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Road to Mac OS X Leopard: Dashboard, Spotlight and the Desktop

It's not just major applications that are getting updates in Mac OS X Leopard. Apple has updated and expanded the Desktop, Spotlight, and Dashboard, adding new features, graphical flourishes, and new performance enhancements that add functionality and polish to every app running on the system. Here's a look at what's new in the overall desktop environment of Leopard.

This report goes to great lengths to explore the origins, history, and maturity of the desktop. For those readers with limited time or who are only interested in what's due in Leopard, you can skip to page 4 of this report.

Graphical Desktop Origins

The first graphical desktop arrived in 1963, when Ivan Sutherland developed Sketchpad (below) for his Ph.D. thesis at MIT. The system demonstrated the potential for computer graphics for use in both artistic and technical purposes, and paved the way forward for the development of more human interfaces for computers.

Leopard Desktop

Douglas Engelbart was inspired by Sketchpad in his work at the Stanford Research Institute's Augmentation Research Center. With funding from the ARPA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force, Engelbart developed ideas related to computing collaboration in a project called the oNLine System.

In 1968, Engelbart demonstrated his work at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco to an audience of around a thousand pioneering computer users, giving them an early look at such inventions as a rasterized, graphical computing interface controlled by a mouse.

Leopard Desktop

The demonstration projected video of high resolution CRT monitors generating text and graphics--including the "bug" dot of a mouse pointer--originating on computer systems forty miles away in Menlo Park. Engelbart could directly manipulate onscreen data using a combination of his mouse, keyboard, and a chording keyset (above), to click hyperlinks and enter gestures to move around text on the screen. Simultaneous users could even control the system at once.

Elgelbart's demonstration pushed the development of computer systems as tools to augment human intellect, rather than just machines used to perform calculations. He used "augmentation" to refer to the idea that computer assistance would accelerate the capacity for advancement. Elgelbart later illustrated the opposite, "de-augmentation," by taping a brick to a pencil. The result was slower writing with larger characters that consumed more paper.

Developments at Xerox PARC

When funding for his lab at SRI began to dry up, many of his researchers went to Xerox's PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center, which continued to advance developments in graphical computing in the 70s with the Xerox Alto. The 1981 Star (below), pioneered the use of windowed work areas and icons representing manipulatable objects.

The Star wasn't a standalone system but rather intended to be part of a networked "office of the future." With a typical installation costing $50,000 - $100,000, Xerox had a hard time selling the Star systems. Attempts to sell a simplified system called Viewpoint in the mid 80s were similarly unsuccessful. Xerox later tried to sell its graphical operating environment for the PC under the name GlobalView.

Leopard Desktop

Apple's Lisa and Macintosh.
Research related to a variety of computing technologies originating at Xerox spread to a number of other companies as developers left PARC. Xerox had also been liberal in demonstrating its technology to outside companies, although as it began to solidify plans to release the Star commercially, it stopped giving inside tours. In 1979, Xerox invested $1 million in Apple as part of a deal that demonstrated some of the work in progress on the Star to Apple's Steve Jobs and Bill Atkinson. When Apple went public a couple years later, Xerox' investment suddenly became worth over $17 million, far more than it made on the Star itself.

Without a clear understanding of how the Star actually worked, Atkinson began work on implementing features he though were part of the Xerox desktop, including the concept of overlapping windows. It turned out that the Star wasn't even designed do many of the things Atkinson assumed it could, as noted in the article SCO, Linux, and Microsoft in the History of OS: 1980s. Those assumptions pushed Apple developers to deliver aggressive products, and the company poured money into expensive research to pioneer the modern graphical desktop.

In addition to the Apple employees who were excited about what they saw at Xerox, many employees of Xerox got excited about Apple's interest in actually delivering the technology as a product. By the launch of the Lisa (below) in 1983, fifteen Xerox employees had started work at Apple.

Leopard Desktop

The parallel development of the Macintosh gave Apple a system to sell at a much lower cost than the Lisa, which was priced close to $10,000 because of its expensive allocation of RAM. However, the hardware budget for the $2500 Mac meant it lacked enough memory to run concurrent applications. The Lisa's multitasking system was also intended to differentiate it from the Mac and position it as a more powerful system targeted at the higher end of the market.

Accessorizing the Desktop

Despite being limited to having only one main application loaded at once, Bud Tribble suggested the idea of allowing the user to running mini-applications at the same time in a limited environment to perform simple tasks, such as an onscreen calculator, notepad, or a control panel for setting system preferences.

Apple called the idea "ornaments" and later "desk accessories," as Andy Hertzfeld described in his Folklore article Desk Ornaments. Desk accessories outside those included with the original Mac desktop (below) had to be installed by copying them into the system file using a special utility. Later versions made installing new desk accessories easier.

Leopard Desktop

On page 2 of 4: From Multiprocessing Desktop to Simple Web Client; From Web Services to Multiprocessing Desktop; Apple's VTwin Desktop Search Technology; and Watson vs Sherlock.