It was not a commercial product, but several thousand units were built and were heavily used at PARC and at several universities for many years. The Alto greatly influenced the design of personal computers in the following decades, notably the Macintosh and the first Sun workstations. It is now very rare and a valuable collector's item.
Apart from an Ethernet connection, the Alto's only common output device was a bi-level (black and white) CRT display with a tilt-and-swivel base, mounted in "portrait" orientation rateher than the more common "landscape" orientation. Its input devices were a custom detachable keyboard, a three-button mouse, and an optional 5-key chord keyset. The last two items had been introduced by SRI's On-Line System; while the mouse was an instant success among Alto users, the chord keyset never became popular.
In the early mice, the buttons were three narrow bars, arranged top to bottom rather than side to side; they were named after their colors in the documentation. The motion was sensed by two wheels perpendicular to each other. These were soon replaced with ball-type mice, which were invented by Bill English; and eventually by optical mice — first using white light and then using IR.
The keyboard was interesting in that each key was represented as a separate bit in a set of registers. This characteristic was used to alter where the Alto would boot from. The keyboard registers were used as the address on the disk to boot from, and by holding specific keys down while pressing the boot button, different microcode and operating systems could be loaded. This gave rise to the expression "nose boot" where the keys needed to boot for a test OS release required more fingers than you could come up with. Nose boots were made obsolete by the "move2keys" program that shifted files on the disk so that a specified key sequence could be used.
Severral other I/O devices were developed for the Alto, including a TV camera, the Hy-Type daisywheel printer and a parallel port, although these were quite rare. The Alto could also control external disk drives to act as a file server. This was a common application for the machine.
The Alto helped popularize the use of raster graphics model for all output, including text and graphics. It also introduced the concept of the bit block transfer operation, or BitBLT, as the fundamental programming interface to the display. In spite of its small memory size, quite a number of innovative programs were written for the Alto, including:
There was no spreadsheet or database software.
The Alto was never a commercial product, although several thousand were built. Universities, including MIT, Stanford, CMU, and the University of Rochester received donations of Altos including IFS file servers and Dover laser printers. These machines were the inspiration for the ETH Zürich Lilith and Three Rivers Company PERQ workstations, and the Stanford University Network (SUN) workstation, which was eventually marketed by a spin-off company, Sun Microsystems. The Apollo/Domain workstation was heavily influenced by the Alto.
A trip to Xerox PARC by Apple Computer's Steve Jobs in 1979 led to the graphical user interface and mouse being integrated into the Apple Lisa and, later, the first Macintosh. Steve Jobs was shown the Smalltalk-80 programming environment, networking, and most importantly the WYSIWYG, mouse-driven GUI interface provided by the Alto.
In 1980–1981, Xerox Altos were used by engineers at PARC and at the Xerox System Development Department to design the Xerox Star workstations.
Before the advent of the IBM's Personal Computer, the computer market was dominated by costly mainframes and minicomputers equipped with dumb terminals that time-shared processing time of the central computer. Personal computers, like the early Apple models, were little more than toys for hobbists. So, through the 1970s Xerox showed no interest in the work done PARC. Even when the commercial success of the IBM PC in 1979 finally pushed Xerox to offer a PC of their own, they pointedly rejected the Alto design and opted instead for a very conventional model — with the then-standard 80 by 24 character-only monitor, and no mouse.
Xerox only realized their mistake in the early 1980s, after Apple's Macintosh revolutionized the PC market thanks to its bitmapped display and the mouse-centered interface inerface — both copied from the Alto . With the help of PARC researchers, Xerox eventually developed the Xerox Star office system, which included the Dolphin, Dorado and Dandelion workstations. These machines, based on the 'Wildflower' architecture described in a paper by Butler Lampson, incorporated most of the Alto innovations, including the graphical user interface with icons, windows, and folders, Ethernet-based local networking, and network-based laser printer services.
While the Xerox Star series was a relative commercial success, it came too late. The expensive Xerox workstations could not compete against the cheaper GUI-based workstations that appeared in the wake of the first Macintosh, and Xerox eventually quit the workstation market for good.
Leisure - Retro - Xerox Alto. Many innovations in personal computing began in a machine that was way ahead of its time.(Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre)
Feb 01, 2005; Byline: Gordon Laing. Laser printers. Ethernet. The first commercial use of the mouse. All hugely significant developments, but...