The Tale of Steve Jobs, Xerox, and the Birth of GUI: Innovate or Imitate?


In 2014, while I was taking an ethics course at the University of Winnipeg-PACE, I delved into a compelling story that revolves around the tech world and ethical dilemmas. The starting point was a famous quote by Pablo Picasso, who once said, “Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal.” Today, I’m revisiting that academic exploration, turning it into a blog post to share the intriguing narrative of Steve Jobs, Xerox, and the advent of the Graphical User Interface (GUI), all while contemplating the ethics and intellectual property implications.

The Birth of the Personal Computer

Let’s rewind to the early 1970s, a time when personal computing was in its infancy. PARC (Palo Alto Research Center; formerly Xerox PARC), was at the forefront of innovation. In April 1973, they introduced the Alto, considered the first personal computer equipped with a graphical display controlled using a mouse and keyboard. Their goal was clear: make computing more accessible and affordable at a time when computers were large and costly.

The monitor of the Xerox Alto has a portrait orientation.

The Eye-Opening PARC Visit:

In the early 1980s, Steve Jobs and his team ventured to PARC to witness firsthand the technological marvels brewing there. At first, PARC researchers were hesitant to showcase their innovations. However, what they revealed, especially the graphical user interface (GUI), left Jobs and his team captivated.

In the early 1980s, Steve Jobs and his team visited PARC to see their innovations firsthand. Initially, PARC researchers hesitated to show their technology. However, what they demonstrated, especially the graphical user interface (GUI), left Jobs and his team amazed.

Steve came back, insisting that his entire design team should see PARC’s innovations. Xerox’s research team wasn’t pleased with the idea. Adele Goldberg, a PARC researcher, recalled, “Steve specifically asked for me to give the demo, and I said no way. I had a big argument with these Xerox executives, telling them that they were about to give away the kitchen sink. I said that I would only do it if I were ordered to do it because then it would be their responsibility.

And that’s what they did.” Steve left with a clear vision for Apple. He later said, “They only really showed me three things. I was so blinded by the first thing they showed me, which was the graphical user interface. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life.”

Apple’s GUI Revolution:

Inspired by their PARC visit, Steve Jobs returned to Apple with a clear vision. He persuaded the board to embark on a GUI-based system, leading to the creation of Lisa in 1983, followed by the Macintosh in 1984. These groundbreaking products solidified Apple’s position as a pioneer in personal computing.

An Apple Lisa with dual 5.25″ “Twiggy” floppy drives and 5 MB ProFile hard disk. Released in 1983
The first Apple GUI
Macintosh 128K with built-in monitor and attached keyboard and mouse. Release 1984

Microsoft Enters the Arena:

As Apple continued to innovate with GUI systems, Microsoft entered the scene. Initially, Microsoft was tasked with developing word-processing applications for Apple. However, in a surprising move, they announced Windows 1.0 in November 1983, sparking tension between the two tech giants.

The Windows GUI

The Legal Battle:

The clash between Apple and Microsoft resulted in a legal battle. Apple claimed that Microsoft had “borrowed” its GUI ideas. Interestingly, Xerox jumped into the fray, asserting that Apple had initially borrowed the concept from PARC.

In 1993, a judge dismissed Apple’s claims on a technicality, revealing a confidential agreement between Apple CEO John Sculley and Bill Gates CEO of Microsoft.


The story of Steve Jobs, Xerox, and Microsoft is a rich tapestry of innovation, ethics, and intellectual property. It illustrates the complexities of creativity and the interconnectedness of ideas in the tech industry. Looking back, it prompts us to reflect on how innovation often thrives when ideas are shared, adapted, and built upon.

In the end, it’s not just about who had the idea first, but how those ideas shape the future. This tale invites us to celebrate the innovators and visionaries who push the boundaries of what’s possible, even if it means “stealing” a great idea or two.

What are your thoughts on this intriguing chapter of tech history? Feel free to share your insights and join the conversation.

My Personal Connection:

This story has always inspired me deeply. Steve Jobs’ bold embrace of the idea that “Great artists steal” has motivated my journey as a graphic designer and photographer. It’s a philosophy that encourages innovation through adaptation and reimagining.

In my creative pursuits, I’ve drawn from various sources, transforming existing ideas into unique expressions. Now, as I aim for a career in network security, this philosophy guides me in adapting and enhancing security measures to stay ahead of evolving threats.

This story reminds me that greatness often emerges when we think differently, embrace inspiration, and push boundaries. It continues to inspire my path forward in the world of network security.

Join the Conversation

Share your thoughts and reflections on this intriguing chapter of tech history. How does the story of Steve Jobs, Xerox, and Microsoft resonate with your own creative and professional journey?