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Xerox Star

USA 1981

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xerox_star.jpg (27504 bytes)(3)


Researchers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center designed the Alto -- the first work station with a built-in mouse for input. But then came the Star. Also known as Information system 8010.

The technologies that make up the Star extend as far back as 1945. A man by the name of Dr. Vannevar Bush printed an article in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly entitled "As We May Think". In the article, he offers military scientists a different role once the fighting ceased. The role of making our store of knowledge more accessible. The article envisions instruments that when properly developed, will give man access and command over knowledge. Dr. Bush foresaw a computer designed for the purposes of applications other then number manipulation. He called it the Memex. However, the technology and the imagination needed to implement it were not there at the time.

In the 1960s, Ivan Sutherland (now of Sun Microsystems) developed Sketchpad as an interactive graphics system. It allowed users to create graphics on the screen with a light pen. The graphics were treated as objects to be manipulated. These object could be joined together to form more complex objects which then can be treated as units. This became the influence for Star's user interface and graphical applications.

During the 1960s, Douglas Engelbart and his colleagues created the On-Line System (NLS) that was implemented with what was to be called hypertext. NLS provided key tools such as teleconferencing, e-mail, word processing, hypertext linking, idea development editors and user controlled configuration and programming. However, in order for the NLS to work, tools had to be developed. Among these were the mouse, a chord keyboard, a full windowing software environment, on-line help and consistency of the user interface. The Star development team became inspired by the use of textual and graphical information in trees and networks. One of these members was Rich Pasco who came to Atari in 1983 to try to convince them to place a mouse on the Atari 800. He even had an interface and drivers prepared.

Another chief influence of the Star was Alan Kay. He wrote a paper about the Reactive Engine concept. He also developed the Smalltalk language.

Kay used the Alto to build his version of a personal computing system that would supply users with the building blocks needed to make tools and applications for individually defined information processing problems. He developed prototypes for a laptop computer, called Dynabook. As with Dr. Bush, the technology for this laptop system was unavailable at the time.

The prototypes developed in Xerox eventually evolved into the Smalltalk language, with the help of children. Kay had concluded that children learn more from sounds and graphics rather then text. So Smalltalk relied heavily on graphics and animation. Even though Smalltalk promoted bitmapped displays, mouse input, windowing environment and simultaneous applications, Star was not written in Smalltalk, as many people would like to believe.

One of the developers of the Star was David C. Smith, who wrote the first large program in Smalltalk. He introduced the concept of using images that users can manipulate that acts on the represented data.
The images are known now as icons.

Two other developers, Charles Simonyi and Butler Lampson contributed a document editing system called Bravo which demonstrated the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) concept to its fullest extent at the time. The text could be edited on-screen with such features as boldface, italics, and underline, with the exact same image shown on laser printer. Bravo was used throughout Xerox. Larry Tesler's prototype text editor, Gypsy, among other prototypes and ideas were adopted into Bravo and BravoX was later released.

The developers of BravoX left to different companies that resulted in the release of Microsoft Word and LisaWrite. Both products are direct descendants of BravoX. Laurel and Hardy are E-mail packages that allowed E-mail to become more accessible to the non-engineering staff at Xerox and eventually became crucial to Star. Finally, OfficeTalk, written by Clarence Ellis and Gary Nutt, demonstrated common office tasks and jobs as they go from person to person within an organization. As developers became more experienced with OfficeTalk, they gained ideas for Star, since both systems had common goals.

Stars graphical capabilities came from such products as Draw and Sil, which succeeded Sutherland's Sketchpad. Markup, a bitmap editor (or a paint program) and Flyer, another paint program written in Smalltalk were both written for the Alto which inspired Doodle. Doodle evolved into Free-Hand Drawing for ViewPoint (a descendant of Star). The laser printer, invented at PARC, was invented to match the quality of the text and graphics from the screen to paper. Press (later developed into Interpress) became a page-description language in which any computer can describe what the output is going to be to the laser printer. This became a part of the Star system. Some developers of Press and Interpress later formed Adobe and developed a more modern page-description language, Postscript.

xerox_star_gui.jpg (31344 bytes)
Xerox Star GUI

When Xerox PARC was developing the first GUI, as seen on the 8010, Lee Jay Lorenzen was a key member of the team. He was later hired by Digital Research Inc., where he worked on a GUI he wanted to call Crystal (after an IBM project at the time, called Glass). Since Crystal was already trademarked, the project was renamed Gem. The acronym GEM (Graphical Environment Manager) came later. Lee wrote the vast majority of GEM/1 following his designs from the Xerox closely. In fact, his expertise writing first the Xerox system and later GEM allowed him to walk away from DRI and create a smaller cut-down version for his company, Ventura.



in preparation


In 1981 Xerox introduced the 8010 “Star” Information System, an office automation system. The system was designed for the casual user, and their personal workstations would be connected via Ethernet, sharing printers, and servers, etc. Star used a bitmapped screen, windows, a two-buttoned mouse and icons, which no other computer systems at that time had. This formed the way user interfaces were going to be design in the future. The desktop metaphor was also implemented, meaning that the user deal mostly with data files, and that the corresponding application is associated automatically to that data file. Documents could be placed on the desktop, or be filed, or be placed in the out-basket for e-mailing, etc. You could arrange the icons in the order that you want, just as in real life. To simplify for the user, Star used generic commands, that is a small set of commands that could be applied to all data (Move, Copy, Open, Delete, Show, Properties and Same). In order to control the system, the user manipulated graphical elements on the screen, instead of typing commands as in the traditional computer systems then. The icons made it easier to find the files wanted, and provided a familiar way to sort the documents, either filing them or just piling them on the desktop. Star not only used default options, but it hid the other options, so the users do not have to worry about them. Another important quality was the consistency, that is, everything looked and worked the same way throughout the system. The designers of Star also emphasized the graphical design of the desktop, windows and icons. The illusion of manipulable objects, visual order, WYSIWYG, consistent and appropriate graphic vocabulary and an ambition to “match the medium” were some of the principles that concerned the designer.

Both the hardware and the software were developed concurrently for the Star Information System, and important ideas and solutions were taken from MEMEX, the Sketchpad, NLS, Alto, Smalltalk, Bravo, just to mention some of them. The software was not written in Smalltalk as many people think, but in Mesa, an industrial version of Pascal. For the development of Star, Xerox created Systems Development Department, SDD, located both in El Segundo and Palo Alto. Afterwards this proved to be a mistake, together with the lack of paying attention to the industry and consumer demands. In the first version the Star was too expensive and too hard to integrate with new features and applications. This changed with newer versions, called ViewPoint.

in preparation

  • Courtesy
    text: tcm.org
    the star picture is taken from Dave Curbow's site(3)



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