a legendary pilfer at apple -- 2/27/19

Today's selection -- from Dealers of Lightning by Michael A. Hiltzik. By 1979, Adele Goldberg and her Xerox colleagues had developed a revolutionary user interface for the personal computer, when Steve Jobs and a small team from a new company called Apple came to get a now-legendary demonstration:

"[Xerox developer Adele] Goldberg was stunned. Her worst nightmare was unfolding: The hard-won understanding about what Apple could and could not see [of Xerox's breakthrough] was about to be breached. Turning red and teary with rage, she told [Harold H.] Hall, 'That's nuts! It's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.'

"That was for starters. [Her colleagues] escorted her into Hall's office to try to calm her down. It was an uphill struggle that lasted, by her esti­mation, about three hours.

"'I finally said ... "You are making a really big mistake,'" she recalled. ' "You are throwing away something that this company itself hasn't had a chance to even consider using. And you'll have to order me to do it, because I'm not walking in there voluntarily."

" 'And that's what [my boss] did."'

"[Other Xerox employees] had spent the intervening time trying to keep Steve Jobs distracted with more of the plain-vanilla demonstration. They had just about had it with his constant wheedling when, sud­denly, Adele Goldberg arrived back on the scene. 'I can still see her,' [Diana] Merry recalled. 'She was in pigtails and her face was red as a beet. And she was holding one of our yellow disk packs with Smalltalk on it.'

Cover of the book "Smalltalk-80:
The Language and its Implementation"
by Goldberg, Robson, Harrison

"The demo began. A full-dress Smalltalk show-and-tell was a sight to behold. There were educational applications Goldberg had written and software development tools by [Larry] Tesler. Merry demonstrated her galley editor, a nifty program with animation capabilities built in so that a user could incorporate text and pictures into a single document. Almost every program had capabilities that had never been seen in a research proto­type anywhere, much less in a commercial system. 'There was lots to Smalltalk,' Tesler remembered. 'You could see it thirty times and see something new every time.'

"What was interesting -- or to Goldberg, ominous -- was the intensity with which the Apple engineers paid attention. Bill Atkinson, a brilliant programmer who would later put his distinctive stamp on the Macintosh, kept his eyes on the screen as though they were fixed there by a magnetic field. He was standing so close that as Tesler conducted his assigned portion of the demo he could feel Atkinson's breath on the back of his neck.

"Atkinson had clearly come prepared. 'He was asking extremely intelligent questions that he couldn't have thought of just by watching the screen,' Tesler recalled. 'It turned out later that they had read every paper we'd published, and the demo was just reminding them of things they wanted to ask us. But I was very impressed. They asked all the right questions and understood all the answers. It was clear to me that they understood what we had a lot better than Xerox did.'

"Given this rare psychic encouragement, the Learning Research Group warmed to their subject. They even indulged in some of their favorite legerdemain. At one point Jobs, watching some text scroll up the screen line by line in its normal fashion, remarked, 'It would be nice if it moved smoothly, pixel by pixel, like paper.'

"With [Daniel] Ingalls at the keyboard, that was like asking a New Orleans jazz band to play 'Limehouse Blues.' He clicked the mouse on a window displaying several lines of Smalltalk code, made a minor edit, and returned to the text. Presto! The scrolling was now continuous.

"The Apple engineers' eyes bulged in astonishment. In any other system the programmer would have had to rewrite the code and recompile a huge block of the program, maybe even all of it. The process might take hours. Thanks to its object-oriented modularity, in Smalltalk such a mod­est change never required the recompiling of more than ten or twenty lines, which could be done in a second or two. 'It was essentially instan­taneous,' Ingalls recalled. Of course, it helped that as one of Smalltalk's creators he was able to make the change as though by instinct. 'We were ringers,' he confessed. 'We knew that system from top to bottom.'

" 'They were totally blown away,' Tesler confirmed. 'Jobs was waving his arms around, saying, "Why hasn't this company brought this to mar­ket? What's going on here? I don't get it!" Meantime the other guys were trying to ignore the shouting. They had to concentrate and learn as much as they could in the hour they were going to be there.'

"The creation myth of the Lisa and Macintosh holds that Steve Jobs, in the grip of an epiphany brought on by PARC's dazzling technology, headed straight back to Apple headquarters and ripped up a year's worth of planning for the Lisa user interface. Jobs himself recalled how he returned to his office that afternoon 'a raving maniac,' insisting the Lisa be reconfigured to replicate the Alto's dynamic display. 'It was one of those apocalyptic moments,' he said 'I remember within ten minutes of seeing the graphical user interface stuff, just knowing that every computer would work this way some day. It was so obvious.'

"Something of the sort did happen, but without quite so much sturm und drang."

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Michael A. Hiltzik


Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age




Copyright 1999 by Michael Hiltzik


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