Richard Sharpe – December 2021

Fifty-three years ago on December 9th 1968 Douglas Engelbart (pictured) made what has since been called “The mother of all demonstrations”: he showed the world the first mouse.  This simple point-and-click device was more than a new interface to computers, supplementing the keyboard, it was a powerful device.  He demoed it selecting text and reproducing it on screen: copy and paste.  He used it to link to colleagues on a prototype version of the Internet, watch it here: Engelbart Demo.

Sixteen years later Steve Jobs, from Apple, had got the message about the mouse and how it could change computing.  Engelbart had been working at the Stanford Research Institute when he demoed the mouse: computer scientists at Xerox expanded upon Engelbart’s ideas and developed a whole new way of interacting with computers: graphical user interfaces giving you what you see is what you get.  The whole bundle included the laser printer.  Its products, including the Alto were not successful.

But they inspired a young newly rich man, Steve Jobs, to drive the development of first the Lisa and then the Macintosh: Steve Jobs Demo

The first Mac spoke to the audience as it was launched by Jobs in 1984 and warned: Never trust a computer you can’t lift.  I was at Computing, the UK weekly computer news magazine, at the time and we were given one at the UK launch to play with: we did.  A colleague put the operating system in the dustbin and it still worked.  On the same week in the UK IBM launched the PC/AT, the next iteration of the PC now aimed at the business market.  With the original PC IBM had used Charlie Chaplin to try to make it friendly to a consumer audience.  The AT was far more serious.  I split the front page of Computing that week between the Mac launch and the AT launch.   Of, course the AT won.

Compaq and others built compatible PCs which flooded the business and personal market.  The PC/AT was open: others could plug devices into its AT interface. The Mac was closed: it even needed a special tool to open the case.  The Mac drifted into the boutique market of graphic designers.

Or did the AT win?  It won more sales and profit for IBM than the Mac did for Apple but it all turned to dust.  Three years after the Mac and AT launches, IBM tried to put its foot down on the compatible makers.  It launched the PS/2: new operating system, OS/2; new internal interface, MCA; new graphics interface, VGA.  By now Compaq, a US company from Texas, had won itself the position as the leader of the top end compatible pc makers.  What was it doing to do?  We waited and then, after about a week of deliberation Compaq told us in a seminal launch, more of a non-launch: it was not going down the PS/2 route.  The world turned upside down: it was no longer the PC compatible industry but the Wintel industry: Microsoft windows running on an Intel microprocessor.  The IBM PS/2 was a dud.

Jobs continued with his philosophy of developing closed systems, crafted by his technology and product designers.  The Mac grew from its graphics base, was redesigned externally by Sir Jony Ive, from the UK  and broke out of its niche.  Jobs wanted to bring more to the market such that on January 9th 2007 he launched the iPhone: three devices in one.    Rory Cellan-Jones, then at the BBC was there: I interviewed him this week for the Archives.  He was eventually caught up with the hype, got his report back to the BBC and recorded, as the first draft of history, how the smartphone triggered what he describes as an extraordinary leap in human progress.

When Douglas Engelbart demonstrated the mouse in 1968 did he really know what an impact he would have?  He made a mistake in his presentation early on: the said the mouse was “responsible” and corrected himself by saying it is “responsive”.  Perhaps it was responsible, after all.