We All Use Xeroxes

by Hadley Stern Aug 29, 2005

I unabashedly love the Apple platform. I think it is far superior to Windows in every way. There are no PCs in my home and I plan to keep it that way. I have a large collection of old Macs(30+). I founded and run a site called Apple Matters. I love the Mac.

But the war is over. When the Mac first came out those of us like you and me got it. We booted up and were absolutely stunned at the fact that you could double click on a folder to open it instead of entering in a command line prompt.

This is the essence of the Macintosh user experience. How fonts render wonkily occasionally, windows are sometimes inconsistent, and how the dock can be a pain in the ass, all that stuff is just noise. Details. It doesn’t matter. The heart and soul of the Macintosh user experience is the fact that is it a point and click interface.

In this way the Mac hasn’t really evolved since its original launch 20+ years ago. Indeed, if you were to get your hands on the original Mac (I’m looking for one for my collection by the way!) and a brand spanking new G5 you would be hard pressed to notice the difference. Sure the G5 looks like a radiator and it is many many times faster. But set them up, walk away and boot them up. Now, side by side do the following tasks:

- create a new folder
- rename a file
- move that file
- throw it in the trash
- etc

The point? The way we do these things hasn’t changed at all. Sure there are now keyboard shortcuts in Tiger to do all this stuff. Yes the icons are more colorful and the animation flourishes more sophisticated. Sure the G5 is in color, and faster and all that. But the essential metaphor remains the same.

Now go to your local Wal-Mart and pick up a Windows box. Boot that puppy up. Yes the entire experience is uglier, we know that. But ignore all that and get to the finder (or whatever it is called in Windows). Do the above list. Very similar to our original Mac and our brand spanking new G5.

And this is why the platform wars are over. This is not to say that there aren’t still battles to be won. We all know the Mac is a far superior platform. It is more secure, is easier to use, is more powerful and all that good stuff. The battles to be won are in those details. But they are details, and they are battles.

Improving these aspects of the OS as Apple continues to do, and Microsoft continues to blunder doing does not take away from the fact that most modern operating systems these days rely on the metaphor championed by the original Mac. Until someone, or some company comes along and reinvents this fundamental metaphor and takes it to the next level things are going to stay the same.

Innovation is painfully hard to come by. Heck, even Apple had to pop into Xerox for inspiration. Steve Job’s genius was not in inventing the point and click interface, it was in going to Xerox and realizing its genius.

So next time you get into a heated platform discussion about how the Mac is better than Windows, or the Mac rocks Linux take a step back and realize that we are all using Xeroxes.


  • We are not using Xeroxes! Mac, Windows or Linux are not even close to the original concepts demo’ed by Xerox to Steve Job.

    Can you modify the operating system kernel while it is running? Can you grab any part of the UI and change its behaviour? Can you work with high-level objects shareable by all applications instead of islands of files and tools? No, no and no.

    What Apple did is to take the windows and the mouse, without buying into the whole Smalltalk-way of doing things, and build something different, which was later on copied by other OS. Yes Mac OS still has a leading edge over other systems but it is still too far away of the real thing.

    hitoro had this to say on Aug 29, 2005 Posts: 12
  • Can you modify the operating system kernel while it is running? Can you grab any part of the UI and change its behaviour?

    Yikes!  What possible reason could a user have to need either of those?  (Aside from writing the most vicious worm ever)  Seriously… I’m not trying to be facetious. Why would you want to give the user ability to modify the kernel? That seems horrendously dangerous.  Why would you want to change the behavior of the UI?  Wouldn’t that just allow developers to muck the hell out of the interface leading to a terrible, inconsistent UI? 

    Can you work with high-level objects shareable by all applications instead of islands of files and tools?

    It was called Open Doc and come out during the OS 8 days.  Application developers roundly said to Apple “We’re not supporting that” since they make money off bloatware upgrades and the “applet” concept made them shiver to their profit-margin cores.

    vb_baysider had this to say on Aug 29, 2005 Posts: 243
  • hitoro, you miss the point. If you can’t see the Xerox heritage in GUI OSes, then you’d have to say Mac OS X has no relation to Mac OS; or Windows has no relation to Mac OS.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 29, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • I think it’s a common myth that the Mac interface was heavily derivative of the Xerox SmallTalk interface. In fact, the Mac team was already hard at work when Apple was allowed to visit Xerox PARC in exchange for about a $1 million in stock.

    The PARC visit led to a quickening of the user interface concepts, but Apple went on to innovate several important features that did not exist in SmallTalk, such as overlapping windows and drag-and-drop. Yes, SmallTalk did not even have drag-and-drop.

    You can read about it from Bruce Horn himself, who worked at Xerox PARC and later became a key architect of the original Macintosh.

    http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&story=On_Xerox,_Apple_and_Progress.txt&sortOrder=Sort by Date&detail=medium&search=xerox

    “Steve did see Smalltalk when he visited PARC. He saw the Smalltalk integrated programming environment, with the mouse selecting text, pop-up menus, windows, and so on. The Lisa group at Apple built a system based on their own ideas combined with what they could remember from the Smalltalk demo, and the Mac folks built yet another system. There is a significant difference between using the Mac and Smalltalk.”

    So let’s take a look at features that originated at Apple which Xerox did not have.

    *Drag and drop: try computing without this feature

    *Resource forks: double-clicking on a file automatically opens up the associated application on the Mac. Remove “.xls” or “.doc” extensions from the filename, and even XP has no idea what to do with the file.

    *Click-to-rename files and hard disk: try renaming documents by having to go through a wizard or using the command line instead of simply clicking on the file

    *Overlapping windows: SmallTalk didn’t have this fundamental interface feature, either.

    *Pull-down menus: the Lisa group actually innovated this, which was quickly adopted by the Mac group. But no such thing in SmallTalk.

    *Control panels: the Mac innovated the concept of applying changes to your system configuration via Control Panels. Non-existent in SmallTalk.

    I think it’s quite clear that without these totally Mac innovations, using a computer would be far more difficult than it is today. Xerox PARC had great ideas like cut-and-paste, but to say that we are all using Xeroxes today is a bit simplistic and frankly, simply wrong.

    We’re no more using Xeroxes today than a Van Gogh painting is a derivative of a Michelangelo. Just because oil paint is common to both doesn’t mean one is an iterated copy of the other.

    Paul had this to say on Aug 29, 2005 Posts: 31
  • Comment #4 pretty much nails it.

    I’d also like to add that Xerox PARC itself consisted of employees who were headhunted there when Douglas Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Center at Stanford lost its funding.

    Those employees took ideas that had already been born and were largely derived from Doug Engelbart’s research.  (As an example, the patent for the mouse belonged to Stanford, not Xerox: Engelbart had invented it long before then.)

    The concepts were further refined at Xerox PARC, just as the concepts were refined still further and polished into a usable product by the Lisa/Macintosh team (often inventing new things along the way that they thought they seen at Xerox but really hadn’t, such as window regions).

    Everyone stands on the shoulders of giants, but sadly people don’t know just what a giant Doug Engelbart was.

    mikataur had this to say on Aug 29, 2005 Posts: 19
  • The way you use Windows is not similar to the way you use a Mac! To use your own example, about manipulating files and folders, a Windows user is discouraged from doing this. Try to open your hard disk and you’ll receive a message saying something like “These files are hidden for your protection and should not be modified.” The Windows user is at least one level farther away from actually controlling the computer.

    innate had this to say on Aug 29, 2005 Posts: 12
  • MacGlee,

    I really enjoy reading AppleMatters and understand the concept of a journalistic hook, but in this case, the hook promotes a mythology that does a disservice to Apple and Mac users. This is especially true when so many Windows users and not a few Mac users believe the “Apple stole from Xerox” tale.

    Rather, I think the author would have made a more effective point by pointing out how different the Mac interface was from SmallTalk. It shows that Apple had a vision to do things not because it had already been done, but to go beyond and push the boundaries and do something new and, yes, different.

    I think with OS X, Apple is again trying to push the boundaries. It’s not happening as quickly as it happened when the Mac was first introduced, but the author’s observation that computing today is still very similar to computing in 1984 would still be valid without relying on the erroneous Xerox myth.

    That is, we are still welded more or less to the desktop metaphor of 1984. In all that time, no one has thought of something to replace that metaphor. So what then comes next? Maybe it’s an entirely search-driven interface with Spotlight at the center. Spotlight is great, but it’s still not good enough to replace the Finder just yet.

    Thus, I think the point would have been better made if there had been a call for Apple to make OS X the same kind of metaphorical leap that the Mac OS did with SmallTalk.

    As I said, Michaelangelo preceded Van Gogh by hundreds of years, but both used brushes and oil paints to create their works of art. No doubt Van Gogh was inspired by Michaelangelo (as all artists probably are), but no one would claim that having a Van Gogh painting is just like owning a Michaelangelo. What Apple has the opportunity to now is to advance the concept further and create the Picasso of operating systems - something inspired by the inspirations of the past, but in a class all its own.

    Paul had this to say on Aug 29, 2005 Posts: 31
  • Rather, I think the author would have made a more effective point by pointing out how different the Mac interface was from SmallTalk. It shows that Apple had a vision to do things not because it had already been done, but to go beyond and push the boundaries and do something new and, yes, different.

    Except that isn’t the point of the article at all, to write yet another sycophantic tome about how Apple created everything good in the universe.  Just drop on by Mac Daily News if you need a fix.

    The point of the article is that the OS war is over.  And it’s over because despite arguments about who came up with what when, and despite minor variations between the current OS’s (and whatever the zealots would have you believe, the differences are minor), the basic GUI is ubiquitous.

    We can thank Apple for that.  We can thank Xerox.  We can even thank Microsoft.  But the dust has settled for quite some time and, like it or not, Microsoft has won.  Maybe it didn’t do it honestly, but since when has honesty ever determined the winner of cultural standards?  Maybe it didn’t win by being the best, but since when has that mattered?  However it got there, Windows is the platform standard.

    I think, and I’m just interpreting this, but I think he’s saying that Windows will continue to be the dominant platform until the current method of interfacing with a computer changes and not until then.

    I also reserve the position that Hadley might be wrong and that somehow someone can overthrow Windows and its 97% market share.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Aug 30, 2005 Posts: 2220
  • Paul, an oil painting is an oil painting is an oil painting wink

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Aug 30, 2005 Posts: 371
  • Well said Beeblebrox,

    you have like me seen the point of the article through the petty details…

    The interface war is over because take Mac, Windows, KDE and Gnome and stand them side by side (you can add in a whole load of minor OSes too if you really want) and look past their minor individual idiosyncracies - what do you see? The same thing - GUIs have a common gestalt metaphor that is based in the office world of the pre desktop computer age because people can understand it easily. So now even Joe Average can (with a little computer experience) manage to figure out without too much trouble how to do basic tasks whether the box they’re presented with is Windows, Mac, Linux etc.

    No one won this “war”, everyone introduced some good ideas and everyone else copied them - what is wrong with that?

    Unless someone comes up with a whole new UI paradigm things are likely to stay much as they are for fair while (though personally I predict a slow decline in Microsoft’s market share but let’s not quibble over details for once)

    P.S. If you want to see how similar most GUIs really are (and how little they’ve really changed in 20 years) try a trip to:

    Serenak had this to say on Aug 30, 2005 Posts: 26
  • you have like me seen the point of the article through the petty details…

    You say that as if “petty details” are unimportant.  In journalism, the “petty details” are the MOST important parts of a story. If you get the details wrong, the reader will reach the wrong conclusion or come away misinformed.

    I think this is the biggest problem with opinion and “news lite” web sites.  No one checks facts. There is no journalistic process and there is little in the way of copy editing.  The authors just make bold, generalized statements which are often misinformed, misleading or just plain wrong. If a web site is to be of any value to its readership, the so-called “petty details” need to be correct. Without journalistic standards, all this is just pabulum.  (This is not so much a criticism of this article, but more about the statement that the details are unimportant).

    Since the web started gaining in popularity almost 10 years ago, it was compared to the Gutenberg press in importance because “anyone could become a publisher”...  But that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Not everyone should be a publisher.

    vb_baysider had this to say on Aug 30, 2005 Posts: 243
  • In this case the phrase was meant quite literally to mean the petty detail being quibbled over by earlier posters, not to imply that detail in general is petty.

    In fact I believe as you do and I am sorry if my statement was unclear and could be construed to mean that “detail should not be allowed to get in the way of a good story” smile That was most definitely not my intended meaning.

    In this case it appears that both Beeblebrox and myself agree with Hadley’s main assertion that essentially all modern GUIs are basically the same. Also that to a large extent they trace their ancestory back to Xerox and felt that comments really needed to relate to this general point and not go off at a tangent disputing the minutiae of exactly who first made “sticky menus” or whatever.

    Unfortunately on far too many occasions the “comments” on articles (here and elsewhere) have little or no relevance to the original article but veer off into namecalling etc. over irrelevancies (in respect of the original article at least).

    IMHO, YMMV, etc. etc.

    Serenak had this to say on Aug 31, 2005 Posts: 26
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