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A Bit of Microsoft, a Byte of Apple

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Not too many years ago it might have seemed strange to be reading about personal computers in The River Journal, especially considering the rural nature of the publication. But nowadays my guess is that many of even the most remote cabins in North Idaho either have a computer, or at least have a neighbor who is connected to digital technology.

    A quarter century has passed since the advent of personal computing and an entire generation is being raised with the PC as the norm in everyday life. In this series of articles for TRJ I will be presenting some interesting facts about the history and commercial development of the personal computer to illustrate how it has arrived in the form we know and use today.

    In tracing the roots of the PC I was surprised to find that the two big names in computing, Apple and Microsoft, were neither the first to bring to market a machine or software that boasts the graphical user interface, or GUI. In fact, many of the elements that we now take for granted such as the mouse, windows and menus, were developed in the mid ‘60s in research departments of some of the nation’s universities.

    For those who use computers but know little or nothing about the nuts and bolts of how they work, some basic definitions are due. Put simply, there are two main components of the PC (personal computer).

    First there is the hardware, which includes the box that contains the central processing unit or CPU, the monitor, and any other equipment connected to the CPU including printers, scanners and other devices. Then there is the software that lurks invisibly within the machine’s hardware components with scary acronyms like ROM, RAM and their better-known friend, the hard drive. Without the software, the PC would be nothing more than an expensive paperweight sitting on your desk. Unfortunately, if your computer is more than a few years old it is becoming just that all on its own due to the accelerating pace of technology.

    At the heart of all PC’s is the glob of software known as the operating system, or OS. It is here, within a mysterious foundry of binary code, where the personality of the machine has been forged.

    I realize this next statement may shock, anger, and disappoint millions of computer users around the globe who aren’t aware of the truth, but here it is; Microsoft is not, nor have they ever been, at the edge of innovation in the field of personal computing. Founder Bill Gates and his ubiquitous “operating system” known as Windows is in fact at the bottom of the technological food chain.

    Windows was based on the Apple Macintosh OS, which in turn was based on the work of engineers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and their Xerox Star; the world’s very first commercial computer to contain a GUI.

There is a now famous urban legend of sorts that was glamorized in the film “Pirates of the Silicon Valley,” that says Apple founder Steve Jobs stole the GUI concept from Xerox and Microsoft founder Bill Gates stole the idea from Apple. In a narrow Hollywood sense this is true. But in the real world it is an over-simplification of the truth. In the realm of commercial computing, both Gates and Jobs only exploited that which was already in existence. However, if recognition should be granted to either company for innovations in the development of the OS, as we know it, Apple would come out ahead.

    In the next installment we’ll take a more detailed look at not only the Apple and Microsoft commercialization of the PC, but we’ll also reach further back into the early days of the GUI.

    Ben Silverman is a computer enthusiast who lives in Sandpoint and offers no apologies for his obsession with old Macs.


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Ben Silverman

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