Impact of the Xerox Parc Inventions on Development of the Computers

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Since the emergence of the first computers, it has been only a little bit over half a century, but the changes that the electronic devices have experienced over the years are undoubtedly huge and astounding. If we know that the computers of the 1950s were weighing several tones and occupied whole halls, while today millions of people wear incomparably higher processing power in their pockets, it’s clear that huge progress has been made.

Mark Weiser of the Xerox PARC Research Centre first defined this development and divided it into three phases. Today we are at the beginning of the third phase, which is rapidly developing in all directions, but if we look at the beginning of today’s generally accepted trends, we will realize that most of them come from the innovative prototypes of the Xerox Research Centre.

The first model of commercially available portable computers was created there, although not in the sense known to us today. One of the most affluential people in this field is dr. Alan Kay, who is also considered to be one of the introducers of personal computers. Kay’s clever sayings were often gladly quoted by Steve Jobs on Apple promotion speeches, such as: ‘People who are really serious about the software should make their own hardware’ or the most famous one ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.’ He was a key person in the development of GUI (graphical user interface) and object-oriented programming in Xerox Corporation, which is still the basis for today’s portable PCs and tablets.

At the end of the 1970s, XEROX scientists first started talking about the computer as part of the everyday personal environment of an individual. This included the idea that an individual should be able to carry around a smaller electronic device, even the size of a wristwatch, which is actually the reality of today. In the ’80s, the PARC team had several convincing expositions of its ideas and research achievements – presentations, advertisements, scientific works and prototypes of today’s all-embracing devices.

The invention of the Kay’s laptop computer is compared with the invention of the typing machine, in a sense of a revolutionary discovery. The upgrades of technology in XEROX started blooming after it, and many of the present ubiquitous devices descended from it. Establishment of iPhones in 2007 and iPads in 2010 has shaken the computer scene once more. Various versions of notebooks, 2 in 1 devices and similar technology gadgets started to appear. All these are variants of practical original models, only newer and more advanced, but on the same principle of working, and unquestionably PARC inventions have played a significant role in creating the world as we know it today.

Keywords: Computer technology, Ubiquitous computing, Personal Computer, Graphical user interface


Xerox PARC stands for Palo Alto Research Center from California founded in 1970. by Chief researcher Jack Goldman, which has given significant contribution to the computer technology, informational techniques and networking systems. It climbed very quickly to the top of the market by developing the pattern of laser printers, and later it was a symbol of pioneering inventions in the field of computing, which has far-reaching consequences to the present world of technology. The golden age of development and innovation in the PARC was between 70s to 90s, when the race among future giants in technology market was blistering, and many of their inventions served as a springboard for the success of competitors.

In the 70’s, Alan Kay and PARC team developed prototypes of networked workstations using the “Smalltalk” programming language. These inventions were later commercialized by Apple in Macintosh computers.

Kay is one of the fathers of object-oriented programming (which he also named), along with colleagues at the PARC, he thought of the concept of Dynabook, which defined the basics of laptop and tablet computers, and some also consider it an architect of modern graphic user interfaces based on windows. The creation of object-oriented programming influenced creation of C ++ programming.

Xerox Parc engineers never lacked imagination and innovation, and some of their inventions that played the crucial role in development of the field and are nowadays accepted as standard, but the company leaders were focusing on financing the stable sale of printers at the time, and unfortunately these brilliant inventions brought success to many others instead. Only in 70s, the inventions released form Parc quarters were: laser printers, mouse prototype, Smalltalk program language and Dynabook, which is a prototype of today’s laptop, Ethernet, Interpress- the prototype of postscript language and the text program predecessor of Microsoft Word. Later followed the Iv6 protocol and the theory of ubiquitous computers, as well as the Aspect-based programming. But perhaps a project with the most far-reaching consequences for present scene is the Graphical User Interface.

Aim of the paper

The objective of this paper is to investigate the inventions of Palo Alto Research Center in the most significant period for development of personal computers and computing technologies. This research tends to explain the projects from Xerox company and understand their meaning and significance. The study also aims to selectively put all the discoveries in the temporal frame, and thus better explain their time flow and surrounding events that followed them.

Furthermore, significant milestones will be observed retrospectively by their release dates, explained thoroughly from several different points of view, and compared with similar innovations from other companies that are now considered technological giants (such as Apple and Microsoft), occurring in the similar period. Timeline schedules place things into observative perspective and open the possibility for comparison and discussion. After examination of previous remarkable events and their consequences, we shall perceive the expected development of computational techniques from this perspective, based on our preceding knowledge of Xerox Parc creative corpus.


In order to reply to the objectives of the thesis task, a qualitative examination is applied to help understand the historical development of Parc research products, its impact on the present situation in technological world and possible predictions for the near future. At the initial study phase, we’ve focused on managing the literature about history of Parc company, collecting video-material figuring documentaries, interviews an movies; gaining insight on the milestones of their design, which helped us place our research among the related findings.

We didn’t base on explaining merely the retroactive situation, but rather tend to focus on relation among the events, correspondence between significant rivals and development paths that emerged from original artifacts. Research method manifested mainly as case studies of historical events that formed the computational scene of today, along with collecting visual data and creating graphical collages, aspiring to present the essence of matter in best possible way. The outset of presentation is shown trough the graphical timeline of major events, followed by evaluation of singular cases, and progressing to a discussion and their final comparison.


1971. Laser printing, the first milestone of Parc career, the pioneer laser printer designed to collaborate with personal computers, with bitmap electronic image.

1972. Ethernet, Smalltalk

Ethernet is the protocol multimedia technology of local computer networks, which uses copper and optical cables as a medium. In addition to basic sharing function in the local network, it also has Internet access functions, backbone networks and data distribution at a greater distance. The first version of Ethernet comes from Xerox Center, and it is considered to be today’s foundation of all web-based networks.

It was a technology intended to unite personal office computers and printers. At the end of 1972, they realized the first local computer network (an experimental Ethernet system) that connected Xerox Alto computers to one another, as well as computers with servers and laser printers. Xerox developed a new system on a coaxial cable as the medium to which several cells were connected and produced a new random-time algorithm, realized the first local computer network.

Ethernet soon became standardized so that each manufacturer could use them, thus the connectivity technology was available to everyone. The highest price was paid by Xerox, who had to give up patent rights, even losing the right to the name. In the meantime, it become an international standard that enabled manufacturers of network equipment worldwide to make components based on this technology.

Smalltalk is another big breakthrough of Parc Center that launched in the same year. It’s an object-oriented, dynamic, reflective programming language, significant for providing the ability for improvement of programs to newer versions, without having to repeatedly rewrite them. It was considered a revolution in software field that inspired many following software systems, but the first public version was launched in 1980.

1973. Xerox Alto PC, mouse and SuperPaint

The term Personal Computer, together with terms Microcomputer and Home Computer was first used in 1973 to describe the Xerox PARC’s computer Alto. This revolutionary invention could also be considered as the crossover from the First to Second wave of computing, the overcoming of Mainframe computing. This computer brought many novelties to the daylight, which will build the empire of Personal Computers era. Operating system was based on Graphical Interface, it had circuit editor, and another appealing premiere- a mouse.

The first next PC that partially supported the Xerox Alto features was Apple II, introduced in 1977, though with an incomparably less demanding offer. The mouse as a component did not come out until 1983, with the release of the Apple Lisa, along with the GUI. Since Lisa had many flaws it never reached mass popularity, and the first worthy successor of Xerox Alto can be considered Apple Macintosh from 1984.

SuperPaint is another invention that strikes the market that year, and this time a creative one. It was the first program using computer graphic for artistic purposes, animation and video edit, from which became all the design oriented, CGI and Adobe creative programs. For the first time were presented alterations of design measures, hue and saturation values, and sets of buckets and brushes to manipulate design. Sounds like Photoshop, doesn’t it? The first one came out many years later, in 1988. In the years to come, SuperPaint was used by NASA, George Lucas’ studio and Pixar, and earned an Emmy and Academy Award.


WYSIWYG is an acronym of the compound “What You See Is What You Get”, which represents a user interface that allows the user to visualize the final result while document is still under preparation. Basically, this implies the ability to directly manipulate documents without having to type or remember scheduling commands in editor. Bravo was the first bitmap software using WYSIWYG technology, implemented in Xerox PC computers, and is considered to be predecessor of Word, introducing the terms like cut and paste. HP presented this software in their version “Bruno” 4 years later.

1975. Graphical User Interface (GUI)

GUI is a software environment that allows user to communicate with computer using previously defined functions. It replaced the impractical and heavy textual interfaces of earlier computers (MS-DOS) with intuitive system, which not only simplified computer handling, but made it more natural and enjoyable.

In 1975 Parc team wrote the future of computer world as we know it today. They presented in a PC using bit-mapping technique in which everything on the screen was basically- a picture. The interface included a set of small icons spread on the screen, which began to be considered a virtual work space, with icons and menus that can be manipulated with a mouse or keyboard. For comparison, Microsoft was founded the same year, and Apple one year later, in 1976.

After Steve Jobs’ legendary visit to PARC center in 1980., their system was copied and used on Apple Macintosh in 1984, nearly ten years later. It was the first commercially successful computer that popularized GUI. It was so successful that over time this user interface was taken by everyone who dealt with operating systems and applications, and today it’s used on almost all computers and electronic technology.

[image: ][image: ]Right after Macintosh, Bill Gates appeared on the market with a more competitive product, Windows 1.0. in 1985. A color version with common graphic elements such as scrolls, windows and menus was released. User interfaces from the 1990s were dominantly in the sign of Windows, especially after the release of Windows 3.0 OS, and this interface became the standard for personal computers. Although PARC presented the original idea on their first PC Xerox Alto in 1975 and perfected it on Xerox Star in 1981, it served as a ready basis for others’ success. Microsoft fully took over the credit for development of the interface.

1980. Smalltalk-80, Optical Storage, RIP (Routing Information Protocol)

The first fully object-oriented, perfected programming language was Smalltalk-80, for the first time publicly presented in 1980, which became available to the general public. Many things in today’s programming are assumed to have come about with the development of Smalltalk, primarily a programming language with an integrated development environment. It is the first programming language with graphical environment that enables communication with the mouse. In 1985, Apple released their version called “MacSmalltalk”.

RIP was the first-developed and simplest routing protocol. Because of its simplicity, it is still widely used today in networks with a small number of routers. Soon, the protocol was implemented in network systems of many manufacturers, which led to its standardization in 1988.

1988. Ubiquitous computing

Technological development is one of the most important factors of modern society.

Mark Weiser and his colleagues from the PARC have concluded that technologies that have the greatest impact on everyday life noticeably disappear from the environment. They came to the conclusion that this also applies to information communication technologies and that their use can be effective only if they become part of everyday life and invisible, i.e. to physically disappear from the sight of end users or to become transparent. In the case of transparency, the user is no longer aware that he is the one who manages the technical equipment, and attention is focused on experience and interaction – technology no longer knows the limitations.

An intelligent ambience or environment appears as a customer-oriented service that determines the tendency of increasing quality of life by providing relevant information and services to the mobile user, wherever and whenever. This conception of general presence applies to individual and networked computers, including a useful, pleasant and inconspicuous system look everywhere – at home, on the road, in public places, at work. The omnipresent system further entails its ability to integrate diversity, computing and network capabilities, and to provide services in an ad hoc way to users.

One of the consequences of ubiquitous computing is also the emergence of HCI (Human Computer Interaction), and it is rapidly developing over the last 10 years. The tendency is to create a natural interface, which is easy to use and does not depend on computer hardware. The point is that the user uses the computer simply, without paying attention to the user interface. HCI is an interdisciplinary field that studies the interaction between people and computers, in order to make computers more convenient and easier to use, while being used as instruments that enhance human creativity and communication and collaboration between people. HCI has become extremely important at the end of the 20th century with appearance of increasingly cheaper, smaller and more powerful computers.


Weiser’s theory of ubiquitous computing explains the development of computing technology trough three waves. The first phase of computer development can simply be described as a state in which multiple users come to one computer, and it was marked by early mainframe computers, the first of which was ENIAC, a general-purpose computer. The second phase begins with the appearance of a PC, which continues to this day.

It is characterized by a paradigm ‘one computer, one person, and a computer as a device belonging to an individual and containing its data. The appearance of the Internet denotes the period of transition to the third stage as the client-server architecture arrives, a new data storage space is separated from the personal computer and provides access to information from numerous more and more, it is possible to quickly and easily share data with the existence of online servers.

In the third phase, the situation changes in the way that now we have more computers on one user, while at the same time, ‘more computers share each one of us’. Pervasive computing means that computers must be largely depersonalized, technology becomes an imperceptible part of everyday life and is continuously present in every activity we do throughout the day. We have seen the change of ways of using computers very clearly with the emergence of the Netbook category of small and affordable mobile computers, primarily intended for web surfing, communication and Internet access in 2007.

Suddenly, these computers ceased to own our personal information and began to serve more as a console, or ‘window’ to Internet services – online Google Docs, Dropbox and similar cloud storage spaces, to social networks and online services. This trend reached its peak in 2010 with the mass-expansion of Tablet computers and emergence of iPad, the product which originated from Palo Alto’s Tab from 1991.

In addition to the Pad, Weiser’s future is based on 2 more basic devices – tab and board, with tab representing today’s smartphone, and board corresponding smart surfaces. All these smart prototypes were introduced 16 years before the first iPad. Weiser also notes that these changes should take place between 2005 and 2020, which is a very precise forecast and coincides with the activities and progress made by leading global companies in this field.

Today, around 2.5 billion people use smartphones, and around 1 billion are served by tablets, which testifies of omnipresence of these devices in today’s world, in the third era of computing, while we’re all connected by the pervasive internet network.

It has long been a synonym for modern technology advancement a smart cuisine with programmed ovens and fridges with a built-in display connected to the network. Such device can control the quantity of foods automatically ordering new ones, registering the expiration of the shelf life of articles and warn the owner what is necessary to consume immediately, even to suggest ideal dinner recipe based on inventory.

Although we are already familiar with the computers in the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, heater, etc., installation of computer components in most home appliances will additionally affect the ubiquity, as it is described by the authors. The assumption is that by the end of decade, this type of technology will make us surrounded by a huge number of computers that we’re not aware of.

Smart buildings are also the product of recent technological development, or housing and business facilities that are fully managed by computers. One of the important reasons for promoting smart buildings is achieving energy efficiency and maximum utilization natural resources. A building managed by computers can, for example, automatically regulate sun blinds and thus ensure optimum energy consumption for heating. Another example is sensors that, depending on the presence of people and other environmental factors, can adjust desirable parameters in the house.

Wearable computers are also extremely significant achievement initiated by Parc’s invention, which is currently present in the modern world and evolves in the direction of a progressive future. They become the pervading element of our lives by placement in clothes and other parts of equipment we carry on ourselves or with us. The idea was embodied at Xerox Parc in 1994 as device called “Forget me not”, a prototype that was programed to record interactions between workers and be used as office assistant.

Currently, they are used in the form of computers attached under clothes which, with the help of appropriate sensors, can monitor health status of the users, or help people with special needs. Smart watches and Fitbit systems are the most common form that is worn on the wrist, and there are also virtual glasses and an optical display for the head, and one common feature of all laptops is their ongoing activity. Although similar solutions are actively developing for decades, it is anticipated that in the coming period this area will experience a huge leap and rapid progress.

Computer and mobile networks are one of the most important components of ubiquitous computing era, providing direct connection of devices – either to one another or to the Internet. Wireless computer networks have become a common phenomenon, so the expected future focus will most likely be on reaching higher data transfer speeds via all kinds of internet networks. The new fastest achievement of fiber internet will probably soon be the basic standard everywhere.

Cloud computing describes any relocation of computer resources into so-called data centers of independent suppliers, and access to those resources over the Internet. It is said that ubiquity of computers implies, among other things, data that usually completely removed from the computer that processes them, and therefore it’s quite understandable the enormous importance of the virtual cloud service space.

Comparison and Predictions

When talking about further development of personal computers, it’s necessary to also examine current research, the expected changes and progress of individual basic components.

Motherboard, though in base the idea is almost identical to the original one, they have experienced numerous changes trough time, mostly in the form of different standards for processor footers, memory modules, controllers of connected devices and connectors for expansion and connection of peripherals. This trend will certainly continue in the years ahead, with development components also affecting the appearance of motherboards. It’s also certain that we can expect a reduction in dimension and integration of individual modules into single units.

Very rapid progress has been made in area of processors and graphics chips, and in recently it reflects in adding more and more cores to one processor. It can be expected that in upcoming period these obstacles will be overcome, and we’ll have processors with dozens of cores in computers. Another important change that has taken place in the field of processor development is the integration of graphics chip with a processor, whose constant improvements are in progress. (Evident Technologies, 2011)

Classic hard drives have long been the only way to store data in computers, with very few significant changes. The most important recent novelty is the emergence of Solid State Disks (SSD), which don’t have moving parts, and are more resistant to exploitation conditions. However, high-capacity SSD modules have not yet entered mass-usage, so we mainly use hybrid solutions that connect both types. In the future, full replacement of classical disks with SSD versions of large capacities is expected.

The next revolutionary major advancement that could occur in this area is the development of so-called Quantum processors and Quantum computers. Such processors aren’t based on transistor technology and don’t use the standard binary system, but they exploit the properties of quantum mechanics and quantum states, thus achieving an incomparably greater possibility and acceleration of data processing. Qbit could represent 0 and 1 at the same time and change the way we operate the computer we know from the root. This significant breakthrough is so great that scientists compare it to the shift from monochromatic to full-color.


The past 3 decades marked the incredibly rapid development of information technology, consumer electronics and telecommunications. Relatively near-smart mobile phones practically did not exist, personal computers just started to expand, and the Internet was a novelty. It is certain that the trend of acceleration of technological development will continue in the years ahead.

The pace of emerging new innovative solutions has led to the fact that many predictions of the futurist are long overdue, and new innovations are increasingly difficult to follow. From the once inconceivable sci-fi story of ubiquitous computers, we have come up with a new prediction called ‘technological singularity’ – the development of the technique will lead to inconceivable progress that will result in a technological jump, most probably in the form of artificial Superintelligence. (Kurzweil, 2005).

Some of the present experimental technologies that will lead to the jump in the future refer to quantum computers and various forms of Nano-technology. Most boldly predictions envision human beings will undergo significant transformation because of many Nano-robots in charge of control, security, surveillance, and management of body functions.

One vision predicts Nano-robots will be able to upgrade human brain by performing calculations, project images and other stimulations directly to the centers for human senses, and also communicate with other similar Nano-robots in bodies of other people. Hence, computers will become an integral part of ourselves. Although this is still in the domain of speculation and futuristic visions, it’s not excluded that in the future the fourth phase will come, with some new computer form. Doesn’t it sound as unbelievably as Weiser’s predictions at the time?

Although it’s difficult to certainly say where will development of computers take us in the years to come, it’s possible to sense where the main current trends are leading. For example, smartphones will surely progress to have greater power, probably stronger than computers and cameras as we know them today. That will naturally allow the progress of other devices, like household appliances, clothes, vehicles, buildings, etc.

Furthermore, the progress in the mobility of computers, the availability of all data through the Internet at any time and place on various devices, leads to a significantly higher participation of computers in our everyday life, or rather their essential ubiquity.


  1. Xerox System Integration Standard – Internet Transport Protocols (Xerox, Stamford, 1981
  2. Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, 1999, Michael A. Hiltzik
Impact of the Xerox Parc Inventions on Development of the Computers essay

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How did Xerox contribute to computers?
Alto for the first time combined these and other now-familiar elements in one small computer. Developed by Xerox as a research system, the Alto marked a radical leap in the evolution of how computers interact with people, leading the way to today's computers .
What is the historical significance of Xerox PARC?
Xerox PARC computer scientists record the first video image on the first computer paint system – a graphics program and framebuffer computer. This paves the way for the earliest computer animations and later earns its inventors an Emmy and an Academy Award.
What technologies did Xerox PARC contribute to?
Xerox PARC has been at the heart of numerous revolutionary computer developments, including laser printing, Ethernet, the modern personal computer, graphical user interface (GUI) and desktop paradigm, object-oriented programming, ubiquitous computing, electronic paper, amorphous silicon (a-Si) applications, the
What were some breakthrough innovations enabled by the research at Xerox PARC?
In 1970, Xerox established the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) to be our advanced technology lab and drive future innovation. Since then, PARC has developed some of the most important technological breakthroughs of our time, such as the graphical user interface, Ethernet and laser printing .
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