In 1981, Xerox released the 8010 Information System, the first commercial computer to use the graphical desktop metaphor with folders and icons that we still use today. 40 years later, we take a look at why it was special.
Getting Office Workers Into Computing
In the 1960s and 70s, most computers were large, expensive devices operated using batch-processing with punched cards or through interactive command-line operating systems accessed through teletypes or video display terminals. They weren’t very user-friendly and required specialized training to program or operate properly.
In the early 1970s, Xerox began to experiment with a new graphical approach that culminated in its revolutionary Xerox Alto computer, which utilized a mouse and a bitmapped display. When it came time to commercialize the Alto into a shippable product in the late 1970s, Xerox needed an interface that could ease office professionals without computer training into using computers. That job fell to David Canfield Smith of Xerox, who invented the desktop metaphor for the 1981 Xerox Star 8010 Information System.
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Origin of The Desktop Metaphor
When Xerox tasked David Canfield Smith with figuring out how ordinary office workers could use Xerox’s new bitmapped computer system, Smith drew on his research work with graphical computing, where a computer could be programmed visually. In the process, Smith invented the computer icon, first outlined in his 1975 doctoral thesis.
As an extension of that, Smith realized that he needed a metaphor that office workers already understood. He settled on visual, on-screen representations of real-world objects such as file cabinets, folders, and in-baskets that office workers used every day.
“I literally looked around my office and created an icon for everything I saw,” said Smith in a 2020 award speech recorded for the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer–Human Interaction (SIGCHI).
Unsurprisingly, icons played a huge part in the Xerox Star interface. After several iterations of experimental icons, a Xerox graphic designer named Norm Cox drew the Star’s final interface, which included the first document and folder icons used in computer history.
“The folder was a real-world metaphor for the computing ‘directory’ file,” wrote Cox in an email to How-To Geek. “It was probably the easiest of all the icons to render, since it had such a common real-world representation (the ubiquitous manila folder) with a very distinct shape.”
Cox had more trouble drawing a generic document icon, whose design went through several iterations. “Initially the document icon was difficult to visually indicate a piece of paper,” says Cox. “The turned-down corner inspiration came from an icon embossed on the office copier that instructed users how to correctly insert documents into the feeder–face up or face down.”
Ultimately, the Star interface proved familiar to office workers, and Smith says in his speech that it was received well during testing. It wasn’t quite as flexible as some desktop-based GUIs that came after the Star, but it undoubtedly pioneered the desktop-and-icon-based computers we commonly use today.
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Xerox Star 8010 Information System Specs
The Xerox 8010 Information System emerged from Xerox’s Systems Development Department (SDD) and featured the work of the aforementioned David Canfield Smith and Norm Cox, as well as a team of others that included Dave Liddle, Charles Irby, Ralph Kimball, Bill Verplank, Wallace Judd, and more.
What they engineered was a powerful but expensive machine with a high-resolution monochrome bitmapped display, an internal hard disk, and robust local area networking support through Ethernet, which Xerox invented. Here’s a rundown of its specs:
- Introduced: April 27, 1981*
- Price: $16,595 (about $51,500 today)
- CPU: Custom AMD Am2900-derived
- Memory: 384 KB – 1.5 MB
- Storage: 10-40 MB Hard Drive, 8″ Floppy Disk (600 KB)
- Display: 17″ CRT with a 1024×808 resolution, 1-bit monochrome
- Input: 2-button mouse, modular keyboard
- Networking: Ethernet
Using an 8010, you could easily design a document with graphical and text elements then print it to a networked laser printer that would be shared with a pool of 8010 workstations.
With a high price tag and a target market of large businesses, the Star was never destined to take off as a consumer product. But it was fairly successful, selling “tens of thousands” of units according to Digibarn and inspiring follow-up systems that refined the Star’s desktop interface into an operating system called Viewpoint. It also inspired a few famous companies called Apple and Microsoft.
From Xerox to Apple: A Continuum of Innovation
Throughout history, technology has built off of inventions that have come before. Technological innovation can be thought of as a long continuum of inventions that are more interrelated than miraculous discoveries appearing out of nowhere. For example, the Star system borrowed heavily from the Xerox Alto and the Smalltalk environment created by Alan Kay, and the Alto itself borrowed from graphical computer projects before that.
Similarly, the Star influenced successor computer systems, such as the Apple Lisa, although some confusion exists about exactly how much of the Apple Lisa interface originated from the Xerox Star. It’s not a black and white situation: the Lisa project preceded the release of the Star, and the Lisa team says they were mostly inspired by the Smalltalk programming environment on the Xerox Alto. But in an interview with Byte Magazine published in early 1983, Xerox veteran and Lisa team member Larry Tesler admitted a heavy influence, saying:
We went to the NCC when the Star was announced and looked at it. And in fact it did have an immediate impact. A few months after looking at it, we made some changes to our user interface based on ideas that we got from it. For example, the desktop manager we had before was completely different; it didn’t use icons at all, and we never liked it very much. We decided to change ours to the icon base. That was probably the only thing we got from Star, I think. Most of our Xerox inspiration was Smalltalk rather than Star.
Lisa borrowed the icon-based desktop metaphor from the Star, but Apple deserves ample credit for extending it dramatically. The Apple Lisa introduced new and innovative GUI ideas such as the ability to drag-and-drop icons and windows, the waste basket (absent from the original Star software but added later), the menu bar, pull-down menus, control panels, overlapping windows, and more.
The Macintosh also extended further upon the Lisa interface, adding its own unique touches and extending the continuum up to the present. Similarly, Microsoft Windows borrowed from Xerox and Apple alike, adding new elements to the desktop metaphor and the GUI interface as we know it today.
Despite the influence Apple drew from Xerox, Norm Cox isn’t offended. “Personally, I was flattered and honored that some of our work was replicated [and it] gave birth to a revolutionary new way of working with computers,” says Cox. “[It] spawned new design thinking methods and a design discipline we now call UX.”
Happy 40th birthday, computer desktop!
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