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Microsoft, Apple and Xerox
The History of the Graphical User Interface

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

There is an ongoing myth that Microsoft is justified in ripping off the Macs User Interface, because Apple had ripped off the MacUI from Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). Many go on to further say that Apple took the UI from the ALTO or STAR. Of course the people that say this have never used a Mac and an Alto or a Star, or they would know how silly these claims are.

I want to point out that philosophically and morally, theft by one does NOT justify the theft of another. If Apple did steal their UI from Xerox (which they did not), that would not forgive Microsoft of the same crime -- that would only make Apple guilty of a crime as well. So using this as a rationalization for Microsofts theft from Apple is void of any merit.

Apple and Xerox

Apple did not "rip-off" the Macs UI from Xerox. Apple had hired some people from Xerox (like Jef Raskin, Bruce Horn) who believed in concepts of a Graphical User Interface. These concepts are pretty broad -- like making a computer easier to use by using graphics (icons), using menus, windows and making a consistent interface to do things. The work on these concepts predates Xerox PARC -- in fact it was many of these peoples individual work on those concepts that got them hired at PARC. So Xerox (PARC) brought them together to refine them.

Apple's work on GUI's predates Steve Jobs visit to Palo Alto Research Center. Apple had already had the same broad goals of offering an easier to use computer, and possibly using some of the same concept (like menus, icons, and graphics).

Remember the following: Icons were not new, we had been using them for years for international street signs and so on -- they were only new on computers. Menus were not new, text based menus were being used and had been for a while. Graphics weren't new, though how much they were relied upon was new. The concepts of User Interface (Human Factors) was not new, it was just a little newer in applying it to computers.

Jef Raskin had worked at Xerox, and he was tooting the "easier to use" trumpet, with his vision of what that meant. He brought some of those ideas from Xerox, but he had brought some of those ideas TO Xerox as well. Later, he convinced Jobs to visit Xerox PARC, and Jobs became an immediate convert (for ease of use).

What Jobs saw at Xerox was a prototype Smalltalk development system. He did not see either a working ALTO or Star (which was developed much later).

Apple paid

Jobs was so hot on the concepts of UI, and the living Demos he say, that he, later, negotiated a deal with Xerox. He gave Xerox a large sum of stock in Apple (worth Millions) if he could come back, and bring some programmers -- to inspire them more on the concepts of GUI. This was like a one-day tour. This was agreed to by Xerox, and so by no stretch of the imagination could this be called "ripping-off".

PARC was a research center -- meant to inspire development. But they did not really develop products (in the commercial sense), they developed ideas. Saying that Apple learning some of the base concepts and then applying them was "ripping-off" is like saying that Air-Bags are ripping off Newton -- because Air Bags work because they adhere to some of the laws of physics first expressed by Sir Isaac. A silly silly argument. Knowledge builds on knowledge. Xerox didn't see Apple as competition, that is why they let them in -- but they charged Apple, since Xerox believed that their research had value.

Apple was creating a product, and so they hired some of the same researchers from Xerox, to be brought to Apple to work on the Mac and Lisa projects. Those researches state quite clearly that the goals and implementation were quite different between Xerox and Apple. The following is an exchange between two of those researchers, and should give you an idea of how much the Mac contributed to the concepts of UI -

The letters do seem to agree that the Macs UI was created at Apple, by Apple and for Apple. And that little if any Xerox work was taken, and the Mac was in a completely different universe. Some broad concepts were in common, but that is about it. Apple furthered those concepts, developed their own, and had totally different implementations.

The differences in UI between the Xerox UI and Apples' Mac were startlingly different. Years ago I saw a demo of a Alto. From my memory (which may not be flawless), it had a 3 button mouse (which you operated with your right hand), and a chording keyboard (for the left hand). There were overlapping windows, but there was no direct manipulation of those windows. To move the window you selected an option, from the one Menu that you had for each window, and you entered the new size or location of the window into a dialog (using numerical coordinates).There were icons, but icons were not associated with files -- they were more actions (buttons). They were using icons as verbs (do this, or do that) -- Apple made them into nouns, objects (that each represented data) that you manipulated. There wasn't that much direct manipulation, and most of the usage of the multiple windows was so that you could have multiple character terminals (like DOS) open at the same time. Contrast this with a Mac and you see that Apple went way way beyond what they saw.

Xerox extended their developments over time as well, but this is not ripping off. After Apple was far along into the Lisa and Mac project, Xerox had the Star. The Star used many more Mac-like concepts. But many were parallel developed, and some was cross over -- but both machines were developed at the same time but for different goals. I also beleive the Mac is easier to use and has the better interface.


Jobs kept beating on the Mac people that "Real Artists Ship!" - and that they were making a product. That is not anything like the research atmosphere at Xerox.

The Mac was 128k based personal computer, based on a Motorola 68000 processor - the MacOS was designed around Pascal with lots of assembly language for size/speed.

The Xerox machines were anything but personal computers -- they did not use microprocessors (closer to mini-computers), they had no real resource constraints as the Mac did, they ran slower (in real use), were far less elegant, were very immature (yet had some brilliant concepts) and were not really products -- they were research tools. The Xerox Machines were built around SmallTalk (a very resource wasteful language, for the time, but dynamic and powerful).

The two machine use completely different code and architectures -- which requires completely different software designs. The Mac and the Alto are about as related as a Motorcycle and a Semi-truck -- sure they both have wheels, both are transportation, and both run on roads -- after that it gets pretty divergent.

Note: There is not a single line of code that Apple got from Xerox, nor could have since the languages and designs of the system were so radically different.

Apple and Microsoft

Now what happened with Microsoft?

Well it starts out that Microsoft was one of the first Application Developers for the Mac. Apple (Jobs) knew that the Mac needed Software to be commercially viable, and Jobs learned that Microsoft was trying to break in to the Application market (1).

(1) Few remember that MS made languages. Then later stole OS's (DOS). And it wasn't until the Mac that they started making Applications. The Mac was Microsoft's chance to break into the lucrative Application markets. (Microsoft had made a few feeble attempts before the Mac, but it was the Mac that made them successful in the application area. They knew that a new computer meant new opportunities.

Jobs showed Microsoft the early Mac prototypes. Gates liked the ideas and agreed to write Mac applications.

Gates later threatened to pull their apps at the last minute before release unless Jobs agreed to -

A) Apple had to license some of the MacUI for MS-Applications on the PC. This Application suite later grew into Windows 1.0 and Office. Remember, Windows started off as an Application Suite, not an OS-Shell (2).
(2) Because Apple had licensed some concepts to Microsoft (under coercion), it weakened their case later against MS when MS started more blatantly ripping off the Mac. Contrary to popular myth that Apple lost their lawsuit against MS because it wasn't a rip-off, the real reason was that they had been to vague in their licensing of some technologies, and the benefit of the doubt was given MS.

B) Apple had to drop their MacBasic project which was completed and better than MS Basic. MacBasic had many concepts that MS ripped off to create VisualBasic. What few ideas for VB that MS didn't rip off from MacBasic they got from HyperCard -- which Bill Atkinson wrote because the Mac didn't have a good simple programming environment, because MS had dropped their basic for the Mac and had forced MacBasic to canceled as well.

Later MS decided that the GUI was just too cool not to use. So they started on an Application Suite that would use the Macs concepts of Windows, a Mouse, and direct manipulation to achieve its ends. This became Windows 1.0, and evolved into the Windows we know and hate today. The lead programmer for the Windows project was the same guy who had been a lead programmer for writing the Mac Application projects.

This sequence of events (Microsoft "borrowing" the Mac interface) is not the same as taking rough concepts and adding to them to create your own system -- this is much more intimate than that. Microsoft took their best Mac Programmer, and had him making almost every design decision for early windows. He was told, by Bill Gates, to make a PC look and work, "JUST like a Mac" -- this is a direct quote from Gates! Contrast that sequence of events, to Apple and Xerox sequence of events, and you get an idea for the difference in philosophy and implementation. Microsoft stole, Apple expanded.

This similarity was (of Windows to MacOS) is not just in design, there are whole toolboxes/API that are almost identical (in interface). Microsoft stole data structures and many routines, and the names and concepts for many things are the same as well. If it wasn't for the fact that they had to hack their stuff on top of DOS, they likely would have just stolen all the same code (and they did get sued for that later as well). If you look at many of the older Windows routines you see names and structures that are identical to the Mac. But MS is smart enough to avoid (or win) lawsuits -- they changed one name out of 10, or re-ordered a few things, all so they could say it wasn't identical. MS also had to make some design changes to get it to run on a PC. But as far as real design work for Windows, there was none -- the Mac was a living design document.

At first, MS only ripped off the design and implementation, but stayed away from Apple's look and feel. They knew that Apple would only tollerate so much theft. Later MS crossed this line as well, and Apple sued. It was when they started to steal the desktop metaphor (folders, trashcan, etc.) that Apple had enough. No matter what the legal decisions are, ethically Microsoft ripped off the Mac.

Later (post 1995) Microsoft has started to put some money into R&D, and they may try to innovate. Up to this point, they did not innovate -- they may rework others ideas, or add features to, but that's not "true" innovation.


Apple did not rip-off the Alto (Xerox-Parc) -- how could they? Apple was a product oriented company that produced a computer on their own. That computer had a few similarities in concept (user interface) with stuff Xerox was doing, but almost NOTHING in common design or implementation. Apple's metaphors went way way beyond what Xerox was doing (though there are other areas where Xerox was beyond Apple). They were trying to achieve different goals -- and from different points of view. Apple was creating the ultimate personal computer. Xerox was doing research tools, and later tried to make a big client-server type document distribution systems. These are about as similar as a motorcyle and a commuter Bus.

Microsoft on the other hand did rip-off Apple. The concept of making a computer easy to use is way to broad to protect, and Apple didn't complain about that. Windows, icons and menus are not ripping Apple off either -- these are broad concepts. Microsoft got sued because they stole design, implementation and finally metaphors (look and feel). They stole the way you manipulate things on the computer -- as well as almost everything underneath. I sometimes swear that if Microsoft had an original thought the company would immediately implode in suprise. Almost Everything good in Windows can be traced directly to the Mac (which the Mac had years before) -- and almost everything bad in Windows can be traced directly to where MS tried to do things different than the Mac and proved they don't know what they hell they are doing.

Created: 04/06/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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