History of Computing — 4

Today we have the legendary [[wp>Butler_lampson|Butler Lampson]] as the guest speaker. He needs no introduction, but for those who are unfamiliar, he was one of the co-founders of Xerox. He’s been intimately involved with the development of a lot of technologies we take for granted today — Ethernet, WYSYWIG interfaces among a lot of other things. Xerox, which is commonly known for its photo copiers, actually did really phenomenal work back in the 70s and 80s, most of it coming out of PARC (Palo Alto Research Center).

The talk is on “Xerox PARC, Workstations, and Distributed Computing”. Dr. Lampson has started off very very informally, sort of just talking though how Xerox began. They wanted to build some systems but they couldn’t find any industrial partners, so they went out and did a startup. Now startups in 1969 were very different than startups these days. They had two faculty, some grad students, even one undergrad student when Xerox began.

A lot of things inspired Xerox a lot: Alan Kay’s Flex Machine, Sketchpad, Arpanet and the Aloha Packet Radio Network. The folks at Xerox had the grand vision of “an Electronic Office”. They were very interested in human computer interfaces and how to improve the interaction. At around the same time, Doug Engelbart over at SRI did a lot of work on //augmenting// human computer interaction — improve the way humans work using computers. Predominant themes were computers as //tools// for helping people think and communicate. Note that here we start to see a paradigm shift, because before this time, computers were largely seen as calculating machines — mere number crunchers.

**Personal Distributed Computing**: Again note two really important themes that we are just seeing enfolding around us in the larger sense today. Personal computing (think laptops and PDAs and iPods etc) and networking (think Zune’s Wifi, 802.11, broadband etc). The other revolutionary notion was of //end-users// as non programmers. Users simply became //consumers// of the hardware-software package. This was a fundamental shift in thinking — earlier users had largely been programmers, or scientists requiring numbers to be crunched for them. But not users in the sense we know and understand today — think Skype or Photoshop or AutoCAD.

At some point Xerox bought [[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_Data_Systems|SDS]] for almost a //billion dollars// in 1969!! Lampson says that this particular deal outdoes any of the ridiculous deals of the dot-com bubble. Xerox ended up shutting down the SDS division a few years later at a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars. One of the worst deals in the history of computing.

The mouse was //not// invented at PARC. Doug Engelbart’s team did the mouse. Xerox //did// spend a lot of time thinking about how to present information to users in a friendly manner. The [[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alto_%28computer%29|Alto]] was a result of this effort — in some sense the world’s first really personal computer. The PARC folks also seriously believed in eating their own dog food, so they always used for they built. Also, in those days, people were fast and machines were slow. Its amazing how interfaces have barely evolved in the past 3 decades. Now that machines are so much faster than people, we probably need to look into other way of interacting with computers, which can take advantage of all this computing power.

There were a bunch of largely factual slides on Alto, Ethernet and Laser printers that I won’t talk about much. They also build networked printers and the first print server (printing over Ethernet). Bravo was the WYSIWYG editor which was the precursor to M$ Word and other word processors. Smalltalk pioneered the idea of overlapping windows. The Grapevine system pioneered the idea of eventual consistency in distributed systems. The Laurel email client popularized the idea of the 3-pane window for email clients.

Markup was the precursor to Paint like bitmap based programs (nothing like Gimp or Photoshop though). Markup also had the equivalent of modern day popup-menus. They also did a lot of fonts, font editors. “Draw” was a vector based drawing program. I’m just amazed by the sheer volume and quality of systems these folks built within a few years.

PARC did “Boca Raton” in 1976 which was a big show-and-tell conference for the executives. The goal was to get Xerox to make products. As a result Xerox created the Systems Development Division. Unfortunately the execs at Xerox didn’t quite “get it”. Although the electronic printing industry (which made them billions of dollars and was born out of Alto) was a huge success, the Star Office system from Xerox was a big commercial failure.

Well, I gotta take off for Sur Taal practice now, so I’ll catch up on the rest of the lecture later.


  1. Steve Loughran

    Grapevine…there’s a thought. Right from the outset, Xeroc RPC knew you needed a good directory service, so you could move RPC servers around. Yet today, in WS-* we normally have hard coded endpoints in the client source. Admittedly, DNS is a directory service, but most people dont create a new virtual host for every endpoint, so it is underused.

    Abode came out of Parc; the laserjet is an effective spin off, though the money goes to HP and canon there.

    It makes PARC the best and worst of corporate R&D. Best because they did great things. Worst because Xerox never saw an ROI.

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