Xerox und der PC
Leslie Berlin; Blackchannel; 27.12.2017:
In November 1977, some 300 executives and their wives flew in from all over the world on first-class tickets to spend four days in the sun at the Xerox World Conference. Between meetings for the men and fashion shows for the wives, the visitors slept in luxury rooms at the Boca Raton Hotel and Club and attended cocktail parties and a keynote by Henry Kissinger. Now, on the last morning of the last day, they had assembled for the highlight of the conference: Futures Day, an invitation-only demonstration of the Alto personal computer system developed at Xerox PARC, the company’s research center in Palo Alto.
Bob Taylor, who ran PARC’s Computer Science Laboratory that had helped develop the Alto system, was pleased to have a chance to show Xerox executives the breakthrough that today would be called a personal computer. He believed that the machines would be transformational, eliminating much of what he called the “drudgery of office work” and freeing office workers “to attend to higher-level functions so necessary to a human’s estimate of his own worth.” Some 400 Altos had already been installed throughout Xerox, and the computers were so popular that there was talk of instituting sign-up sheets.
But senior Xerox executives had hardly seen, much less tried to use, an Alto, and efforts by Taylor and others to convince Xerox to reorient its computer strategy away from big machines in favor of “an Alto-like personal computer system” had yielded no result. Futures Day would be PARC’s best chance to introduce the Alto to the men who would determine whether the personal computer would stay a curiosity within the company or become a real product in the wider world. PARC sent 42 people, a dozen Altos, 5 printers, 25 keyboards, servers, tens of thousands of feet of cable, video and multiplexing equipment, and dozens of mice, tools, repair parts, and power supplies to Boca Raton to help make PARC’s case.
At the start of the presentation, the house lights went down. A film appeared on the screen. “Here is our future, the modern office. Our opportunity,” a voice intoned as the camera scanned past earth-tone fabric wall art hung over an earth-tone sofa in the PARC lobby. “Beneath the chrome and coordinated colors lurk huge problems, for this office is little changed in generations.”
A voice then boomed: “The shape of tomorrow may be here today. Yes, welcome to the all-Xerox office system we call Alto.” With that, several PARC researchers took the stage to begin the demonstration.
Working remotely with a team back in Palo Alto, the presenters showed how a computer could edit documents, draw bar charts, toggle between software programs, and pull up documents and drawings from stored memory. They highlighted text on screen, remotely collaborated with others on far-away Altos, completed expense forms electronically, forwarded them for processing, typed in foreign characters, sent emails, and printed documents. A narrator assured the viewers, “Does it seem complicated? We can assure you it’s not. It is what Xerox calls a friendly system. In field trials, an experienced typist became proficient within hours, and even beginners learn in a day or two.”
For the executives who had never used or seen an Alto, the demonstration had to have been eye-opening. Outside of research labs, computers came in two flavors: big and hobbyist. Both were the purview of specialists. Big computer systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and filled rooms. The new hobbyist machines interested only hackers such as those at the Homebrew Computer Club, who were happy to type in long strings of characters in order to hear a tinny rendition of a Beatles song played through a transistor radio.
Few people at PARC, including Taylor, paid attention to the Apple II, which had been introduced six months before Xerox’s Boca Raton conference. While the Apple II marked a significant step beyond hobby machines toward a more user-friendly computer, it lacked the Alto’s graphical user interface, mouse, ease of use, and network capabilities. Even five years after the Apple II’s introduction, lay users complained that it took many hours to figure out simply how to begin to use it.
The Alto represented a different class of machine. The hobby computers were modeled on the big computers, but the Alto was modeled on a vision of interactivity and ease of use promulgated by Bob Taylor and his mentor J.C.R. Licklider.
Long after Futures Day, Xerox president David Kearns would call the presentation of the Alto a “technological extravaganza,” saying that “people told themselves that they had seen the future of our technology, and it was impressive.”
But the team from PARC saw no such zeal after the presentation. Instead, they noticed that during an interactive, hands-on session, it was the wives, not the Xerox executives, who sat in front of the Altos, working at the keyboards and experimenting with the mice. The husbands, unimpressed and associating typing with clerical women’s work, stood around the perimeter of the room with their arms crossed. A researcher heard one executive remark, “I’ve never seen a man type that fast.” He had missed the point.
Xerox would go on to try to commercialize a successor to the Alto, so it is not accurate to say that the company had no enthusiasm for the technology presented at Futures Day. But the reaction that Taylor witnessed among the assembled executives—a mix of indifference, incomprehension, and rejection—is understandable. Xerox made most of its profit selling paper. The California upstarts were insisting that work in the office of the future would be centered on screens, which would leave paper’s future uncertain.
Given Xerox’s fear of the paperless office, perhaps it is not surprising that the one PARC technology that the company would profitably bring to market, the laser printer, is the only one that directly consumed paper.