40 years of Xerox Parc
September 20, 2010 10:43 AM   Subscribe

"The Office of the Future" 40 Years Later - 40 years of Xerox Parc, the Palo Alto research group responsible for the desktop computer interface as we know it today.
posted by Artw (24 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The WIMP tag is woefully underutilized on MetaFilter.
posted by GuyZero at 10:44 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Weakly interacting massive particles? I didn't realize the Xerox guys were using hardcore particle physics to design UIs...
posted by kmz at 10:48 AM on September 20, 2010

posted by Artw at 10:50 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Neat. But "invented" [not equal to] "responsible for".
posted by Joe Beese at 10:55 AM on September 20, 2010

So these are the assholes that made it so that I have to do my own typing and sit in a cubicle rather than have an assistant that takes dictation and screens my calls while I drink highballs?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:00 AM on September 20, 2010 [16 favorites]

Dealers of Lightning is a great read about PARC's origins and heyday.
posted by djb at 11:14 AM on September 20, 2010

Have they done anything recently? I don't mean to be flip but after a burst of creativity in the 70s have any other inventions out of there made it in to the real world? 40 years ago is a long time and this 'tagged data' thing they mentioned in the article seemed pretty boring and pointless.

Also, lets not forget Douglas Engelbart and the work he was doing in the 1960s, who had everything except the windows part: Documents, hypertext, the mouse, etc. Although it's interesting that he had (I guess) just a few demo units and Xerox had the whole setup with lots of workstations, file servers, Ethernet and the works.
So these are the assholes that made it so that I have to do my own typing and sit in a cubicle
No they (and everyone else) made it so you actually get to do your own typing, instead of working for some rich asshole and doing his.
posted by delmoi at 11:15 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

So these are the assholes that made it so that I have to do my own typing and sit in a cubicle rather than have an assistant that takes dictation and screens my calls while I drink highballs?

Or this.
posted by Artw at 11:16 AM on September 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Shush, you're spoiling my Mad Men fantasies. "Miss Johnson could you come in here for a minute?"
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:27 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

delmoi, PostScript, which enabled desktop computers to print beautiful high resolution type and graphics on relatively cheap laser printers, kicked off the desktop publishing revolution and was developed at PARC. The Xerox execs were afraid of it and it was commercialized by a startup named Adobe. That's the last thing I know of to escape PARC. Top research talent stopped going there.
posted by chrchr at 11:34 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hey, PARC also invented the object-oriented MUD so you know it's not just all about the benjamins. It's about, uh, whatever people do on LambdaMOO.
posted by GuyZero at 11:53 AM on September 20, 2010

Furry sex.
posted by Artw at 11:55 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

delmoi, back in the 1980s and 1990s, PARC also pioneered ubiquitous computing, sort of the notion that computation and communication would be meshed in our everyday lives.

They started this line of thinking only a few years after the Mac first came out (!), and explored a world where computers would have multiple forms (think PDAs, iPads, and smart walls), explored wireless networking, location-based services, context-aware computing, public displays, and (to a weaker extent) the computer privacy implications of it all.

A lot of their inspiration came from new technologies that were coming out (flexible displays, large displays, cheaper sensors), as well as discussions with anthropologists at PARC. When you hear about pervasive computing, invisible computing, autonomic computing, ambient intelligence, sensor networks... all of these really point back to this original Ubicomp project at PARC, which really framed a lot of computer science research in the 1990s.

Incidentally, the Ubicomp project was also funded by DARPA.

Here is one the most cited papers in my field, the one that started it all: The Computer for the Twenty-First Century. It's dated by modern standards, but the closing scenario still talks about things that we can't easily do today.
posted by jasonhong at 12:00 PM on September 20, 2010

Note that some of those ideas were developed in preparation for a computer we still do not have, forty years hence: the Dynabook.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 12:39 PM on September 20, 2010

Maybe they could invent a way for me view more than one image per page, rather than an annoying slideshow.
posted by Ratio at 12:46 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

This would be perfect in an experimental prototype community of tomorrow.
posted by punkfloyd at 1:08 PM on September 20, 2010

Also, if you want to see some of the really old, pioneering computer systems in action, Alan Kay has this great video entitled Doing with Images Makes Symbols (Part 1 | Part 2).

The video shows Sketchpad, the very first graphical user interface, which is still pretty impressive by modern standards. Sketchpad introduced graphical objects, zooming interfaces, constraints, copy-and-paste, prototype-instance objects, and the first CAD tool. Here's a youtube link of Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad.

The video also showcases NLS, Engelbart's oNLine System. You can see part of Engelbart's famous 1969 demo, which introduced the notion of cooperative work, the mouse, the first implementation of hypertext, word processing, chorded keyboards, and possibly more. Chapter 9 of Rheingold's Tools for Thought is a great companion, helping to describe what motivated Engelbart to think in these ways. It looks like there is a 9-part video of Engelbart's demo on youtube as well.

You can also see some pretty amazing videos of the Xerox Star (or Alto, don't recall which one it is). The video shows kids creating some pretty impressive software and animations. Alan Kay also talks about his vision for the Dynabook, which would make kids not just consumers of media, but creators and innovators. Chapter 11 of Tools for Thought covers a lot of Kay's ideas.

The part that knocks everyone's socks off in the video, though, is Timothy Gallwey (of the Inner Game of Tennis fame) teaching someone how to play tennis in 30 minutes. Jump to 12:15 of the second video and you'll see part of a story that Mike Wallace did to see if this guy was a charlatan or not. They chose some random, un-athletic person off the streets, and using a sequence of techniques, Tim Gallwey teaches her how to play a decent game of tennis in half an hour. Alan Kay then ties that back to their ideas as to what user interfaces should do to put people into control and getting them going as quickly as possible.

I regularly show these videos in my courses, just to give students a sense of how we got to where we are today, though it's getting harder and harder to impress them since technology is only something that is created after you are born.
posted by jasonhong at 1:58 PM on September 20, 2010 [7 favorites]

Is Tuesday still Southwestern day in the parc cafeteria? Man I miss those burritos! I worked next to parc at Hillview, where basic inventions from parc were supposed to get turned into products/money which would then flow back up the hill to get turned into more science. Sometimes, the model worked. Other times, not so much.
posted by Standeck at 3:31 PM on September 20, 2010

I used to work with people from PARC back in the mists of time and they'd tell stories about the interactions back with Corporate. Every few years Rochester would send someone out to survey everything at PARC, seeing what could be productized. They'd be there for a couple months, the PARC folks would show off their stuff, and then the final report would be something like "here's a new way to collate documents!" or something else copier- or printer-related.
posted by Runes at 4:45 PM on September 20, 2010

PARC is an amazing story. They created so much amazing stuff, and Xerox couldn't figure out how to sell any of it.

Fortunes were made off of the things coming out of PARC, but not by Xerox.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:56 PM on September 20, 2010

Xerox gets way more credit than it deserves. They fell ass backwards into a treasure trove of research and technology under the flawed assumption that computers would destroy the photocopier business. Naturally, they, along with HP and IBM, had no idea what to do with this technology, and had their lunch eaten by some kids working out of a garage.

It worth pointing out that the man responsible for starting the Macintosh project at Apple in 1978, Professor Jef Raskin, had been doing human-computer research since the late 60s. He had a relationship with PARC because many of his students went on to work there, and he was responsible for bringing Steve Jobs to PARC in order to sell the Macintosh project to Apple management.

The Xerox Star (1981) was visually influential, but it was utterly inadequate for kickstarting the desktop computer revolution, partly because the system cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and partly because the technology just wasn't any good.

If you've ever double-clicked an icon, or selected a pull-down menu, or copied something to the clipboard, or moved a window by clicking and dragging, or dragged a scroll bar, or dragged a document to the trash, then you are using technology invented at Apple for use with the Apple Lisa Computer (1983). All those mechanisms did not exist on the Xerox Star.

Now try to imagine how you would use a computer without the click-and-drag or double-click gestures. How would you even move a window? You would have no idea how to even get started on a Xerox Star.

And even though the Apple Lisa contained all these familiar gestures and mechanisms that we all take for granted today, it is still a very odd system by today's standards, and you would have a hard time using one. Check out Lisa's file menu:
  • Set Aside
  • Save & Put Away
  • Save & Continue
  • Revert to Previous Version
No Open command, no Close command, no Save As command, no New Document command.

Compare this with the Mac. You could sit down in front of an original 1984 Mac and you would know exactly how to use one, because *it* is the template upon which the modern desktop computer is based. Not the Lisa, and certainly not the Xerox Star.

The people who made the original Mac both affordable and usable deserve all of the credit.
posted by i_have_a_computer at 11:03 PM on September 20, 2010

Now try to imagine how you would use a computer without the click-and-drag or double-click gestures. How would you even move a window? You would have no idea how to even get started on a Xerox Star.
People didn't know how to do those things on the mac either. They learned because that's how things worked. If they worked a different way, that's what they would have learned.
posted by delmoi at 3:52 PM on September 21, 2010

The people who made the original Mac both affordable and usable deserve all of the credit.

Deserve credit, yes. All of it. Absolutely not. Modern computing is the result of a massively significant contributions from people and companies over the years. New innovations are built on the innovations of others, and Engelbart and Xerox were very significant factors. The Amiga too, which had a GUI with a proper API, actual pre-emptive multitasking, an architecture with chips dedicated to graphics and sound, a model still in use today of course. The people at Apple were and continue to be a huge factor. So many in the industry, in fact, a huge factor. To give all the credit to one group among many is absurd.
posted by juiceCake at 10:14 AM on September 22, 2010

I like how they hyperlinked 'internet'.
posted by knoxg at 5:45 AM on September 25, 2010

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