Posts Tagged ‘Charles Simonyi’

Xerox PARC logo, ca. 1971. Courtesy, Wikipedia.

PARC, or Palo Alto Research Center, Inc., was founded in 1971 as a research arm of the Xerox Corporation. Its critical contributions to computer science included development of the laser printer, the Ethernet, a variation of ARPANET (a predecessor of the Internet); various email delivery systems; the nucleus of the modern personal computer – featuring a monitor with graphical user interface, or GUI (pronounced “gooey”), and the first modern version of Stanford Research Institute’s Douglas Engelbart’s invention: the computer “mouse.” PARC sits in a low-lying, non-descript cement building nudging the Stanford University campus off Coyote Hill Road on the outskirts of Palo Alto, California.

Xerox PARC Computer Science Laboratory class, ca. 1971. Bob Taylor, second from right, would hold classes with laboratory students in "beanbag" chairs. Courtesy, Computer History Museum.

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, recalled in his recently published memoir Idea Man how during of September of 1980, he interviewed a PARC programmer named Charles Simonyi for a job, and how intrigued he was about the goings on behind the gates of Oz, or “ivory tower,” as Allen put it. Allen saw that PARC was a highly innovative and forward-thinking company that anticipated trends in computer technology a “decade” before everyone else in computer high tech.

Charles Simonyi, at Xerox PARC, ca. 1980 in front of one of their Alto computers. He left PARC that same year for Microsoft. Courtesy, Folklore.org.

Simonyi ultimately accepted a position with Microsoft, and subsequently invited Allen to Palo Alto to see a demonstration of PARC’s new “Alto” computer. Allen remembers being “blown away” by the complex word processing software graphics that displayed multiple-sized fonts on a screen that would print in an identical manner. The graphics were referred to as “WYSIWYG,” or “What you see is what you get.” One of the most devastating observations Allen mentioned was a completely intuitive interface, where one could actually “cut and paste” entire blocks of text via the computer’s mouse. In this particular mouse, motion was sensed by two wheels perpendicular to each other. Eventually, this was replaced by a “ball” mouse.

By the beginning of 1978, Altos were being tested in four locations: the White House, the U.S. House of Representatives, the Atlantic Richfield Company, and the offices of Xerox’s copier sales division. Xerox also donated a total of fifty Altos to outstanding universities—Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Universityof Rochester, including IFS file servers (the file server was a common application for the machine) and Dover laser printers. Xerox management rejected creating a commercially obtainable version of the Alto for many years.

A brief thumbnail of a few applications available for the Alto:

  • Bravo and Gypsy—the first WYSIWYG word processors;
  • Laureland its successor Hardy—Network E-mail clients;
  • Markup and Draw—Painting and graphics manipulation (bitmap editors);
  • Neptune—File manager;
  • FTP and chat utilities;
  • Games—Chess, Pinball, Othello and a Alto Trek game by Gene Ball;
  • Sil—vector graphics editor, used mainly for logic circuits, printed circuit.

Simonyi, when later asked about his decision to join Microsoft, explained that Xerox was simply “an old company going downhill,” and that it wasn’t just that they didn’t have all the right answers to complex technology questions. “That’s normal,” he said. But what bothered him the most was that they didn’t know the right questions, either.

The Xerox Alto was ultimately considered a failure because they were only able to sell 25,000 of them. Its successor, the Xerox Star, released in 1981 at a price tag of $16,000, might have been termed a “personal” computer, but definitely not a “popular” one. Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent New Yorker magazine article, said that Xerox PARC had developed the Alto for “professionals,” but that Apple computer’s Steve Jobs, who basically purchased an opportunity to tour PARC in 1979, wanted his personal computer to have a far more broadly-based appeal. Speaking of which, Jobs’ tour of PARC has entered high tech lore as a seminal moment in the development of the modern personal computer. Detractors have referred to it as letting the fox in the chicken coop, while Allen might be inclined to see it as letting a kid in the candy store. Jobs, for his part, asked if PARC would simply “open its kimono.”

Steve Jobs with the Apple II computer, ca. 1979 - the same year he gained entrance to Xerox PARC. Courtesy, Gizmodo.

The then 24 year-old Jobs got his chance to visit after negotiating for Xerox PARC to purchase 100,000 pre-IPO shares of Apple Computer for $1 million. He brought a team of executives and engineers along with him and was shown a number of PARC’s innovations, including the aforementioned WYSIWYG—the mouse-driven graphical user interface provided by the Alto. Jobs promptly integrated this into two of his key computer projects—first the Apple Lisa and then the Macintosh. Then, in similar fashion to the way Allen snapped up Simonyi at Microsoft, Jobs actively cherry-picked the talent at PARC for Apple.

An interesting epilogue, tying together both this sequence of events and the Simonyi defection, is Apple’s lawsuit against Microsoft (whose “Windows” technology derived heavily from the WYSIWYG interface) for illegally appropriating the “look and feel” of the Macintosh GUI. Not to be outdone, Xerox decided to sue Apple on the same grounds; but ultimately, all of the lawsuits were dismissed for lack of legal merit. Chiefly, none of the parties involved could claim ownership of any of the technologies they employed.

Christopher Hartman

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