Xerox Star

December 19, 2011 | Past

At one of my first summer college internships, back in the 80′s, I briefly used a Xerox Dorado workstation. It’s a pretty fuzzy memory, but the things that made the biggest impression on me were the machine’s large bitmapped window display, and the mouse that I used to create the flowcharts I needed. Using it felt like a big deal — but the my time with it was limited, so I never learned more than the basics. A couple years later, I worked with Xerox PARC for my college thesis project on Smalltalk — and came in contact with these machines again. But again, the specifics of how the machines worked is one of my faded memories.

So, it was interesting to recently find these two video demonstrations of Xerox’s Star user interface. The Star’s UI was the inspiration for Apple’s Macintosh OS — and there’s plenty of information about how that exchange happened in the recent Steve Jobs biography.

Watching these video demos — it’s clear how strongly influenced the Mac was by the work at Xerox. But what I found most surprising, was how the Star didn’t really embrace the full potential of the mouse. Not to say that the Star wasn’t a revolutionary system, but the mouse was rarely used without a related keyboard action, and the idea of “dragging” doesn’t appear in any of the demos. The mouse and how it was used was in its infancy.

For example, to select some text you wouldn’t click and drag. Instead you’d click once (to select a point), twice (to select a word), three times (to select a line of text), of four times (to select the paragraph). Or, to move a file on the desktop you’d click it to select it, but then use a keyboard key (such as “move” or “copy”) to specify what you wanted to do, and then click the new location. The idea of directly manipulating the file icons wasn’t there yet.

An interesting reminder of the sometimes revolutionary, sometimes evolutionary nature of UI design.

Function keys

Dialog boxes

Screen, and icon details

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