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Making money out of Xerox windows invention

I am curious about this. Even knowing now how things transpired, I am still not convinced that Xerox or anybody from Xerox had any real chance to make money out of the windows invention.
It seems to me that the invention was so far ahead of its time that there was no mechanism for the inventors to stick around long enough to make money out of it. If there was, let's imagine it!
Looking at the history it seems like pretty much only MS cleaned up on the windows thing, and only because the hardware prices became low enough such that to a generic computer user windows as opposed to command line started to matter. Geeks who ran computers before that time were perfectly happy with command line, and multi-terminal capability was there as well. Not as pretty as windows, but very very functional.
So, the question is how could Xerox make money out of windows?

Mr Curiousity
Friday, August 1, 2003

Mr. Curiosity,

The gist of the answer is by not viewing the Star software solely as a way to get people to buy their $16,000 hardware that would only run one program, but instead recognizing that people would want hardware that gives them a wide choice of software and software that runs on whatever hardware they've bought that gives them that choice, and that innovative software ideas have value of their own.

Xerox should have patented the Star UI while it was still in the prototype stage running on Altos (I demo'ed a version of it called Desktop to Carter's administration in 1979, two years before Star 1.0 shipped), and then concentrated on developing a commercial version that would run on the engineering workstations of the time, including selling their development environment, so that they could leverage their ground-breaking operating system by getting other companies to develop applications for it.

Star required more computing power than was available on home computers, but the government agencies and defense contractors who bought Star workstations had big budgets and engineering workstations that they ran other command-line based programs on, which would have had enough horsepower to run Star, if it had been developed for that hardware.

Xerox wouldn't have made as much money per seat selling an operating system, development environment and office application as they would have selling the workstations, but they would have sold more copies immediately, and more importantly, they would have been poised to migrate to less expensive hardware and broader markets as prices came down.

But they were a copier company with dreams of becoming a computer vendor. They never really understood that software had commercial value on its own, and even as a hardware company  they didn't grok that the most important  feature of computers is that they aren't tied to a particular program or even a particular company's programs. They actually saw the idea of selling the development environment as opening the doors to competition. It's like trying to sell a video player that could only play this one great mind-blowing movie that came with it, and not revealing any information about how to develop for its format.
They eventually ported Star (renamed to Viewpoint) to Unix and sold it for Suns, but by then it was much too late and the world had passed them by.

I would like to hang around to hear your thoughts, but I do my net access only at work these days (all the electronics at my house got stolen down to the cables) and I'm about to go home for the day. I've worked to midnight the last five days fixing bugs in Adobe Illustrator 11, and am bushed.

(P.S. to Joel: I grew up in New Mexico too.)

Teri Pettit
Saturday, August 2, 2003

I'd heard that they did make money from it - Apple purchased the concept with a stock trade - by the time the Lisa came out the value of the stock had trebled. 

Sunday, August 3, 2003

Xerox could have been more dominant than Microsoft are today if their management had had the vision to realise the value of what they'd created.

John Topley (
Sunday, August 3, 2003

Does anyone know which features of a modern GUI the Xerox system actually had?  My impression is they had windows and context menus and not much else.  Did they have a concept of a desktop?  Cut and paste?  What kind of widgets were available?

Erik Lickerman
Sunday, August 3, 2003

Sounds like Teri Pettit did a good job of answering your question. 

Xerox could have made money from it, but Apple (with a more affordable computer) was better positioned to do so.  Microsoft was able to steal much of the work Apple and Xerox did (via help from Steve Jobs).  Microsoft (because of its relationship with IBM) was in even a better position than Apple.

"Did they have a concept of a desktop?  Cut and paste?"

They had the concept of a mouse, so I imagine that cut and paste worked in some limited fashion.  When Apple came a knocking, I doubt the Xerox team had more than one or two simple applications that worked within their OS.

"What kind of widgets were available?"

Probably none.  I remember reading that when employees from Apple visited Xerox they were shown and played with a working prototype.

One Programmer's Opinion
Sunday, August 3, 2003


So would the GUI be patentable in those days? We have all these stupid patents now, but what about 25 years ago? Could one patent GUI and license it to other parties?

What bugs me is the fact that Apple did use GUI in their computers, and still did not become that successful with GUIs until right applications showed up. Regardless, nobody started switching to Apple from PCs.

For Xerox to be larger than MS today they would have to have licensed an OS to IBM for PCs. Otherwise they would have been another vendor who appeared and probably disappeared later.

I think that the usefulness of the GUI thing is overrated. It is nice to have a GUI, but it is not a "must have". Look at a typical productive use of a GUI on a *nix workstation, bunch of windows with text. One could be switching TTYs to have several windows open at the same time without a GUI and a mouse ... Once the computers became fast enough such that having GUI was free there was no reason anymore NOT to have it.

The GUI invention is great, yet appears to be quite tricky
for profitable exploitation by selling software/hardware. The patent angle would have worked, of course.

Mr Curiousity
Sunday, August 3, 2003

Erik, I was an intern at Xerox PARC awhile back and saw some of the old video footage of the Star and its relatives.  I remember they had the mouse, and on the left hand side of the keyboard there was a keypad for "chording" where you would hit combinations of buttons for commonly used commands.  That apparently never caught on like the mouse did.

They had windows definitely, and some basic widgets, though I don't recall what.  A big thing was the WYSIWYG word processing.  One fairly surprising thing is that they had built in video.  I think it was analog video overlayed on a window of the screen.  It was meant for collaborative work.  You could connect two PCs with a video cable and collaborate.  There was some sort "whiteboard" like application if I remember correctly.  I think they had drag and drop too.

Monday, August 4, 2003

I'm sure they had the clipboard. IIRC, the word processor was called Bravo and was written by Charles Simonyi.

John Topley (
Monday, August 4, 2003

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