Historical Operating Systems: Xerox GlobalView

Author’s Note: The demonstrations in this article are based on Xerox GlobalView 2.1, the final release of the operating system and used a software collection available from among the links here: http://toastytech.com/guis/indexlinks.html

Xerox is not a name which one would usually associate with computing, being far more well-known for their photocopying enterprise. For this reason, it is somewhat bizarre to look at the history of Xerox and realise that through their PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), Xerox were one of the most revolutionary computer designers of all time. Their first design, the Alto minicomputer, was released in 1973 and introduced a functioning GUI, complete with WYSIWYG word processing and graphical features more than ten years before the first developments by any other company. Indeed, the Alto represented the concept of the personal computer several years before even the Apple II, Atari 8-bit family and the Radio Shack TRS-80 arrived in that sector and at a time when most computers still had switches and blinkenlights on their front panels.

The Alto was never sold as a commercial product, instead being distributed throughout Xerox itself and to various universities and research facilities. Xerox released their first commercial product, the Xerox 8010 workstation (later known as the Star) in 1981, but by that stage, they had presented their product to many other people, including Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Microsoft and Apple would soon release their own GUI operating systems, based heavily on the work of Xerox PARC’s research and ultimately would compete to dominate the market for personal computer operating systems while Xerox’s work remained a footnote in their success.

The Xerox Star was relatively unsuccessful, selling in the tens of thousands. Part of the reason for the lack of success for the Xerox Star, despite its technical advantages, was the fact that a single Star workstation cost approximately $16,000 in 1981, $6,000 more than the similarly unsuccessful Apple Lisa and more than $10,000 more than the Macintosh 128k when that was released in 1984. Consequently, the people who could have made most immediate use of a GUI operating system, including graphic designers, typically couldn’t afford it, while those that could afford it were more likely in the market for computers more suited to data processing, like VAX minicomputers or IBM System/3 midrange computers.

Nevertheless, Xerox continued to market the Star throughout the early 1980s. In 1985, the expensive 8010 workstation was replaced with the less expensive and more powerful 6085 PCS on a different hardware platform. The operating system and application software was rewritten as well for better performance, being renamed to ViewPoint. By this stage, though, the Apple Macintosh was severely undercutting even its own stablemate, the Lisa, let alone Xerox’s competing offering. Meanwhile, GUI operating environments were beginning to pop up elsewhere, with the influential Visi On office suite already on IBM-compatible PCs and Microsoft Windows due to arrive at the end of the year, not to mention the release of the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST.

Eventually, Xerox stopped producing specialised hardware for their software and rewrote it for IBM PC-compatible computers – along with Sun Microsystem’s Solaris – in a form called GlobalView. Since the Xerox Star and ViewPoint software was written in a language called Mesa – later an influence on Java and Niklaus Wirth’s Modula-2 language – GlobalView originally required an add-on card to facilitate the Mesa environment, but in its final release ran as a layer on top of Windows 3.1, 95 or 98 via an emulator.

As a consequence of running in this emulated environment, Xerox GlobalView 2.1 is not a fast operating system. It takes several minutes to boot on the VirtualBox installation of Windows 3.1 which I used for the process, most of which seems to be I/O-dependent, since the host operating system runs about as fast as Windows 3.1 actually can on any computer. The booting process is also rather sparse and cryptic, with the cursor temporarily replaced with a set of four digits, the meaning of which is only elucidated on within difficult-to-find literature on GlobalView’s predecessors.

Once the booting process is complete, one of the first things that you may notice is that the login screen doesn’t hide the fact that Xerox fully intended this system to be networked among several computers. This was a design decision that persisted from the original Star all the way back in 1981 and even further back with the Alto. Since I don’t have a network to use the system with, I simply entered an appropriate username and password and continued on, whereby the system booted up like any other single-user GUI operating system.

Looking at screenshots of the Xerox Star and comparing it with the other early GUI systems that I have used, I can imagine how amazing something like the Xerox Star looked in 1981 when it was released. It makes the Apple Lisa look vaguely dismal in comparison, competes very well with the Apple Macintosh in elegance and blows the likes of Visi On and Microsoft Windows 1.0 out of the water. Xerox GlobalView retains that same look, but by 1996, the lustre had faded and GlobalView looks rather dated and archaic in comparison to Apple’s System 7 or Windows 95. Nevertheless, GlobalView still has a well-designed and consistent GUI.

globalview1

Astounding in 1981, but definitely old-fashioned by 1996.

GlobalView’s method of creating files is substantially different to that used by modern operating systems and bizarrely resembles the method used by the Apple Lisa. Instead of opening an application, creating a file and saving it, there is a directory containing a set of “Basic Icons”, which comprise blank documents for the various types of documents available, including word processor documents, paint “canvases” and new folders. This is similar to the “stationery paper” model used by the Lisa Office System, although GlobalView doesn’t extend the office metaphor that far.

Creating a new document involves chording (pressing both left and right mouse buttons at the same time) a blank icon in the Basic Icons folder, selecting the Copy option and clicking the left mouse button over the place where you wish to place the icon. Once the icon has been placed, the new document can be opened in much the same way that it may be opened on any newer PC operating system. By default, documents are set to display mode and you need to actually click a button to allow them to be edited.

GlobalView can be installed as an environment by itself, but is far more useful when you install the series of office applications that come with it. As with any good office suite, there is a word processor and a spreadsheet application, although since the Xerox Star pre-dated the concept of computerised presentations, there is no equivalent to Microsoft’s PowerPoint included. There is also a raster paint program, a database application and an email system, among others.

It’s difficult to talk about GlobalView without considering its historical line of descent and it’s clear that while the Xerox Star presented a variety of remarkable advances in GUI design, by 1996, GlobalView was being developed to placate the few remaining organisations who had staked their IT solutions on Xerox’s offerings in the past. The applications no longer had any sort of advances over the competition. In many cases, they feel clunky – the heavy requirement on the keyboard in the word processor is one example, made more unfriendly to the uninitiated by not following the standard controls that had arisen in IBM PC-compatibles and Macintoshes. Still, considering the historical context once again, these decisions feel idiosyncratic rather than clearly wrong.

globalview2

The paint program isn’t too bad, though.

Using GlobalView makes me wonder what might have become of personal computing if Xerox had marketed their products better – if in fact they could have marketed them better. Of course, even by the standards of the operating systems that were around by the last version of GlobalView, the interface and applications had dated, but that interface had once represented the zenith of graphical user interface design. Like the Apple Lisa, the Xerox Star and its successors represent a dead-end in GUI design and one that might have led to some very interesting things if pursued further.

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