Home TECHNOLOGY Xerox ‘Star’ computer

Xerox ‘Star’ computer

Unquestionably, one of the major design innovations of this century has been the graphical user interface (GUI) for computers. With its desktop, icons, pop-up and pull-down menus and ubiquitous windows, the GUI has made computers much easier to use. Though over 100 million people around the world are now using GUI’s, few outside of the Human-Computer Interaction field are aware of the history of its design. The first GUI ever developed was the work of Dr. Douglas Engelbart, a researcher at SRI in the 1960s. His visionary and pioneering design and prototypes succeeded in producing the world’s first screen-based windows, cursor-selectable pop-up menus, as well as a mouse with which to interact with them. Though these innovations were truly revolutionary, it was not until a decade later that researchers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) began systematically applying these ideas in personal computers.

During the 1970s, PARC produced the first personal computer to have a bitmapped display and to use overlapping windows (the “Alto”), the first laser printers, the first Ethernet local area network, and object-oriented programming languages such as Smalltalk. Seventeen years ago, in 1981, these ideas came together in the Xerox 8010 “Star” Information System. This was a commercial personal computer designed for office workers and built by Xerox’s System Development Division. It incorporated features that today define personal computers: a bitmapped display, mouse, windows, local hard disk, network connectivity, and laser printing. In addition, Star invented and introduced the first commercial graphical user interface, with the first icons, desktop metaphor, dialog boxes, universal commands, and a “point and click” style of interaction now known as “direct manipulation.” As revolutionary as these software ideas were, the hardware was equally innovative.

When the Star project was begun in 1975, only rudimentary microprocessors existed such as Intel’s 8008 and MOS Technology’s 6502. To obtain the speed needed for the graphical user interface and to enable a very cost-effective machine for the time (1/10 the cost of a nearly-equivalent performance PDP-11), Star used four 2901 bit-sliced processors to implement the Mesa language and to control I/O and its 10-Mbps Ethernet interface. Without the advantage of hardware interrupts, its designers supported an event-driven interface by creating a non-preemptive multitasking architecture. They designed the first commercial Ethernet protocols and developed a suite of network services including a worldwide naming architecture that anticipated today’s URL’s. Star had a profound effect on the personal computer industry. Today all personal computers and many workstations incorporate its ideas. Yet few people have actually seen a Star computer. We will remedy that in this presentation. The head of the Star project and several of its inventors will give one final demonstration of Star and use it to illustrate its design principles. This may be the last time it gets demoed, as the hardware has begun failing due to its age. Don’t miss this opportunity to witness an important step in the history of computing and user interface design.


[Recorded: June 17,1998]



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