Day 375: Circus Of The (Xerox) Stars

originally published January 9, 2013

The Apple Macintosh gets a lot of credit for breaking computer users out of their DOS-command prisons and allowing them to unleash their freedom within the first true point-and-click world. Surely the great Apple, pioneer of the way we listen to music, Facetime our nieces and ignore one another around the kitchen table, must be behind this glorious technology.

After all, we remember that famous Super Bowl commercial (oh yeah, they also invented the importance of the Super Bowl commercial) that demonstrated their new technology’s liberation powers:

But Apple merely popularized a modified form of what had already been done. The real innovation took place years earlier, at a place called the Palo Alto Research Center. And the company behind this work wasn’t Apple. It was Xerox.

It started with the Xerox Alto, a computer workstation designed by Xerox for use by Xerox. It was miles ahead of its time, but not really feasible for the common shlub to own. Between 1972 and 1979, about 500 Altos were strewn about the world outside the company, mainly at universities and government offices.

The Alto’s real selling point was the fact that the machines could all be connected to one another via Ethernet networking, another invention that came out of the Xerox labs in Palo Alto. Also, it was a conversation starter, even if the only conversations it started were, “Why do you have a sideways television sitting on top of an air conditioner?”

In 1977 – probably inspired directly by Star Wars because everything was back then – Xerox set about designing the Office Of The Future. After the project was nearly derailed by a lengthy debate over what color of Spandex onesie we’d all be wearing in our future offices, team leader David Liddle got everyone back on track. They maintained contact between their Palo Alto facility and the El Segundo, California, lab where most of the action was taking place. To do this, they relied on the Arpanet, which was the pupae form of what we now call the internet. Basically the same thing, but with hardly any cute cat photos and almost 10% less pornography.

The focus on the new Xerox system was a WYSIWYG system, which is probably the cutest-sounding computer acronym when you say it out loud as a single word. It stands for ‘What You See Is What You Get’, and it means that the bar graph you made that proves that Tab is more popular than Coke or Pepsi in your office will look the same on the screen as it will look when you print it.

They also invented this:

Actually, they didn’t invent the mouse, but they gave the mouse something to do. Any of you who grew up looking at the green-screen technology of the early Apple computers probably remember that you ran the thing by typing commands at it. You’d buy programs or games if you wanted to see something with graphics; otherwise, you’d have to create your own. Usually this would end up as something truly unimpressive, like repeatedly displaying the word ‘Penus’ on the screen.

Xerox designed its software to be white-on-black, just like real type on real paper. They also introduced the Graphical User Interface (or GUI – which is another cute acronym when you say it out loud). This is the forerunner of Windows, and the forerunner of Macintosh.

In addition to looking pretty, each Xerox Star was equipped with Ethernet technology. This allowed for easy inter-office communication, and the proliferation of racist/sexist jokes and ‘dumb blonde’ gags known as email. Through one centralized server, everyone in an office could share files and send them to the excruciatingly expensive laser printer. Plus, instead of having to strain one’s eyes at endless lines of text, or search for a file amid a lengthy directory list, you could just find the thing and open it with your mouse, in an environment as serene and peaceful as this:

The Xerox Star system was released in 1981, and should have taken the business world by storm.

So why didn’t it? Why did the 80’s see MS-DOS and IBM reign supreme in the cubicle communities around the globe? One could point to marketing missteps or not snagging a beloved celebrity spokesman like George Hamilton, but ultimately the flaw in the Xerox system was purely money.

A basic Star sold for $16,000. A Star by itself (a ‘lone Star’) was useless though; you’d want at least two or three, and probably a central file server and print server. Now you’re up around $100,000. By contrast, if you wanted to set up your employees with basic computers without all this connectivity and coolness, you could pick up a Commodore VIC-20 for about $300.

Marketing did have something to do with the Star’s failure – Xerox’s primary focus on photocopiers and high-end laser printers meant the Star didn’t get a lot of splash out of the ad budget. Also, the sales staff made the big bucks off printers and copiers, so naturally they’d gravitate toward the products that held more premium commissions.

Even if it wasn’t a huge hit (about 25,000 were sold), the Xerox Star paved the way for the future. The catch is, they didn’t patent everything brilliant within the Star. Due to a 1975 FTC antitrust action, there were limits on what Xerox was allowed to patent. Since patenting software was a deeply grey area at the time, their patent lawyers kept themselves busy with keeping track of the important stuff, the technology Xerox had built its name on: printing.

So when the Macintosh followed its Orwellian marketing blitz and landed on shelves with a graphical system in 1984, Xerox didn’t try to protect their technology. Sure, Apple sued Microsoft in 1988 for ‘violating’ their technology with some of the features of Windows. But what about Xerox?

Actually, Xerox tried to sue Apple in 1989 for doing the same thing. But they’d dropped the ball and missed the 3-year statute of limitations. Xerox allowed their innovations to spill all over the market, to the point where they make no money off the software that runs your system, the Ethernet card that connects you to the world, or the mouse you so feverishly finger-stomp while trying to kill a black dragon in World of Warcraft.

If it’s any consolation, their company name has become a verb in our language. Of course, they don’t make any money off that either. The fools.

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