Many people mistakenly credit either Apple or Microsoft for inventing windows, icons and mouse driven graphical interfaces that are a staple of modern software design. The truth is that neither of these companies had anything to do with this revolutionary paradigm shift in computing. They have both copied these ideas from elsewhere. The true inventor of the GUI as we know it, was Xerox.
Yes, the company now synonymous with clunky copy machines used to be on the cutting edge of computer design. Back in 1973 the Xerox PARC labs designed a machine known as Xerox Alto. This was one of the first computers designed for personal user. Up until that point most computing systems were designed as large mainframes to be shared amongst multiple users who accessed them via dumb terminals (which were nothing more than a network attached monitors and keyboards). Alto was one of the first times in history when users would get their own, dedicated CPU, memory and storage that they didn’t have to share with anyone. While personal computer existed before Alto, it was unique in it’s focus on user friendly interface design and usability.
Xerox Alto looked like this:
If you look at that picture, you will probably see another revolutionary, paradigm shifting feature of this system: a mouse. Most computer systems prior to Alto had no use for a pointing device. Xerox however based most of their software around this tool. They invented the “destkop” metaphor most computers use to this day, came up with the idea for icons as program launchers and popularized the use of windows for task management.
The software made for the Alto was almost as revolutionary as the design of the machine itself:
- The first WYSIWYG document preparation system.
- The first WYSIWYG integrated circuit editor
- The first version of the Smalltakd programming language
- Some of the first multiplayer video games
So why no one ever talks about Xerox Alto? Why most of the discussions about graphical user interface advancements involve exploits of the late Steve Jobs and not the brilliant engineers at PARC labs?
It turns out that Xerox was short sighted. The management did not view the Alto as a commercial product that would sell well. They used their systems internally, and lent them out to governmental research facilities and select universities. But you could not buy an Alto and put it on your desk. To get your hands on these wonderful machines you had to work at Xerox or have connections.
When Steve Jobs visited the Xerox PARC in 1979 he became so enamored with the mouse driven interface used by the Alto machines that he decided to adopt a similar interface for the fledgling Macintosh computer line. This turned out to be a great business decision and his choice to bring the Alto like GUI to the masses had a huge impact on the computer hardware market forging way for the personal computing revolution.
Xerox did eventually try to re-vamp their Alto systems as commercial units, but by the time they entered the market they were outmaneuvered by more agile competition. Even though they definitely made profit, and the venture was a success from a strict business standpoint the sales figures were not nearly impressive enough for Xerox to want to stay in that cutthroat market.