Imagine a world where Apple shacked up with Xerox in the '80s: How might it look today?

An alternative history of the computer revolution


Feature Today our columnist Mark Pesce considers what would have happened had Apple and Xerox partnered in the 1980s. Is this how the history of the microcomputer revolution would have panned out? We present the following fiction.

Looking back over the last 40 years of computing, it's hard to imagine how things could have been different. When Steve Jobs travelled up the Valley in late 1979 to visit Xerox PARC, he found the missing piece of the puzzle that had eaten away at him ever since Woz hacked together the first Apple I: how to make a computer that everyone could use.

The genius computer scientists at PARC had solved that problem with WIMP: windows, icons, menus, pointer. Add in a high-resolution display, an operating system built upon components written in the spiffy object-oriented Smalltalk programming language, plus a high-speed network interface to connect all of the systems together, and, well, that's pretty much all of modern computing, even today.

Xerox got pre-IPO shares of Apple; Jobs found a path forward – but one that would take years to bring to bear fruit. By July 1981, the two firms felt comfortable enough to ink a partnership agreement that looked like a bit of marketing fluff at the time – each promised only to promote the other's products – but which quickly changed the world.

More than anyone else in the history of computing, Jobs was born to sell. But all those years of acid and monastic self-reflection also meant he had to believe in what he peddled to the public. He believed in microcomputing, he believed in Apple, and finally he believed in computing for the people: a world where these previously incomprehensible devices became easy to use, powerful, and playful.

"If you can't beat 'em," Jobs reputedly said, "network with them – and suck them dry..."

On 12 August 1981, "the day the world changed", the first fruits of that marketing agreement landed in the form of the world's very first "thin client", a combination of hardware and software that allowed an Apple II Plus to connect to a Xerox Star via an "Ethernet" local area network card that popped into its expansion slot. Together with the included "mouse", this turned an $1,100 microcomputer into the functional equivalent of a $17,000 Xerox Star – for just $999. "If you can't beat 'em," Jobs reputedly said, "network with them – and suck them dry." With that, the cost of the digital office dropped by an order of magnitude, sales of both firms skyrocketed, and the Xerox-Apple duopoly was born.

Jobs wasn't satisfied with the conquest of the office. Computers were for the people – "tools for thinking" for everyone. He wanted a machine as powerful as the Star, but at a 10th of the price, something that wouldn't be little more than a networked slave to its powerful peer. In 1984, he had his answer with Macintosh – delivering enough of what the Star offered (at not quite a 10th of the price) to give Apple the lion's share of all office computing sales. That didn't go down well in Stamford, Connecticut, so Xerox did what any massively profitable, vertically integrated multinational does – they bought the competition.

The hostile takeover of Apple by Xerox filled the business columns of 1985. Apple tried to fight, but eventually submitted to an offer too generous for shareholders to resist. Jobs resigned in disgust on the day the deal went through, vowing never again to work for the company he'd spent a decade building.

Xerox barely noticed when the man who'd brought them such unexpected success left the building: on Jobs' recommendation, they'd made another acquisition in the months before Apple – software startup Adobe Systems. Integrating Adobe's PostScript into both its own line of eponymous copier-printers and the software on its Star computers, Xerox created a new market in "desktop publishing". Corporate communications took a quantum leap forward. Suddenly every business of any size had a reason to buy a Xerox office computing system.

Yet for all its strength, Xerox had an Achilles' heel: it could only think big. While all of computing rapidly grew faster and smaller across the 1980s, Xerox released model after model of big, "boat anchor" systems: powerful, but expensive. They kept their red-headed stepchild of the Macintosh kicking along with a few small upgrades – largely to prevent any antitrust oversight. The lower end of the business computing market, once dominated by Apple, opened up to competitors. In came Commodore, with its own take on the WIMP interface in its Amiga, and – more worryingly, for Xerox – Digital Equipment Corporation leveraged their VAX minicomputer chipset, integrated into a single "Alpha" processor, to produce what Xerox would not – a solid platform for business computing that cost a quarter of anything on offer from Xerox.

DEC did so well in these low-end business machines that it had the resources to buy out its biggest competitor – the shrunken remains of IBM. Once the colossus of computing, IBM had cancelled its own skunkworks project to build an inexpensive business computer – frightened by projections of how it would erode sales of its pricey mainframe terminals. By the early 1990s, the business computing landscape cemented into a solid Xerox/DEC duopoly – each fighting for dominance of a market estimated to be worth a trillion dollars by the end of the millennium.

Neither of them would live to see it.

Cleverly leveraging the work of a young programmer from CERN, Tim Berners-Lee, Jobs' NeXT provided everything needed to create a global information infrastructure...

Steve Jobs had not spent his "years in the wilderness" idle. Almost from the moment he left Apple, he prepared the stage for his return. He'd seen the potential of computing – now he needed to do what none of the corporate colossi had considered important: make the revolution universal. When he theatrically unveiled his answer to both Xerox and DEC – the NeXT – he pointed not to the hardware (which wasn't very different from that offered by DEC), but to the software. Jobs had absorbed the lessons of Smalltalk – that a system could be built entirely out of reusable object-oriented components. And not just a single system, nor a single office – but every system, and every office, everywhere, all networked together in a single, unified "web" of reusable data, models, programs, and interfaces.

If computing can be said to have had a "Big Bang" moment, this was it. Cleverly leveraging the work of a young programmer from CERN, Tim Berners-Lee, Jobs' NeXT provided everything needed to create a global information infrastructure. Buy them, plug them in, and "it all just works". Each becomes a peer participating in a global information network.

Wisely, Jobs didn't try to own that network; he released the enabling bits of software free of charge, so that anyone on any computer anywhere could add their own data to the growing global archive. That's a lesson he'd learned from PARC's Robert Metcalfe: the value of a network is the square of the number of its nodes. Of course, Xerox and DEC immediately adapted the software to their own systems. Jobs expected this, and that's when he sprung his trap: why use those old and expensive systems when everything can be done on my new NeXT systems? It's all Smalltalk, all the way down, so why pay a premium?

NeXT soon offered a line of computers for both the home and office; they closed the gap, making work possible from anywhere (something we're still not entirely happy about), but also creating the conditions for the creation of a unified web of human knowledge, all easily accessible. Xerox and DEC simply could not compete, too bound to their ideas of computing as office-centric. Before the end of the decade, Jobs had his revenge, purchasing Xerox for less than what it had paid for Apple – then gleefully firing the firm's entire executive team.

It's here that Jobs began missing steps. While he could always see the value of scale, he never understood how information at planetary scale could overwhelm. Two kids from Stanford worked out a solution to that problem, and Google was born, the first of a range of businesses that leveraged the global information resource sustained by tens of millions of NeXT devices – opportunities that should have been obvious to NeXT.

NeXT's success created another blind spot within which competitors thrived: the smallest systems, too small to fully support the global information infrastructure as a peer. Two firms – Canada's BlackBerry and Finland's Nokia – found ways to shoehorn just enough of that vast web of information into their mobile devices to make them so useful users simply couldn't do without. By the time Jobs realised the scale of the threat to his business, the damage had been done: BlackBerry and Nokia had carved out an entirely new market in handheld computers. Companies like Amazon and a back-from-the-dead DEC provided global "cloud" services to support those handhelds – another business opportunity NeXT enabled, yet never saw coming.

NeXT continues to dominate the desktop, even now, a decade after Jobs' untimely death from liver cancer. But the firm operates within a world increasingly shaped by forces well beyond it – the global information giants of Google and ByteDance, the handheld hardware duopoly of BlackBerry and Nokia, and cloud computing giants Amazon and DEC. They're all splitting a pie worth several trillion dollars a year. But imagine if Jobs had never made that trip to PARC, all those years ago. The world might look very different today. ®

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