Sunday 18 April 2021

Xerox Star 8010 (1981)

Introduced April 1981

By the early 1980s, hardware and software designers had great dreams about what they wanted products to be. Portable perhaps, affordable or business-oriented… but all of these were constrained by technology and price. But what if you dreamed big and without compromise, and built the best computer system you possibly could? This is what Xerox did.

The catchily-named Xerox 8010 Information System – more commonly known as the Xerox Star – introduced potential customers to the graphical user interface, mouse, Ethernet, servers and email. A great deal of modern computing technology was first available in the Star, but it certainly came at a price.

Xerox Star 8010
Xerox Star 8010

It had been a very long journey. Doug Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos in 1968 had introduced many of these modern concepts, but running on primitive hardware. Many of Engelbart’s team migrated away to the giant Xerox corporation which had pioneered photocopiers and laser printers. The fortunes of Xerox were very much based in paper, but the concept of the paperless office loomed large and Xerox wanted to still be in business when paper was consigned to museums.

The Xerox Alto was their first attempt, launched in 1973 it incorporated a GUI (graphical user interface) and a mouse, but it was never sold commercially. Instead the Alto was deployed around the Xerox PARC as well as some universities and research organisations. It took another eight years for Xerox to realise a commercial product – the 8010 – but even though it had taken over a decade since Engelbart had shown the concepts, the Star was still way ahead of everyone else.

Strictly speaking, “Star” referred to the software rather than the hardware. And this wasn’t simply a computer you could buy and take home. Doing anything required a network, some servers and perhaps $100,000 in 1981 money for a small installation (about $250,000 today).

Japanese market Fuji Xerox 8012-J
Japanese market Fuji Xerox 8012-J

The price like the name was astronomical. But what that substantial wedge of cash bought you was a computer system with a high-resolution 17” monitor, a carefully thought out software interface that could work collaboratively with others, based on the high-end AMD Am2900 CPU. And the software was like nothing else.

Everything was WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) – you could edit two pages of a document side by side, including charts and tables from other applications and when they printed out they matched what was on the screen. You’d expect that today, but in 1981 it was revolutionary. The clever object-oriented operating system delivered features to the desktop that wouldn’t be common until a decade later.

There’s a problem with trying to sell customers a product that they don’t know they want at a price they can’t afford... all the efforts of Xerox to create an advanced computer system did not translate into many sales. Xerox tried to reposition the 8010 into a desktop publishing platform called the 6085 (aka Daybreak) which included a laser printer, and although this was a capable system it was still expensive and sales were slow. Later attempts to port the software to OS/2 and other platforms also failed. Xerox weren’t done with WYSIWYG though, a spin-off created the iconic Ventura Publisher, but that was only a passing success.


Xerox Star UI
Xerox Star UI

Despite being a sales failure, the Star was a technological success. In particular elements from the Star user interface found their way into the Macintosh, Windows and a host of other platforms. The networked environment too was increasingly emulated by competitors. As is sometimes the case with big, sprawling companies the Xerox Corporation itself did not seem to understand or be able to protect its own intellectual property. As with many pioneers, it was other adapting their idea that made it a success. Today elements of the Star user interface are pretty much everywhere, but this pioneering system is long dead.

Image credits:
Rhys Jones via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
Fuji Xerox - Courtesy of FUJIFILM Business Innovation Corp
Amber Case / Digibarn via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0

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