In 1970, eager to be on the cutting edge of information technology, Xerox gathered many of the best minds in the computer industry and ensconced them in the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California. Its mission was to create the future without worrying about the practicality of actually marketing their creations as commercial products.
By 1973, it had succeeded in giving birth to the Xerox Alto, the embodiment of many computing firsts. It was the first personal computer in the sense that it was designed to be used by a single person. Rather than putting fully formed characters on screen one at a time, the Alto created both text and graphics out of individually controlled pixels using a process called bit-mapping. Using Ethernet, another PARC creation, the Alto could network with other Altos and laser printers, yet another PARC invention. It had a funny pointing device, a three-button mouse, invented in the 1960s by Douglas Carl Engelbart.
Recommended by Jef Raskin and software engineer Bill Atkinson, Jobs approached the Xerox Development Corporation, the copier giant’s venture capital branch, and proposed, “I will let you invest a million dollars in Apple if you will sort of open the kimono at Xerox PARC.” At the time, Apple was enjoying meteoric growth. Xerox was anxious to get a piece of the action and was more than willing to allow an Apple contingent to take a peek at PARC.
When Jobs first visited in November 1979, he saw with his own eyes what all the fuss was about. He was so excited that he returned in December with Apple engineers and executives. Jobs began jumping around, shouting, “Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is the greatest thing! This is revolutionary!” If Xerox didn’t recognize the value of its own work, Jobs certainly did. When he saw the Smalltalk development environment running with its movable overlapping windows and pop-up menus, he knew that’s what he wanted, and he instructed the Lisa crew to begin working in that direction.
Apple didn’t get blueprints from Xerox, but rather inspiration. “Just like the Russians and the A-bomb,” observed PARC’s director, George Pake, “they developed it very quickly once they knew it was doable.” Eventually more than 15 Xerox employees would defect to Apple, including Steve Capps, Bruce Horn, Alan Kay, and Barbara Koalkin.
This prototype Macintosh screen (courtesy of Steve Capps) shows the basic but still-recognizable Mac graphical user interface that lives on in Mac OS X 10
This article first appeared in Macworld January 2004 and has been updated. Owen W Linzmayer is the San Francisco-based author of Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Company, recently published by No Starch Press. Visit his website for more information about his works and where to purchase his books.
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