Oct. 31, 2011
by Mark Ollig
What well-known company created the first desktop office computer, navigable by using a mouse-driven graphical user interface?
Did I hear someone say Apple Computer’s Lisa or Macintosh computer?
The Lisa was available in January 1983, followed by the Macintosh one year later.
The Microsoft Windows 1.0 graphical user interface program came out in November 1985.
It was in April 1973, when Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) division completed work on a new desktop computer.
This computer contained a graphical user interface, navigated by using a 3-button mouse.
They called it the Xerox Alto.
I think of the Alto computer as the ancestor of today’s personal computer.
The name “Alto” was taken from the Palo Alto Research Center, where Xerox developed it.
Xerox is better known for its copier machines, but back in the early 1970s, inside Xerox’s Software Development Division, Xerox developers began work on a unique computer graphical user interface design.
Xerox researchers believed future technology favored digital over analog, and so they designed a way to merge their copier machines with digital computing technology – which they began using within their organization.
The Alto computer’s graphical user interface offered a significant improvement over keying in text at a command line.
Alto users experienced a dramatic visual difference when manipulating the display screen’s graphical images, scrollbars, icons, windows, and file names using the 3-button mouse.
The Xerox Alto computer used a rectangular-portrait-like, monochrome, 875-line, raster-scanned, bitmap display screen.
“Bitmap” refers to how each pixel element on the display screen is mapped with one or more bits stored inside the computer’s video memory.
A bitmap display was essential in using the graphical user interface.
Alto’s programs were stored on 2.5 MB single-platter removable disk cartridges.
The “microcoded” processor was a based on Texas Instrument’s Arithmetic and Logic Unit (ALU) 7481 chip, and was equipped with 128 kB of main memory, expandable to 512 kB.
The computer’s processing components, disk storage units, and related systems were encased inside a small cabinet the size of a compact refrigerator.
Alto computers were connected to Xerox’s LAN (Local Area Network) using Ethernet – which Xerox had developed at PARC.
The LAN allowed for the sharing of program files, documents, printers, office email, and other information.
The Alto computer included a 64-key QWERTY keyboard.
Another device for entering commands was a five-finger “chord keyset” device; however, this never became as popular with Alto users as did using the 3-button mouse.
The Alto was designed to be used with laser printers, which were also developed by Xerox.
Software used with the Alto included word processors Bravo and Gypsy.
Alto’s email software was called Laurel; someone with a sense of humor called the next version; Hardy.
Other software included a File Transfer Protocol program, a user chat utility, and computer games such as, Chess, Pinball, Othello, and Alto Trek.
Markup and Draw (a painting and graphics program), was also used on the Alto.
Xerox originally started with 80 Alto computers, each costing $10,000.
Alto computers were not sold to the general public; however, Xerox provided them to universities and government institutions, as well as using them within their corporate business offices.
By 1978, Xerox Alto computers had been installed in four test sites – including the White House.
I learned that by the summer of 1979, almost 1,000 Alto computers were being used by engineers, computer science researchers, and office personal.
In December 1979, Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple Computer in 1976, visited Xerox at PARC, and was given a demonstration of the Alto computer.
He was shown Ethernet-networked Alto computers using email and an object-oriented programing language which ended up being called, SmallTalk.
However, what impressed Jobs the most was when he observed people operating the Alto computers by means of a working graphical user interface, instead of text commands.
“I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen in my life,” said Jobs.
He went on to say, “Within 10 minutes, it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this someday.”
In 1981, Xerox made available to the public a graphical user interface desktop business computer called, the Xerox Star 8010 Information System.
That same year, recognized technology leader IBM came out with its own desktop computer called, the IBM Personal Computer (model 5150).
Yours truly used this IBM PC model for several years.
IBM had a historical reputation with computing, and its personal computers became popular with businesses and the general public.
Throughout the 1980s, IBM, Apple, Microsoft, and other computer companies continued to develop and improve upon their own computer hardware and operating systems.
As the 1980s progressed, it became apparent that it was too late for Xerox to become a serious player in this newly emerging personal computer game.
The public identified Xerox more as a copier machine company, than a computer company.
As for the Xerox Alto, its significance was the major role it played in influencing how we interact with computers.
“ . . . Xerox could have owned the entire computer industry today,” Steve Jobs said in 1996.
To see a picture of the Xerox Alto, go to: tinyurl.com/42x52qo.
About Mark Ollig:
Telecommunications and all things tech has been a well-traveled road for me. I enjoy learning what is new in technology and sharing it with others who enjoy reading my particular slant on it via this blog. I am also a freelance columnist for my hometown's print and digital newspaper.