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Echoes of Alto

By SoupIsGood Food, (, July 11, 2002

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In the beginning there was the Xerox Alto, a decade ahead of its time. From this first desk-side computer, the size and shape of a mini-fridge, sprang two revolutions in the computer industry. Everyone knows (or should know) the story of how Steve Jobs let Xerox have millions of dollars worth of skyrocketing Apple stock in exchange for two afternoons’ worth of demonstrations at the home of the Alto, Xerox’s PARC lab. He hired away some of its talented engineers and perfected the concept into not one but two marketable and ground-breaking products, the Lisa and the Mac. The GUI’s place in history was assured.

The other legacy that the Alto left was just as profound – bringing a powerful, general-purpose computer to the desks of researchers and engineers. The Alto had all of the features and power desired by programmers and end users, without the massive overhead required by an elaborate mainframe-and-terminal setup. Born in the same lab as Ethernet, the Alto was networked, blessed with easily mastered programming tools and geared to graphics. Xerox didn’t sell many of these revolutionary systems, but it donated a ton of them to various college campuses, including nearby Stanford University.

This obviously left an impression on some extraordinarily talented people. Both Sun and Silicon Graphics, Inc. got their starts in Stanford University by students and faculty taken with the idea of a personal workstation, and who in all probability worked with the Alto. Sun stands for “Stanford University Network,” and the first Sun workstations, running the powerful 68010 processor, came equipped with Ethernet. They also came equipped with BSD Unix, developed by Bill Joy, who first wrote a version of Unix with TCP/IP networking built in while he was at the University of California, Berkeley (the “B” in “BSD”). This gave Sun workstations an easily mastered programming environment in the Unix shell and C compiler. (Easily mastered by engineers and computer science majors, that is!)

The popularity of Sun and SGI workstations rocketed into the stratosphere as engineers and scientists discovered the power that a high-performance system running Unix could give them. In the search for greater power at lower cost, these companies pioneered RISC microprocessors, and Sun at least still champions their use to this day. Workstations, for the better part of a decade and a half, have come to mean a sophisticated Unix operating system running on powerful desktop RISC hardware. Sun lead the way with the SPARC processor, and SGI was close behind with its MIPS design.

Now that every Mac runs a version of BSD Unix on the same RISC platform IBM developed for its own Unix workstations, Apple is the largest workstation vendor in the world. The promise and potential of the Alto comes to the fullness of fruition at Apple twice over.

Want to gripe at me that it was Apollo, not Sun or SGI, who marketed the very first workstation? Do so below!

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