In 1970, Xerox established the Palo Alto Research Center near the campus of Stanford University. Xerox lured the best minds in computer science, physics, and electrical engineering to the lavish facility to create the next generation of information technology. The researchers were given big budgets and few restrictions. Unlike most corporate research centers, PARC was not expected to produce products, but rather ideas.
The first major project at PARC was a revolutionary computer called the Alto. Unlike most of the computers of its day, the Alto was designed to be personal — it was used interactively by a single person at a time. The Alto featured a high-resolution bitmapped display that could show text and graphics just as they would be printed. The Alto could print to a new high-resolution printer technology — the laser printer — and could be networked using EtherNet, another PARC innovation.
Alto could be programmed using yet another PARC invention, SmallTalk. This new object-oriented programming language enabled software to be written interactively and dynamically and provided a high degree of code reusability.
The Alto’s interface included icons and direct selection using a new input device called the mouse. The mouse had been invented several years earlier by Douglas Englebart, a researcher at the Stanford Research Institute.
All in all, the Alto had all of the major features of a personal computer of the 1990s at a time when most computers were huge unfriendly behemoths shared by many users. The personal computer industry was non-existent, and most electronics hobbyists could only dream of having their own computer.
The Alto was just a research project, however. Had it been commercialized, the price tag would have been close to $50,000. But the PARC researchers were proud of the Alto and used every opportunity to show it off to the rest of the computer community. One visitor who saw the Alto was Jef Raskin, a visiting scholar at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Raskin would later begin the Macintosh project at Apple.
In 1979, during the Lisa project, Raskin and Bill Atkinson convinced Steve Jobs to make a visit to Xerox PARC to see the Alto. By that time, however, Xerox had tightened security at PARC. Xerox agreed to allow two Apple visits to PARC in exchange for the opportunity to invest in Apple. Xerox purchased 100,000 shares of Apple stock for $10 each.
Jobs was excited by what he saw at PARC and immediately began shifting the Lisa project toward the technologies he had seen. Eventually, the same ideas would make their way into the Macintosh as well.
Apple would later hire more than 15 PARC researchers to work on the Lisa and Macintosh projects. Among them were Larry Tesler, who demonstrated the Xerox technologies to the visitors from Apple, and Alan Kay, the visionary force behind the Alto.
Xerox did eventually make a half-hearted attempt to market the technologies embodied in the Alto. The Xerox Star was a bigger, better, faster Alto, but suffered from poor marketing and a very high price.
Xerox PARC continues to be a focal point for innovative research in information technology.