The Xerox Alto, widely recognized as the first modern personal computer, pioneered almost every basic concept we are familiar with in computers today. These include Windows, bit-mapped computer displays, the whole idea of WYSIWYG interfaces, the cut/paste/copy tools in word processing programs, and pop-up menus. Most of this vision of the “office of the future” was unveiled at a meeting of Xerox executives held on 10 Nov 1977, 40 years ago last week.
To celebrate that birthday, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., brought together some Parc researchers who worked on the Alto on Friday. They put it through its paces in a series of live demos. These demos used an Alto restored to working order over the past eight months. (Doug Brotz, now a fellow at Adobe Systems, noted that today’s Alto emulator for Mac computers runs five times as fast as an actual Alto.) The demo event is now available for streaming on Facebook.
The biggest takeaway? Very little has changed in the everyday software—the email clients, word processing programs, circuit design, and graphics editing tools—that we use on our personal computers; the Alto team bestowed upon the machine a host of good ideas that have yet to be bested.
Xerox Alto panel participants Photo: Douglas Fairbairn/CHM
From left: John Shoch, Dan Ingalls, Doug Brotz, Bob Sproull, Tom Malloy, Charles Simonyi, and David C. Brock.
“My kids wouldn’t find anything impressive” about that evening’s demos, said John Shoch, now a general partner at Alloy Ventures. Every feature, he pointed out, would be familiar to them from software today. Such was a Xerox Parc research staff member and later served as Xerox’s Office Systems Division president.
But, it turns out, the Alto had a feature or two that got left behind when Steve Jobs and others were grabbing all of its bits and pieces and turning them into mass-market computers. The one that got probably the biggest gasp—a “wait, I want that” reaction from the crowd attending the demos live—was a feature called “Replay” that was part of Alto’s word processing system.
Tom Malloy uses the “replay” feature of the Alto. Photo: Douglas Fairbairn/CHAs Charles Simonyi observes, M
Tom Malloy demonstrates the “replay” function of the Bravo word processing progress. During the Bravo word processing program demo, Tom Malloy retired. Still, most recently, the senior vice president and chief software architect at Adobe Systems made a (perhaps staged) mistake that deleted most of the document. Like today’s word processing programs, Bravo had an undo feature that would have allowed him to recover had he not performed any actions after the delete. Unfortunately, he had (an annoyance I run into far too often). But Bravo wasn’t limited to “undo.” It had another way of handling mistakes: You could “replay” all your previous edits (in something that looked somewhat like a high-speed video) and stop wherever you wanted.
I want that.
Of course, at any reunion of tech pioneers, stories are told. I’ve been covering the history of the Alto since the early 1980s [PDF], so I thought I’d heard most of them. But not all, it turns out. While history has focused on the developers, there was another side: users. A less obvious but also useful feature, Shoch pointed out, was Alto’s ability to rebuild its directories from information stored with the documents, even if the guides were irreversibly damaged.
Once the researchers got laser printing working, the lure of using these tools for personal business was irresistible. “The researchers—and their spouses—were doing PTA reports, personal correspondence, doctoral theses,” said Charles Simonyi, who oversaw the development of Word and other Microsoft Office applications and is now back at Microsoft after it acquires his startup, Intentional Software.
And a few of those documents weren’t just PTA reports and letters to Mom. The original business plan for the Macintosh computer was written at Parc on an Alto and printed using Parc’s Dover laser printer, Shoch reported, as was the screenplay for the movie Tron.
This broad range of users pushed the envelope in another way. Brotz worked on Laurel, Alto’s email client software: “Email before Laurel was confined to hard-core computer people, who just wanted to use email to get their work done.” Things got weird, however, when the user community broadened, he reported. “We found several sociological phenomena we hadn’t seen before,” he said, leading to the second manual written for the software. That edition included a chapter on email etiquette—just one more way the researchers at Parc were pioneers.