The Xerox Alto Struts Its Stuff on Its 40th Birthday

Doug Brotz does a live demonstration on the restored Xerox Alto.
Photo: Douglas Fairbairn/CHM
Doug Brotz does a live demonstration on the restored Xerox Alto.

The Xerox Alto, widely recognized as the first modern personal computer, pioneered just about every basic concept we are familiar with in computers today. These include windows, bit-mapped computer displays, the whole idea of WYSIWIG 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 first unveiled at a meeting of Xerox executives held on 10 Nov 1977, which was 40 years ago last week.

To celebrate that birthday, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., brought together some of 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 that had been restored to working order over the past eight months. (Though Doug Brotz, now a fellow at Adobe systems, noted that today’s Alto emulator for Mac computers runs some 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, and 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.

“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. Shoch was a member of the Xerox Parc research staff, and later served as president of Xerox’s Office Systems Division.

But, it turns out, the Alto had feature or two that got left behind when Steve Jobs and others were grabbing at 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 the Alto’s word processing system.

During the demo of the Bravo word processing program, Tom Malloy, retired now but most recently senior vice president and chief software architect at Adobe Systems, made a (perhaps staged) mistake that ended up deleting 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 simply stop wherever you wanted.

I want that.

A less obvious, but also useful feature, Shoch pointed out, was the Alto’s ability to rebuild its directories from information stored with the documents, even if the directories themselves were irreversibly damaged.

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 to it all—that of the users.

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 its acquisition of 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. Says Brotz, who worked on Laurel, the Alto’s email client software: “Email prior to 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 a number of 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.

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