Apple and Xerox PARC – Did Steve Jobs steal everything from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center?

| March 22, 2012 | 8 Comments

Rich Neighbor with Open Doors

It is claimed again and again that in the course of the Macintosh’s development, Apple just resorted to the ideas the research laboratory Xerox PARC had hatched before. Fact or Fiction?

The myth says, Apple CEO Steve Jobs saw Xerox PARC product, such as the GUI, either on a tour or at a trade show. He then used the PARC GUI implementation without permission, to create the Apple Lisa and the original Mac OS / Macintosh GUI.

The myth entwines about a late 1979 visit to Xerox PARC by a group of Apple engineers and executives led by Steve Jobs. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of “Making the Macintosh”, writes:

According to early reports, it was on this visit that Jobs discovered the mouse, windows, icons, and other technologies that had been developed at PARC. These wonders had been locked away at PARC by a staff that didn’t understand the revolutionary potential of what they had created. Jobs, in contrast, was immediately converted to the religion of the graphical user interface, and ordered them copied by Apple, starting down the track that would eventually yield the Lisa and “insanely great” Macintosh. The Apple engineers– that band of brothers, that bunch of pirates– stole the fire of the gods, and gave it to the people.

It’s a good story. Unfortunately, it’s also wrong in almost every way a story can be wrong. There are problems with chronology and timing. The testimony of a number of key figures at Apple suggests that the visit was not the revelation early accounts made it out to be. But the story also carries deeper assumptions about Apple, Xerox PARC, computer science in the late 1970s, and even the nature of invention and innovation that deserve to be examined and challenged.

Let us take a closer look at what happend at Xerox PARC:

 

Entrance of Xerox PARC in the eighties

Entrance of Xerox PARC in the eighties

 

In the Untied States, the brand name “Xerox” denotes photocopying just as “Kleenex” stands for tissues or “Scotch tape” for adhesive film. After all, already in 1950, the Xerox Corp. was the world’s first company to actually transfer the “Xerography” invented by the American law student Chester Carlson into a functional product. Carlson received in 1937 a patent for a process that he called “electrophotography.” On 22 October 1938 followed the premiere in practice: With the help of a metal plate was coated with sulfur and a lamp Chester the lettering “10-22-38 Astoria” on a wax paper.

The first photocopy

The first photocopy

By the end of the sixties, the Xerox management sensed the threat of Japanese companies catching up on Xerox’s technological advantage. Moreover, the Xerox head worried that the “paperless office” might emerge with the following computer generations, in which the Xerox would no longer have a place. Against this background, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California was founded in 1971. John Warnock, former researcher in the Xerox PARC and later one of the two founders of Adobe Systems, remembers: “The atmosphere was electric – there was total intellectual freedom. There was no conventional wisdom; almost every idea was up for challenge and got challenged regularly.”

The PARC Computer Science Laboratory (CSL) - 1970 ca.

The PARC Computer Science Laboratory (CSL) – 1970 ca. – © PARC (Palo Alto Research Center, Incorporated)

Larry Tessler, who later took part in developing the Macintosh and the Newton PDA at Apple, also enjoyed the liberties the PARC provided in the seventies: “The management said go create the new world. We don’t understand it. Here are people who have a lot of ideas and tremendous talent, [are] young, energetic.” The problem, however, was that the company management at the East Coast of the USA did not [care a straw for] the PARC’s research results unless they were directly involved with photocopiers.

In his TV documentation “Triumph of the Nerds” Robert Cringley is interviewing researchers at the Xerox PARC

Within two years, the researchers at the PARC had designed the Alto, which was something like the first personal computer. The Alto did not feature character-oriented graphics, as did all the other computers of that time, but a bit-oriented version instead. A high quality printer could print exactly what the screen displayed.

A mouse. Removable data storage. Networking. A visual user interface. Easy-to-use graphics software. “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) printing, with printed documents matching what users saw on screen. E-mail. Alto for the first time combined these and other now-familiar elements in one small computer.

Developed by Xerox as a research system, the Alto marked a radical leap in the evolution of how computers interact with people, leading the way to today’s computers.

By making human-computer communications more intuitive and user friendly, Alto and similar systems opened computing to wide use by non-specialists, including children.

People were able to focus on using the computer as a tool to accomplish a task rather than on learning their computer’s technical details.
The Computer History Museum about the Xerox Alto

Xerox Alto

Xerox Alto

However, this marvelous machine was not freely available on the market. Approximately 1500 units had been produced, 1000 of which Xerox employed in-house; the rest went to universities and public authorities.

The revolutionary Alto would have been an expensive personal computer if put on sale commercially. Lead engineer Charles Thacker noted that the first one cost Xerox $12,000. As a product, the price tag might have been $40,000.

Commercial for the Xerox Alto (1972).

This commercial for Xerox’s Alto computer released in 1972 introduced the world to the first desktop computer with a graphical user interface. Named after Xerox PARC’s home city of Palo Alto, California, the computer introduced the world to the window-oriented mouse and keyboard interface we use today. The Alto also had a distinctive portrait screen — an idea that was well before its time.

The video showed how the computer could revolutionize your office life, with email, word processing and reminders all controlled by a cursor. It also shows the protagonist expressing his thoughts and actions out loud, as if in conversation with the Alto (which seems to be nicknamed “Fred”).

Read next page: How Apple discovered Xerox PARC

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Category: Computer History, Featured, Mac History, Xerox Parc

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  1. carol says:

    Thanks Xerox, you’re the one !

  2. Zimborg says:

    Myth: Xerox management were stupid/did not attempt to commercialize the technology
    Fact: The Xerox Star was sold to the public years before the first Apple system with such a user interface: the Lisa.

    Myth: Xerox management were stupid not to prosecute Apple earlier
    Fact: Xerox was under anti-trust supervision at the time much like AT&T and IBM. It would be very dangerous from them to be seen squashing a competitor. Software patents were generally unenforceable. Apple claimed Xerox only had the ideas and ideas we not copyrightable only the expression of the ideas.

  3. peter says:

    Myth: THe Xerox Star was sold to the public years before the first Apple system with such a user interface: the Lisa.
    Fact: the Xerox Star was sold in the second half of 1981. The first Lisa was produced 1982. So it’s month, not years.

  4. Steve says:

    Myth: Peter is right
    Fact: Peter has no life

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