Xerox could have owned the computer industry

April 13, 2018
by Mark Ollig

Which tech company created the first desktop office computer manageable by using a mouse-operated, graphical user interface?

Did I hear someone say Apple Computer’s Lisa computer?

The Lisa was available in January 1983.

The Microsoft Windows 1.0 graphical user interface program came out in November 1985.

We need to go back to the 1970s.

Back then, Xerox Corporation was best known for its copier machines.

In the early 1970s, inside Xerox’s Software Development Division, Xerox developers began work on a unique computer graphical user interface design.

Xerox researchers correctly believed future technology favored digital over analog, and so they developed the technology and software for integrating their copier machines with new digital computing technology, and began using this new system within their organization.

Exactly 45 years ago, April 1973, Xerox Corporation’s California Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) division completed work on its new desktop computer.

Instead of strictly keying in text at a computer command line prompt, the new Xerox computer also included a graphical point-and-click user interface.

This graphical user interface was navigated by using a three-button mouse. They called it the Xerox Alto computer.

As you probably assumed, the name, “Alto,” is from the Palo Alto Research Center, where Xerox developed it.

Xerox employees using the Alto computer experienced a dramatic visual difference when manipulating the display screen’s graphical images, scrollbars, icons, windows, and file names by clicking the three-button mouse.

The Xerox Alto computer used a portrait-presentation, 875-line, raster-scanned, bitmap, monochrome display screen.

Bitmap refers to how each pixel element on the display screen is mapped to one or more bits stored inside the computer’s video memory.

A bitmap display was essential in using the graphical user interface.

Alto’s programs were stored on 2.5 MB single-platter removable disk cartridges.

The Alto computer’s microcoded processor was a based-on Texas Instrument’s Arithmetic and Logic Unit (ALU) 7481 chip, and was equipped with 128 kB of main memory, expandable to 512 kB.

The computer’s processing components, disk storage units, and related systems were encased inside a small cabinet the size of a compact, apartment refrigerator.

Alto computers were connected to Xerox’s LAN (Local Area Network) using Ethernet – which Xerox had also developed at PARC.

The LAN allowed for the sharing of program files, documents, printers, office email, and other information.

The Alto computer included a 64-key QWERTY mechanical keyboard.

Another device for entering commands was a five-finger “chord keyset” device; however, this never became as popular with Alto users as the three-button mouse.

The Xerox Alto computer was designed to be used with its laser printers.

Software used with the Alto included word processors named Bravo and Gypsy.

Alto’s email software was called Laurel; and yes, someone with a sense of humor named the next version, Hardy.

Other software used with the Alto computer included a File Transfer Protocol program, a user chat utility, and computer games: Chess, Pinball, Othello, Alto Trek, and a painting and graphics program called Markup and Draw.

Xerox initially built 80 Alto computers. These computers were used within their corporate business offices and not sold to the public; however, Xerox did provide some Alto computers to university and government institutions.

In 1978, Xerox Alto computers were operational in four test sites, including the White House.

By 1979, almost 1,000 Alto computers were being used by engineers, computer science researchers, and Xerox office personnel.

In December 1979, Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple Computer in 1976 with Steve Wozniak, visited Xerox’s PARC division.

Jobs was given a demonstration of the Xerox Alto computer and how it operated. He was shown locally-networked Alto computers using email, and an object-oriented programing language called SmallTalk.

It was reported, Jobs was very impressed when observing people operating the Alto computer programs with a mouse using the graphical user interface, instead of typing individual text commands on a keyboard.

“I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen in my life,” Jobs is quoted as saying about the Xerox Alto computer system.

“Within 10 minutes, it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this someday,” he added.

Steve Jobs was right.

In 1981, a graphical-user-interface desktop business computer called the Xerox Star 8010 Information System was made available to the public.

The same year, IBM introduced its desktop computer, called the IBM Personal Computer (Model 5150).

IBM had a historical reputation for computing, and its personal computers became extremely popular with businesses and the public.

As mentioned earlier, Apple released its Lisa computer in 1983; the following year, Apple introduced the Macintosh computer.

Throughout the 1980s, IBM, Apple, Microsoft, and smaller start-up computer companies, continued to develop and improve their computer hardware and operating systems.

However, it was too late for Xerox to become a competitive player in the emerging world of personal computing.

The public’s mind had already identified Xerox as being a copier machine company, rather than a computer company.

To see a picture of the Xerox Alto computer I uploaded to my photobucket page, visit: www.tinyurl.com/42x52qo.

In 1996, Steve Jobs reportedly said, “Xerox could have owned the entire computer industry.”

Steve may have been right.

Be sure to visit my weblog at www.bitscolumn.blogspot.com.

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