Did Steve Jobs steal everything from Xerox PARC?

Some Apple engineers were already familiar with PARC, its work, or technologies like the mouse. Bill Atkinson had read about Smalltalk as an undergraduate. Some had worked at PARC: Jef Raskin spent time there during a sabbatical year at Stanford, and had a number of friends who were researchers there. Finally, there were even some Apple employees whose had learned about the mouse while working for Douglas Engelbart at SRI in the 1960s and early 1970s, or Tymshare in the later 1970s.

Smalltalk screenshot
Smalltalk screenshot – © PARC (Palo Alto Research Center, Incorporated)

There were actually two visits by groups from Apple to Xerox PARC in 1979. Steve Jobs was on the second of the two. Raskin, who helped arranged both visits, explained that he wanted Jobs to visit PARC to understand work that was already going on at Apple. The Macintosh project had escaped the chopping block several times, and Raskin had tried to explain to Jobs the significance of the technologies it was incorporating. By showing that other companies considered this kind of work exciting, Raskin hoped to boost the value of the Macintosh’s work in Jobs’ eyes.

Raskin, who had been charged initially with the Macintosh project at Apple, tried to convince the Apple management to employ a graphical user interface like the Alto contained in the development of the Lisa. According to Raskin, it was not until Bill Atkinson supported him that Jobs set out for the PARC.

Whatever way the contact was actually accomplished, this visit meant a turning point to the life of Steve Jobs; the three technologies that the 24-year-old encountered there were each revolutionary on their own: the first graphical user interface for computers; networked Alto computers; and object-oriented programming.

In 1995 Steve Jobs could still remember it exactly. In an interview with Robert X. Cringely for the PBS show “Triumph of the nerds” he said:

I had three or four people (at Apple) who kept bugging that I get my rear over to Xerox PARC and see what they are doing. And, so I finally did. I went over there. And they were very kind. They showed me what they are working on. And they showed me really three things. But I was so blinded by the first one that I didn’t even really see the other two. One of the things they showed me was object oriented programming – they showed me that but I didn’t even see that. The other one they showed me was a networked computer system… they had over a hundred Alto computers all networked using email etc., etc., I didn’t even see that. I was so blinded by the first thing they showed me, which was the graphical user interface. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life. Now remember it was very flawed. What we saw was incomplete, they’d done a bunch of things wrong. But we didn’t know that at the time but still thought they had the germ of the idea was there and they’d done it very well. And within – you know – ten minutes it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this some day. It was obvious. You could argue about how many years it would take. You could argue about who the winners and losers might be. You could’t argue about the inevitability, it was so obvious.


Steve Jobs about his visit to Xerox PARC – Clip from Robert Cringley’s TV documentation “Triumph of the Nerds“.

Jobs decided to realign Apple’s strategy and fully rely on the “graphical user interface” (GUI) he had seen at the Xerox PARC.

Adele Goldberg
Adele Goldberg

Adele Goldberg, who had been a researcher at the PARC at that time, already suspected that Jobs’ visit would entail extensive consequences: “He came back, and I almost said ‘asked’ but the truth is ‘demanded,’ that his entire programming team get a demo of the Smalltalk System, and the then head of the science center asked me to give the demo because Steve specifically asked for me to give the demo, and I said ‘no way.’ I had a big argument with these Xerox executives, telling them that they were about to give away the kitchen sink, and I said that I would only do it if I were ordered to do it, cause then, of course, it would be their responsibility, and that’s what they did.”

Steve Jobs hab no idea that Adele Goldberg had tried to convince her bosses not to do the presentation in beforehand. She argued against doing it for three hours.

They did show us. And it is good that they showed us because the technology crashed and burned at Xerox. (…) Why? I actually thought lot about that. I learned more about that with John Sculley later on. I think that I understand it now pretty well. What happens is like with John Sculley. John came from PepsiCo. They at most would change their products once every ten years. To them a new product was like a new size of a bottle, right?. If you were a product person you couldn’t change the course of that company very much. So, how influenced the success of PepsiCo? The sales and marketing people! Therefore they were the onces who got promoted. They were the onces who ran the company. Well, for PepsicCo that might have been okay. But – it turns out that the same thing can happen in technology companies that get monopolies – like IBM and Xerox. If you were a product person at IBM or Xerox – so you make a better copier or computer? So what? When you have a monopoly market share, the company is not any more successful. The people that can make a company more successful are sales and marketing people. And they end up running the companies. And the product people get driven out of decision making forums. And the companies forget what it means to make great products. The product sensibility and the product genius, that brought them to that monopolistic position, gets rotted out by people running this companies who have no conception of a good product versus a bad product. They have no conception of the craftsmanship that is required to take a good idea and turn it in to a good product. (…) Thats whats happend at Xerox. The people at Xerox PARC used to call this people toner heads. These toner heads came out to Xerox PARC and had no clue about what they were seeing. Basically, they were copier heads that just had no clue about a computer or what it could do. And so they just grabbed defeat from the greatest victory in the computer industry. Xerox could have owned the entire computer industry today.

Bill Atkinson and Larry Tessler the demo for Apple at Xerox PARC” (taken from: Triumph of the Nerds)

Steve Jobs had his own reasons for visiting PARC. Apple bought access to the PARC by means of a stock deal that seemed lucrative to the Xerox managers on the East Coast: They might buy 100,000 Apple stocks for one million dollars. Holding this admission ticket in the hand, Steve Jobs, Apple’s president Mike Scott, Bill Atkinson, and a number of members of the developing team marched up. “I think mostly … what we got in that hour and a half was inspiration and just sort of basically a bolstering of our convictions that a more graphical way to do things would make this business computer more accessible.”

Xerox Alto (1973 Prototype Workstation)

Larry Tesler, who then took part in the demo as an employee of the PARC, had been fascinated by the visitors: “After an hour looking at demos, they understood our technology and what it meant, more than any Xerox executive understood after years of showing it to them,” Tesler told Robert X. Cringley in the PBS-Show “Triumph of the Nerds” (1996).

In late 2011 after Steve Jobs death Tesler recalled Steve Jobs’ visit at an event at the Churchill Club:

Steve Jobs’ visit of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1979 became in 1999 a topic in the movie “Pirates of Silicon Valley”. The narrator in this scene (role of Steve Wozniak”) says more or less, that the Apple guys got a “miracle bag” from Xerox: the idea of the WYSIWYG, the mouse-driven graphical user interface – “like rich people giving junky old stuff to the Salvation Army, only the junk turns out to be a Rembrandt.”

But to be fair: The movie does not tell the whole story: Yes, the Macintosh team got an important demo (PARC was compensated with a pre-IPO Apple stock deal). They took up the ideas of the Xerox PARC, but it also changed numerous operating modes and added countless new features. Accordingly, the Xerox Alto did not imply, for example, menus flapping down from the upper edge of the screen, but operated with some kind of a pop-up window instead. Moreover, the window did not open automatically by double-clicking on a document, but had to be opened manually. During months of painstaking work, Atkinson had written the QuickDraw routine for the Lisa and the Macintosh, which allowed for overlapping windows to be drawn on the computer screen for the first time.

Read next page: Macintosh-Developer Andy Hertzfeld about Xerox PARC

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