process of laser printing with a bitmapped electronic image on a xerographic copier drum is developed at PARC. 1972:




language Smalltalk is created at PARC to make it possible to improve computer programs without completely rewriting them. 1973: The Xerox Alto personal workstation, one of the first personal computers, is created, mostly for internal use at PARC. The Alto’s development led to many related innovations in

computing, including the world’s first WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get)



first graphical user interface (GUI) and the first bitmapped display (see right image). PARC







protocols are created for formatting computer files in a WYSIWYG manner, as with the Bravo word processing program, which was also introduced at PARC this year.


networking -- now a worldwide standard -- to connect computers and printers in a local-area network. (see next page image)


1975: PARC debuts the GUI with icons, popup menus and overlapping windows, controlled with point-and-click interaction. It became the basis for the GUIs we use today.


1980: Non-erasable, magneto-optical storage devices, originally designed for use with the Alto computer, are developed at PARC and later

1986: The first multibeam lasers, which lead to a new generation of high-speed, high-resolution

printing systems, are designed and built at

commercialized by PARC spinoff Optimem.


1982: PARC launches the first optical-fiber-

1987: PARC creates a 16-bit coding system for

cable-based local-area network.

characters across the world’s languages; it will

1988: PARC unveils its “ubiquitous computing” vision to describe how people will use mobile devices to interact with their work in the future. PARC builds prototype devices such as the palm-size PARCTab and book-size PARCPad as research testbeds.

be developed into the Unicode standard, which

1992: PARC researchers help design standards

allows computers to represent and recognize

that govern the Internet.

text in any language.

2000: PARC announces “electronic reusable

paper,” a thin, flexible digital document display technology; Gyricon Media is spun off from PARC to commercialize the e-paper technology. 2002: PARC is spun off from Xerox and becomes an independent subsidiary. 2010: Scientists at PARC are working on many technological initiatives today, from finding ways to further reduce power consumption in data centers to content-centric networking, which streamlines the transmission of any content over the Internet to save time and speed throughput. 17



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