A very, very brief History of Personal Computing

The history of personal computing is full of reused ideas. Let’s see:

* Researchers fiddle with the first [GUI](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GUI)s, the mouse, [Ethernet networking](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethernet) and the precursors to all other modern elements of personal computing at Xerox’ [Palo Alto Research Center](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerox_PARC) (PARC).
* Xerox PARC introduces [Alto](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerox_Alto), [Star](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerox_Star)
* Apple steals GUI idea and mouse from Xerox, introduces [Lisa](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Lisa)
* MIT steals GUI idea and mouse from Xerox, introduces [X Window System](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X_Window_System) (It’s still not called X-Windows!)
* Richard Stallman announces [GNU](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU).
* The Internet is born (but barely anyone knows).
* Apple introduces Macintosh, also with GUI and mouse, but much cheaper than Lisa and more successful.
* Microsoft steals GUI ideas and mouse from Apple and Xerox, introduces Windows.
* After two unsuccessful versions, Windows 3 is finally a success, largely because Microsoft’s marketing had succeeded to convince PC makers to preinstall it on their computers and thereby not giving consumers much choice in what operating system they want in the first place.
* Microsoft deliberately introduces errors into MS-DOS so that Windows would not run properly on competitors’ editions of DOS in order to reclaim lost market share and stifle competition.
* Apple cheerfully introduces new versions of Mac OS, each with some innovations in user interface design.
* Linux Torvalds releases Linux, a kernel for x86 PCs.
* The GNU project ports their packages onto Linux, forming the GNU/Linux operating system that is known today. The GNU project aims to create a free (as in software libre) UNIX-compatible operating system. Ideas stolen from UNIX? You be the judge!
* Be, Inc. introduces [BeOS](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BeOS), a very modern operating system for personal computers. It had some features that Microsoft tried but failed to implement in their own operating systems even a decade later.
* Microsoft steals GUI innovations from Apple, introduces Windows 95.
* The [KDE project](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KDE) steals GUI innovations from generally everyone, introduces K Desktop Environment (KDE) running on the X Window System and, specifically, on GNU/Linux.
* The [GNOME](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNOME) project joins the merry pillaging, concerned about non-free components of KDE. Introduces GNOME desktop environment running on the X Window System and, specifically, on GNU/Linux.
* Microsoft fears competition from BeOS as Be, Inc. gets a distribution contract with a PC manufacturer. This manufacturer’s PCs would come with BeOS preinstalled for free. Microsoft uses their fiscal leverage to force the manufacturer to make BeOS invisible to users, leaving them with no idea that the system is installed and no way to easily run it. This is probably one of the key reasons that BeOS was not commercially successful and Be, Inc. went bankrupt, even though their product was technologically sound and years ahead of the competition at the time.
* Apple introduces Mac OS X with many innovations, though [not all of them without critics](http://arstechnica.com/articles/paedia/finder.ars/1). Funnily, Mac OS X is UNIXlike enough to also run the X Window System if it wants to.
* Microsoft releases Windows XP, a bastard child of Windows 98/Me and Windows 2000.
* Apple introduces Mac OS X versions 10.4 (Tiger) and 10.5 (Leopard) with some user interface innovations and gadgets.
* Microsoft steals innovations and gadgets from Apple’s Mac OS X, introduces Windows Vista.

As you can see, everybody stole and continues to steal from everybody else. There are very few innovators in between, only the fewest of them consistent in the amount and quality of innovations they produce. Even Apple had bad years, when barely anything changed and they had to struggle just to keep their system from losing key developers like Adobe due mainly to lack of memory protection and bad multitasking in Mac OS 8 and 9.

In other aspects, you can clearly see that some elements we take for granted today were only possible because one company or person copied the other. GNU/Linux would not have happened in this way without the UNIX systems of old. Windows 95 would not have happened without the innovations in Mac OS. All GUI history can be traced back to Xerox PARC, but it would be ludicrous to give Xerox credit for the spring-loaded folders of the Mac OS Finder or the treemap view of Konqueror’s file browsing mode.

What, then, is stealing? Can you steal an idea? How much do you need to add to someone else’s idea to make it your own, and make it an innovation?

What is to think of companies trying to kill the competition’s innovation? I’ve included the Microsoft vs. Be, Inc. example to ask that question, and also the one where Microsoft deliberately broke MS-DOS so the competition couldn’t run Windows properly. These are heavy-handed tactics that have positive outcomes for absolutely no one (except of course Microsoft).

Also, what are the benefits of reusing a concept? Every computer user today knows what a window is, what a scrollbar has to look like and what its function is. Things have evolved so far that even keyboard shortcuts in the same genre of program do the same. Ctrl-D or Command-D are expected to add a bookmark in a browser, for example. These similarities make computer use, and for many of us that means our daily lives, far, far easier.

I think we’d all benefit from more reciprocal stealing.

2 thoughts on “A very, very brief History of Personal Computing”

  1. thats somewhat interesting, and of course, those ways of copying have its benefits. i think thats why we are all against software patents (?)…

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  2. Yeah, I’d say so. Or at least: Why we are against patents of trivial ideas rather than implementations in software. I don’t think anyone minds if a company gets a patent on the implementation side alone, but think of a patent on Ctrl-D for bookmarking 😦

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