Xerox Star and Macintosh

by coelomic

Courtesy : http://library.stanford.edu/mac/index.html

Source: Paul Danish, “A Tribute to Apple’s STAR Marketing, ” Club Mac News (November 1984), 49-51.
Location: M1007, Apple Computer Inc. Papers, Series 12, Box 18, Folder 16.

Whoever set the show up managed to put the Xerox display right next to Apple’s. That turned out to be an inspired choice, since Xerox was showing the STAR (or the 8010 Information System as Big Gray’s marketing department enthusiastically refers to it), the system which pioneered the Lisa and Macintosh way of doing things.

The STAR (Xerox no longer uses the name in its product literature because a startup company got to it first) was born at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the inspiration of some of the most original computer people ever assembled under one roof. Given a great deal of latitude and generous funding, they developed a personal computing system that contains all the major elements found in the Lisa/Mac environment, including program integration (with the ability to combine text, tables, and graphics in the same document), pull-down menus, icons, mouse control, a high resolution, bit-mapped display, and a laser printer.

Indeed, Apple licensed STAR technology for use in Lisa and presumably in Mac. Exactly how much STAR is in Mac isn’t entirely clear, but it is obviously not an insubstantial amount.

The STAR was designed for the Serious Business User. It came with high quality, bundled software that could Do Something, and it came to the market in 1981, well before the IBM PC. At the time, Xerox had a reputation as a leading edge company while IBM was widely considered to have lost its touch.

If Xerox had played its cards right, it might have set the standard for Serious Business Personal Computers. In fact, if Xerox has sold more than 10,000 machines it would be surprising. What happened?

For starters, the STAR concept was conceived at a time when the only hardware powerful enough was in the minicomputer class. The system is in effect a personal minicomputer instead of a personal microcomputer, and that means it embodies most of the minicomputer industry’s bad habits.

From the perspective of the personal user, it’s badly over-priced. Xerox is presently asking $9,995 for a base system. [and] is designed to work with a laser printer that costs $38,000. That means the system is well beyond the price of individual users and small businesses.

Everything about the STAR is proprietary and closed, which means no clones– and no third party software. This is particularly astonishing in that the real power of STAR-Lisa-Macintosh technology lies in the fact that the operating environment makes it insanely easy for the user to learn new programs, so easy in fact that it makes sense for the owner of such a machine to buy software that will only be used occasionally. Xerox appears to have totally overlooked this capability, which promises a quantum jump in the usefulness of personal computers, not to mention the market for applications packages.

A measure of how closed the system is lies in the fact that Xerox does not even call it a personal computer, preferring instead the term “personal workstation.” In fact the distinction is more than semantic, since Xerox hasn’t bothered to provide the tools that allow the user to do any independent programming.

[p. 50] Xerox spokesmen maintain the STAR was never intended to be aimed at the personal computer market, and that is plausible considering the state of the art in hardware at the time it was developed. The STAR is a 16-bit machine with anywhere from 768K to 1.5 megabytes of memory and a 10-megabyte hard disk, which in 1981 put it a generation ahead of the 8-bit personal computers of the time.

What is not plausible, what is in fact incredible, is that Xerox did nothing to adapt STAR technology to a personal computer. It still maintains it is only interested in the Fortune 500 market.

At the show the STAR was being demonstrated by a woman who knew the system cold. During the 20 minutes I watched she had one interested prospect. Over at the Apple display a guy was demoing Mac packages for The Rest of Us as fast as he could call them up from a hard disk. I got the feeling he had gotten a cram course in most of them the week before. But even at the sparsely-attended show he usually had at least a dozen onlookers.

From the beginning, Apple’s marketing instincts have been good– the Apple II succeeded as much because it was an open system as because it was technologically innovative. It was largely that openness that allowed Apple to beat Tandy in round one of the personal computer wars.

When Apple initially introduced Lisa, however, it brought in a good deal of Xerox’s marketing philosophy, and as a consequence it had a brush with disaster. Macintosh represented a giant step back towards the company’s original roots, which are openness and access as much as they are innovation.

[p. 51] What outrages me is that Xerox took a technology that was so manifestly designed to make the computer accessible and– whether out of short-sightedness or out of greed– marketed it in a way all but guaranteed to make it shrivel and wither.

Steve Jobs says it’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy. Sometimes it’s a far nobler thing to do as well.

Document created on 4 April 2000;
This version published on Wed May 07 2003 19:01:42