Graphic User Interface

Computers “must be learnable in private… Kindness should be an integral part.”

Alan Kay

The Graphic User Interface (GUI) consists of windows, folders, icons, mice, etc… It enables ordinary people to use computers. Xerox PARC’s GUI vastly simplified computer use and increased productivity by making computers easy and fun to use.

Like the internet itself, it’s difficult to attach a single date on the elements of the Graphical User Interface (GUI).


Engelbart demonstrated many elements of the GUI at the Mother of All Demos. However, Engelbart believed computers should be large and shared. Looking towards the burgeoning mini-computer market, pioneered by Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), several computer scientists disagreed. Significantly, they thought computers should be personalized, easy-to-use, and fun.

Xerox had one innovation lab, in Rochester near headquarters, focused on copy machines. However, they wanted something far away both figuratively and literally. A lab that could peer into the paper of the future. Subsequently, with a big budget and a sprawling mandate, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) was created in 1970.

Xerox PARC hired some of the top researchers at the forefront of their field. No sooner did Xerox fund and set-up their experimental lab than several Engelbart researchers, already interested in this field, joined.

Besides the Engelbart staffers, computer scientist Bob Taylor joined Xerox to flesh out the work. Previously, Taylor saw Engelbart’s demo and believed it to be the future of computing. Taylor was a colleague to computer visionary Ivan Sutherland. Another Sutherland student, Alan Kay, also a proponent of an easy-to-use personal computer, joined Xerox PARC.

The GUI is Born

Larry Tesler and Tim Mott wrote the first modern word processor, implementing Engelbart’s copy-and-paste but also adding fonts, what-you-see-is-what-you-get typing, and stateless interaction. The latter innovation markedly simplified typing. Significantly, users need not first tell the computer what you’re trying to do.

Borrowing from SRI’s and Engelbart, and building on Bravo (see above), Tesler wrote a modeless word processor, the Gypsy Word Processor. It implemented a more robust version of copy and paste/cut that looks like what we use today. Subsequently, Tesler left Xerox for Apple in 1980. Dan Ingalls created bit blit, the technology enabling on-screen graphics that has little changed to modern times. Likewise, he also invented pop-up menus. David Smith was an engineer at SRI with Douglas Engelbart. Eventually, at Xerox PARC, he invented user interface icons.

Eventually, Xerox rolled these innovations into the Alto personal computer but never entirely commercialized the Alto. In late 1979, Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC and took the innovations, and several of the people, back to Apple. Subsequently, they commercialized the work first in the Lisa computer then, eventually, the Macintosh.

Undeniably, Xerox PARC is arguably responsible for more innovations in software than any other single firm in history. However, due to gross incompetence at the managerial level, Xerox made virtually no money.

Xerox Alto Advertisement, 1972
Larry Tesler explains Steve Jobs visit,
“Everything cool going on at Xerox PARC”

Electronic Paper

Electronic paper is an ultra-low-power display that requires electricity only to change. ePaper is useful for eBook readers, grocery store price tags, and other displays that need not rapidly change and cannot be plugged in.

Electronic paper is a lesser-known Xerox PARC invention. Helping cement their reputation as the Worst Managers of All Time, Xerox never realized any benefit.

ePaper does not require electricity to power the screen unless it is changing. Consequently, it is optimal for displaying information like written text or prices.

In 2002, aware of the other innovations they failed to commercialize, Xerox spun off ePaper to a wholly-owned subsidiary, Gyricon LLC. However, the business down in 2005 due to undercapitalization. Subsequently, Amazon launched the Kindle two years later, in 2007 with technology by Gyricon competitor E Ink. Xerox patents had presumably expired by then.

Ethernet Networking

Ethernet is a computer networking protocol. Before Ethernet, computers were connected using a hodgepodge of various systems, a digital Tower of Babel.


Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet at Xerox PARC. However, Xerox failed to commercialize the technology. Metcalfe left and worked on his own Digital (see minicomputers) and Intel to set Ethernet as a networking standard. Eventually, the industry adopted Ethernet as a standard labeling it IEEE 802.3.

Ethernet’s advantage is that it is radically simpler and cheaper than prior “better” methods.

Think of information flowing from one computer to another. Information is broken down into small pieces, called packets, then sent on their way. The receiving computer reassembles the packets. For example, this page is a series of packets. A server broke it into packets then your computer or phone reassembled it.

Other networking methods went to great lengths to avoid the packets from colliding. Ethernet simply allows them to occasionally collide, which means they disappear, then resends when that happens.

Think of Ethernet as an enormous highway with little traffic control where cars, carrying information, sometimes collide and destroy one another. When this happens, the sender simply generates and resents a new packet. This was vastly less complicated and less expensive than trying to avoid collisions.

Ethernet Thrives After Xerox PARC

After Xerox PARC, in 1979, Metcalfe founded 3Com and formulated Metcalfe’s law, that computer networks become exponentially more useful with more nodes.

Metcalfe lost 3Com in a boardroom fight though the company left him extremely wealthy. Xerox made little or no money from Ethernet, but Metcalfe’s 3Com grew into a Fortune 500 company making him extremely wealthy.

Today, Wifi remains a wireless version of Ethernet.

Personal Computer, Xerox Alto (the “interim Dynabook”)

Dynabook was at the heart of Xerox PARC. Eventually realized as the Xerox Alto, it is essentially the first personal computer. Easy-to-use with a graphical interface, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSISYG) programs, icons, the mouse, networking. Everything we take for granted today started as the Dynabook/Alto.


The Dynabook dates to Kay’s doctoral thesis and the first interview with Xerox. It is the underlying principle behind much of the work at Xerox PARC.

Kay envisioned a computer for just one person. His theoretical computer notebook would cost less than $500 “so that we could give it away in schools.” Compactness was important so “a kid could take it wherever he goes to hide.” Programming should be easy: “Simple things should be simple, complex things should be possible.” “A combination of this ‘carry anywhere’ device and a global information utility such as the ARPA network or two-way cable TV will bring the libraries and schools (not to mention stores and billboards) to the home.”

Xerox refused to fund the Dynabook, it was an inappropriate project since Xerox PARC was for offices, not children. Subsequently, Kay ignored them, sneaked away and, with the help of Thacker and Lampson, built what became the Alto. Kay referred to the Alto as “the interim Dynabook.”

Xerox: Computers Won’t Make Money

When finished, in 1973, Kay released it with a graphic of Cookie Monster, from Sesame Street, holding the letter C. Xerox built about 2,000 Alto’s for company use but never fully commercialized the computer. A Xerox executive told Taylor “the computer will never be as important to society as the copier.” The Dynabook, the personal computer, did not add shareholder value.

As of mid-2019, Xerox is worth $6.5 billion. Microsoft is worth $1.01 trillion. Apple is worth $874 billion.

Of course, Steve Jobs eventually visited Xerox PARC and rolled many ideas of the Alto into an Apple computer first called the Lisa and, later, the Macintosh. Soon after, Microsoft released Windows that looks suspiciously similar.

Laser Printer

Laser printing is the only Xerox research project to generate significant revenue and profit for the company. However, it predates PARC. Subsequently, most Xerox laser printing revenue came from licensing the technology to other firms. Despite their success in the enterprise market and strong brand Xerox never built a widely used Xerox-brand laser printer.


In 1967, Xerox employee Gary Starkweather pondered generating an image rather than copying one from reflected light, the method used in traditional xerography. His idea involved using lasers to create the light on a drum that would subsequently attract toner, similar to a photocopy.

Not surprisingly, given their management skills, Xerox executives hated the idea. Too expensive, too impractical, and who would ever need to create a copy using a laser. Thereupon, they thought up every reason to kill the project, and – demonstrating their only creative abilities – generated a few more.

Starkweather smartly stuck by the idea. A move from the staid Xerox Webster Research Center, in Rochester, to the newly formed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Xerox PARC rescued him and his idea.

Xerox Invents Laser Printing

Eventually, his invention came to fruition. The first version was named Scanned Laser Output Terminal, or SLOT. Next came the Ethernet, Alto, Research character generator, Scanned laser output terminal or EARS. Somebody wisely stopped him from trying for a third name and branded it the Xerox 9700.

Despite inventing it, in 1976 IBM beat Xerox to the market with a high-speed industrial printer, the IBM 3800. However, Xerox brought the 9700 to market the next year, in 1977.

Xerox Blows It

Subsequently, Starkweather attempted to pivot to personal laser printers but was stymied, this time successfully, by Xerox management. He argued toner and paper would be more profitable than machines, similar to Gillette’s disposable razor and razor blade approach. Nonsense, argued Xerox executives; Xerox makes money from selling machines, not supplies. Hewitt Packard eventually introduced the first personal laser printer and owned the market.

In 1987, Starkweather quit Xerox to join Apple for a decade and later worked at Microsoft.

Object-Oriented Programming

Object oriented programming is the first of countless Xerox PARC inventions.

Vastly simplifying, there are two ways to program a computer. In procedural programming, each thing the computer does is listed. Conditional statements tell the computer which path to follow.

Comparatively, in object-oriented programming, objects mimic real life. Programmers then act on these objects.

For example, a tree object might have three sub-objects, an oak, a maple, and cherry tree. All three tree types would have a different look when drawn. Each could be chopped down and they’d all be affected by wind. Similarly, if a car drove into a mature tree the car would suffer. However, if a car drove into an immature sapling, then the tree would suffer. There is no need to reprogram the computer for each type of tree.

Many Xerox PARC inventions were the, um, “inspiration” for Steve Jobs and Apple to build the Macintosh. But Jobs did not take Smalltalk and object-oriented programming, something he later regretted.

The first object-oriented programming language developed at Xerox PARC is Smalltalk. Today, C++, Java, C#, and even Javascript are more common. However, they are all object-oriented.

Modern Computing v1: The Mother of All Demos.

On December 9, 1968, the modern world was born.


Douglas Engelbart, working for the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) showed the future of modern computing to a roomful of people that, for the most part, understood virtually none of it.

In a tour de force, Engelbart introduced the world to video conferencing, teleconferencing, hypertext, word processing, copy and paste, hypermedia, object addressing and dynamic file linking, and collaborative real-time editing.

Additionally, he also demonstrated a new type of input device, a block of wood that tracked hand movement and had only three buttons. His team referred to it as a mouse, a name that stuck. Surprisingly, they worked with the computer interactively, rather than running a program with a set of data that then produced a result or stored the data on tape. Interactive computing was rare but not unheard of: Sutherland’s Sketchpad program was interactive.

Officially, Engelbart presented a paper entitled A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect. Unofficially, Engelbart referred to it as The Mother of All Demos.

Engelbart’s mentors included computer visionaries J.C.R. Licklider, Ivan Sutherland, Bob Taylor, and Larry Roberts, all working for DARPA. Eventually, Robert Taylor would go on to lead the development of similar work at Xerox PARC.


During the demo, about 1,000 computer scientists gathered in Melo Park, California. Markedly, two computers were networked together, one running the demo and another back at the office. With each innovation, Sutherland announced “Look what else we can do here,” a theme Apple’s Steve Jobs would pick up decades later as “Just one more thing.”

The vast majority used computers with punch cards in their daily lives. They watched Engelbart and, according to him, filed out without asking a question or saying a word. To computer scientists of this era, the technology looked more science fiction than anything real. Surprisingly to Engelbart, they weren’t sure what anybody would do with it.

Engelbart introduces and demonstrates videoconferencing

Engelbart’s research was sponsored by the Advanced Research Project Agency (the precursor to DARPA), NASA, and the US Air Force.

Most of Engelbart’s innovations lay in the lab until adopted first by Xerox PARC and, eventually, by Apple, Microsoft, and countless others. Engelbart never embraced the idea of individual personal computers — he preferred large central computers — and declined to participate in future work.

The Mother of All Demos