1970 Conference predicting the future of work

Original author: Leslie Berlin
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In November 1977, 300 managers together with wives from all over the world gathered first class tickets to spend four days at the Xerox World Conference. In between meetings for men and a fashion show for women, visitors could sleep in the luxury rooms of the Boca Raton Club Hotel and attend cocktail parties and the main report given by Henry Kissinger. And so, on the last morning of the last day, they gathered to see one of the key events of the conference: “Future Day”, an invitation-only demonstration of the Alto personal computer developed at Xerox PARC, the company's research center located in Palo Alto.

Bob Taylor, who managed the computer science lab at PARC, and helped develop the Alto system, was pleased to demonstrate to Xerox’s manager a breakthrough we call today a personal computer. He believed that these machines would change the world, and eliminate most of that very monotony from office work, freeing office workers to do "the highest level functions that are so necessary for a person’s high self-esteem." The company has already installed about 400 Alta computers, and they were so popular that it was planned to introduce a queue for their commissioning by appointment.

But Xerox CEOs barely paid attention, let alone to use them, on Alto computers, and on Taylor and other people’s attempts to convince the company to reorient the computer strategy from large machines in favor of “Alto-like personal computer systems” did not produce results. . Future Day was to be a chance for PARC to present Alto to people who would determine whether Alto would remain an internal gimmick of the company, or become a real product all over the world. PARC sent 42 people, a dozen of Alto, 5 printers, 25 keyboards, a server, tens of thousands of meters of cable, equipment for video and multiplexing, dozens of mice, tools, spare parts and electrical devices to Boca Raton to help the presentation.

At the beginning of the presentation the lights were muted. A movie appeared on the screen. “This is our future, modern office. Our opportunity, ”said a voice as the camera slid along the brown fabric that adorned the wall that hung over the brown sofa in the PARC lobby. “There are huge problems under chrome and coordinated colors, because this office has not changed for many generations.”

A voice boomed: “The future may be here today. Greet the office system for the entire Xerox company we call Alto. ” After that, several researchers from PARC took the stage and started the demonstration.

Working with a remote team from Palo Alto, the presenters demonstrated how a computer can edit documents, draw bar charts, switch between programs, and call documents and pictures from the storage memory. They selected the text on the screen, worked remotely with other Alto, filled in declarations electronically, sent them for processing, entered foreign characters, sent emails and printed documents. The voice convinced the viewers: “Does it look difficult? We assure that it is not. This is what Xerox calls a friendly system. In field trials, an experienced machinist learned how to work with her in just a few hours, and inexperienced in just a day or two. ”

To the manager, who had never seen or used Alto, this demonstration was supposed to open his eyes. Outside of research laboratories, computers were divided into two categories: large and amateur. Both of them were interested only in specialists. Large computer systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and fill the rooms entirely. Amateur cars interested only hackers, for example, the Homebrew Computer Club, who were happy to introduce long sequences of characters, only to hear one of the Beatles songs playing through a transistor radio with a metallic sound.

Some of PARC, including Taylor, followed the Apple II computer, presented six months before the Boca Raton conference. And while the Apple II took an important step beyond the amateur machines and towards user-friendly computers, it lacked the Alto graphical interface, the mouse, ease of use, and networking. Even five years after the release of Apple II, ordinary users complained that it took them only hours to figure out how to use it.

Alto represented machines of a different class. Amateur computers did as large models, but Alto did based on the idea of ​​interactivity and ease of use promoted by Bob Taylor and his mentor J. Liclider.

Long after “Future Day,” Xerox President David Kearns would call the Alto presentation “a technological extravaganza,” and say that “people said they saw the future of our technology, and that was impressive.”

But the PARC team did not notice this excitement after the presentation. They noticed that during the interactive session, when everything could be touched, it was not the managers who were sitting at the computers, but their wives - they worked with keyboards and experimented with mice. Husbands, not impressed by this, associating the typing on the keyboard with the work of female clerks, stood in the corners of the room, arms crossed over their breasts. The researcher heard the comment of one of the managers: "I have never seen a man type so quickly." He did not understand what was happening.

Xerox will try to bring the next model to the market after Alto, so one cannot say that the company has not shown enthusiasm for the technologies presented at the “Future Day”. But the reaction that Taylor observed among the assembled directors — a mixture of indifference, misunderstanding and rejection — was understandable. Xerox made most of the profit on paper sales. And these California upstarts insisted that in the office of the future all work would be concentrated around the screens, which made the future of the paper uncertain.

Considering Xerox’s fear of a paperless office, it’s probably not surprising that the only technological innovation that PARC invented at the market was a laser printer, a paper-consuming device.

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