The first PC and its human-computer interface

By Gregory Pings

Xerox 8010 Star Screen
From the press package in 1981, the caption noted that most Star functions were available “simply by moving a pointer and pressing a key.” Photo courtesy of Xerox Historical Archives

As most people know, Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) invented the personal computer, along with many other underpinnings that have built the world of technology as we know it today – including networking, WYSIWYG editing, the GUI, and much more.

CNN’s upcoming* broadcast of “The Eighties” will give you a bit of history of the PC.

Thanks to Xerox historian Ray Brewer, I have a press release dated April 27, 1981, that describes “a personal information system for business professionals.” It was the Xerox 8010 Star information system – widely considered one of the most important milestones in the development of the modern PC age.

I’m struck by how much personal computing has changed, and how much it has stayed the same. From our press release:

“The Xerox 8010 Star information system includes a two-page desktop display, a keyboard, a small processor and an unusual control device.”

That last part (emphasis mine) describes the mouse, a word that did not appear in the press release. I am hard-pressed to think of a PC maker that would bother to mention “mouse” in a press release today – albeit for an entirely different reason: It’s pretty much considered standard equipment by now.

In addition to create, modify, store, and retrieve text, graphics and records, the press release also noted that users could…

“…distribute documents via electronic mail to local and remote system users on Xerox Ethernet local area communications networks.”

So, yes, we’re talking about the precursor to the Internet as we know it today.

The DigiBarn Computer Museum in California describes the Star 8010 as “the most complete implementation of the ‘Desktop Metaphor’ of any systems until the advent of mature Desktop graphical interfaces later on the Mac and PS/Unix/Linux in the 1990s. The (Star) systems were a full 15 years ahead of their time.”

Xerox 8010 Star WYSIWYG
WYSIWYG : What You See (on the screen) Is What You Get (on the printer). Photo courtesy of Xerox Historical Archives.

This chart, drawn by the director of the museum, highlights the Star’s role in the PC’s lineage.

There are, however, some things that have changed. According to that 1981 release, an introductory training session would ONLY take four hours to learn the basic functions of the machine. And the cost was $16,595, which included the basic software.

I think we’ve all come a long way.

Make technology work for us

This is more than celebrating a jade anniversary; and it’s much more than highlighting quaint descriptions of technology that we take for granted 35 years later.

Genius is not solely defined by invention. The true genius of invention is the human element – can a person actually use this thing? All inventions must, as PARC CEO Steve Hoover puts it, “solve the right problem in a way that people find natural and easy to use.”

As true today as ever.

Today at Xerox, we’ve taken the exploration of human/computer interaction well beyond the desktop. Our innovators are developing solutions that enable large organizations to benefit in real-time from the massive computing power that surrounds them. For example, last summer, working with the Public Sector and Transportation line of business in Xerox, we launched a product (CitySight©) for parking enforcement organizations in Los Angeles and Denver. CitySight provides users with integrated, data-driven decision-making tools aimed at making them and the entire parking enforcement organization more efficient. You’ll be hearing more about CitySight in the days to come.

In the meantime, read on to learn more on how we help humans and computers work together,  and how we use automated software bots to make work flow better.

* We originally said the broadcast was “tonight,” however this episode of “The Eighties” was rescheduled for May 5 a later date.

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  1. Karthi sugunan April 28, 2016 -

    I wish they applied the Great love and committment they applied to the development of the Copiers in the 1950’s to the Great invention for the humanity in the 80’s

  2. Kevin Larson May 5, 2016 -

    The problem with the 1980’s wasn’t innovation, but imagination and Xerox management at the time was not immune. They along with many others did not see the future market for PC’s. This is best illustrated with a major product decision they made in that decade. There were presentations made to Senior management from 2 different product development groups. One was from the Palo Alto PC group where a group of engineers had a difficult time helping the Sr Management Team see the potential for their product. The other group was from Dallas which was pitching the launch of an IBM selectric typewriter competitor, IBM essentially owned the type written “document creation” market at that time with the selectric. Xerox marketing executives (not engineers) made this presentation and easily convinced the Sr Team that their product had the immediate potential and Xerox went with the memory-writer line. Of course the typewriter market tanked as the word processing / PC industry matured and took hold so the memory-writer never drove the profits anticipated. Xerox later did bring out the 8010 Star, which true to their print centric focus had a mandatory printer attached. It was overpriced and poorly marketed so it too failed to make a market even though it did have some truly innovative features.
    To be fair, many early entrants into this market failed to reap huge benefits (Wang, IBM and many Apple products come to mind), so Xerox is not alone in not capitalizing here. It took a while for the evolution of technology / hardware / software / operating systems to bring the potential of this market together.

  3. Michael Stein May 17, 2016 -

    I used the Xerox 8010 Star system, which was installed at the Pentagon circa 1981. I thought it was truly transformative, replete with desktop icons, a mouse and modest computing power. Apple’s “innovations” a decade later seemed to me to be an inferior copy of the “Star” operating system. I was truly sorry that Xerox didn’t know the kind of winner they had on their hands.

  4. Am June 1, 2016 -

    Please correct if you something about this.
    I heard a long time ago that Steve Jobs went to an office automation trade show and visited the Xerox booth. He went straightto the abandoned 8010 Star and asked for a demo. After much searching for someone who could demo it, he asked why they weren’t promoting the point and click technology. They expert said that it will never work… because the mouse will fall off the desk.
    Is this a PARC myth? Or does someone know?

    • Gregory Pings June 2, 2016 -

      Thank you for writing. Ray Brewer manages the Xerox Historical Archives, so I asked him about your story. Here’s his reply:

      “Thanks for your comment on the Xerox 8010 Star Post.

      “While that is an interesting story, I’m afraid many inaccuracies have crept in through the years. The 8010 Star was introduced shortly before Apple announced the Macintosh, so development was well underway at Apple on a computer that utilized the mouse concept.

      “Steve Jobs actually first saw the mouse while visiting PARC in early December 1979. He visited three times during the month, the first two visits not meeting his demands of having a real demonstration of the Alto Computer’s potential that he had heard about. The third visit is when he was shown a full blown system with a mouse and keyset that was networked and connected to a Dover Laser Printer. He was not so impressed with the entire system and capabilities (he should have been!) as he was with the mouse, graphical bitmap display and user interface. On April 14th, 1980, Xerox signed an agreement with Jobs where we loaned Apple ten Alto Computer “cursor controller devices” as they were not called a mouse yet.

      “So it was actually the Alto Computer at PARC where Steve Jobs first saw a mouse, not an 8010 Star.”

  5. Am June 2, 2016 -

    Thank you so much for the correction! The innovators at PARC had such a powerful impact on our world today. I’m comforted that Xerox maintains a historical archive with so many great stories.

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