How Xerox Star Created the Desktop


In 1981, Xerox released the 8010 Information System, the first commercial computer to use the graphical metaphor of the desktop with folders and icons that we still use today. 40 years later, let’s see why it was special.

Introduce office workers to IT

In the 1960s and 1970s, most computers were large, expensive devices operated by batch processing with punch cards or through command line interactive operating systems accessible through teletypes or video display terminals. They weren’t very user-friendly and required specialized training to program or function properly.

A man using a Xerox Star.
The Xerox Star arguably made computers user-friendly for the first time. Xerox / Norm Cox / Digibarn

In the early 1970s, Xerox began experimenting with a new approach to graphics which resulted in its revolutionary Xerox Alto computer, which used a mouse and a bitmap display. When the time came to market the Alto as a deliverable in the late 1970s, Xerox needed an interface that could help office professionals without computer training use computers. This job fell to David canfield smith from Xerox, who invented the desktop metaphor for the 1981 Xerox Star 8010 information system.

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Origin of the office metaphor

When Xerox commissioned David Canfield Smith to figure out how ordinary office workers could use Xerox’s new bitmap computing system, Smith drew on his research with graphics computing, where a computer could be programmed visually. In the process, Smith invented the computer icon, first described in his 1975 doctoral thesis.

As a follow-up to that, Smith realized he needed a metaphor that office workers already understood. He opted for visual on-screen representations of real-world objects such as filing cabinets, folders and recycle bins that office workers used every day.

“I literally looked around my desk and created an icon for everything I saw,” Smith said in a 2020 awards speech recorded for the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI).

Not surprisingly, icons have played a huge role in the Xerox Star interface. After several iterations of experimental icons, a designer named Xerox Norm cox designed 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” computer “directory file,” Cox wrote in an email to How-To Geek. “It was probably the easiest of all the icons to render, as it had a common representation of the real world (the ubiquitous Manila folder) with a very distinct shape.”

The Xerox Star backrest borrowed its design from real manila backrests.
The Xerox Star shirt borrowed its design from the manila shirts. Digibarn / Mega Pixel /

Cox had a harder time drawing a generic document icon, the design of which went through several iterations. “Initially, the document icon was difficult to indicate visually on a piece of paper,” Cox explains. “The inspiration for the down corner came from an embossed icon on the desktop copier that taught users how to properly insert documents into the feeder, face up or face down. “

Xerox / Norm Cox / Digibarn

In the end, the Star interface turned out to be familiar to office workers, and Smith said in her speech that it was well received in testing. It wasn’t as flexible as some post-Star desktop GUIs, but it undoubtedly pioneered the desktop and iconic computers we commonly use today.

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Xerox Star 8010 Information System Specifications

The Xerox 8010 Information System emerged from Xerox’s Systems Development (SDD) department and included the work of the aforementioned David Canfield Smith and Norm Cox, as well as a team of others including Dave Liddle, Charles Irby, Ralph Kimball, Bill Verplank, Wallace Judd, and more.

The Xerox Star desktop interface.
The Xerox 8010 “Star” Information System Desktop. Xerox / Norm Cox / Digibarn

What they designed was a powerful but expensive machine with a high-resolution monochrome bitmap display, an internal hard drive, and robust support for LANs via Ethernet, invented by Xerox. Here is an overview of its specifications:

  • Introduced: April 27, 1981*
  • Price: $ 16,595 (approximately $ 51,500 today)
  • CPU: Custom AMD Am2900-derivative
  • Memory: 384 KB – 1.5 MB
  • Storage: 10-40 MB hard drive, 8 ″ (600 KB) floppy disk
  • Display: 17 ″ CRT with a 1024 × 808 resolution, monochrome 1 bit
  • Grab: 2-button mouse, modular keyboard
  • Networking: Ethernet

Using an 8010, you can easily design a document with graphics and text and 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 large corporate target market, the Star was never intended to take off as a consumer product. But it was quite successful, selling “tens of thousands” of units. according to Digibarn and inspiring tracking systems that refined the Star’s desktop interface into an operating system called Point of view. It also inspired some famous companies called Apple and Microsoft.

From Xerox to Apple: a continuum of innovation

Throughout history, technology has been built on earlier inventions. Technological innovation can be seen as a long continuum of inventions that are more interrelated than miraculous discoveries emerging out of nowhere. For example, the Star system has borrowed heavily from the Xerox Alto and the Little conversation environment created by Alan Kay, and the Viola itself borrowed from computer graphics projects before that.

A man using an Apple Lisa computer.

Likewise, the Star has influenced its successor computer systems, such as the Apple Lisa, although there is some confusion over exactly how much of the Apple Lisa interface came from the Xerox Star. This isn’t a black-and-white situation: Project Lisa predated the release of The Star, and Team Lisa says they were mostly inspired by the Smalltalk programming environment on the Xerox Alto. But in an interview with Byte Magazine released in early 1983, Xerox veteran and member of Team Lisa Larry Tesler admitted a strong influence, saying:

We went to the NCC when the star was announced and we looked at it. And in fact, it had an immediate impact. A few months after reviewing it, we made a few changes to our UI based on the ideas we got from it. For example, the office manager that we had before was completely different; it didn’t use any icons at all, and we never liked it that much. We decided to change ours for the icon base. It’s probably the only thing we’ve gotten 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 more than deserves credit for expanding it dramatically. The Apple Lisa introduced some innovative new GUI ideas such as the ability to drag and drop icons and windows, the recycle bin (missing from the original Star software but added later), the menu bar, drop-down menus, control panels, overlapping windows, and more.

The Macintosh also extended the Lisa interface further, adding its own unique touches and extending the continuum to today. Likewise, Microsoft Windows borrowed from Xerox and Apple, adding new elements to the desktop metaphor and GUI as we know it today.

Despite the influence Apple has taken from Xerox, Norm Cox is not offended. “Personally, I have been flattered and honored that part of our work has been reproduced [and it] gave birth to a revolutionary new way of working with computers, ”explains Cox. “[It] spawned new methods of conceptual thinking and a discipline of design that we now call UX. “

Happy 40th birthday, desktop computer!

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