A Brief Telling of the Elixir Story
By Bruce Damer, Curator, DigiBarn Computer Museum
Elixir products from Xerox marketing brochure
Los Angeles Elixir team on a company summit in Ojai in early 1989
From left to right: Feroz Zaidi, Basit Hamid, Bruce Damer, Bill Boyd, (?), David Simon, Kevin Laracey, Eric Searle and JJ Keil
I started working for Elixir Technologies on February 15, 1987, after graduation from the University of Southern California and left in May of 1994. There is a great story to be told about Elixir, which I will recount in more detail later in these pages. Please take a look at this abbreviated history and please don't forget to take a look at the products which I built or had a part in designing. If you want to take a closer look at any of the pictures, just click on them. If you see anything missing or know anything more about Elixir or its products we should include here, please contact us at the museum. Elixir was a big part (over 7 years) of my life as well as being my first job, so composing this brief history was a great pleasure to me. I hope that this story is interesting to you whether or not you worked with Elixir. Elixir played a role historically at the confluence of the birth of the graphical user interface, the desktop publishing boom and the conversion of the corporate and government worlds to WYSIWYG document production.
All of these products were (and still are in their newer Windows versions) sold worldwide by Xerox and its operating companies, IBM and other partners. These products are used in over 100 countries to produce documents on high speed laser and other types of all-points addressable printers. Every government, financial service institution, manufacturer, public utility, university, direct mailer, and numerous other companies and service bureaus use these products every day.
These are niche products sold for several thousand dollars per license. Their value is in their ability for customers to develop high fidelity documents with all their components: forms, fonts, images and complex job setups complete with database publishing processes. These documents and their associated resources are then generated in native machine languages for the target printing systems. The target printing systems are also costly (from $50k to $6 million) and can print at mid range to very high speeds (30 to 1000 impressions per minute). Some of these printers now generate one or more additional colors as well as black toner. From bank statements, to government forms, to cheques, to direct mail, most documents you receive in the mail were probably set up in part by these Elixir products.
These products trace their lineage from three different hardware systems, all direct descendents of work done at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). The first system was the Three Rivers PERQ minicomputer. The PERQ was a direct copy of the Alto, the original personal computer developed by Xerox PARC researchers. Students and researchers who got their hands on Altos at Carnegie Mellon University in the late 1970s were inspired to go out and build a commercial copy. The PERQ had a high resolution black and white portrait monitor, mouse, hard disk and was an ideal early platform for document design.
Bruce Damer and David Simon on a visit to Xerox PARC, 1989
The second computer system was the Xerox Star (8010) computer, launched commercially in 1981. Star was the first commercial computer system to use the desktop metaphor of folders, icons and direct manipulation. Star was derived from the Alto and other systems at Xerox PARC. Apple later copied key elements of the Star interface for the Lisa and Macintosh computer systems, but never fully implemented the entire desktop metaphor pioneered by Star (and still has not). Windows 95/98/ME/2000/XP are all direct descendents of the Star desktop interface. Sadly, star was a flop in the marketplace, for a variety of reasons, among them, price and the lack of connection with the then booming PC and Apple II markets. See John Redant's paper on the Contributions and Downfall of the Xerox Star for an interesting recounting of this story.
Click here to see my history pages on Alto, Star and their ancestors and descendants
The third system in this story was the Xerox 9700 laser printer developed by Gary Starkweather and others at Xerox PARC. This was a 300 DPI, 120 page per minute laser printer brought to market in 1977. After years of debugging by customers, the 9700 became a hit and started to change the way organizations generated timely documents.
A serious gap existed for the 9700, however: there was no easy interface between the Xerox workstations and the 9700 and other printers like it. In other words, there was no easy or efficient way a Xerox Star 8010 (or the later Xerox 6085 Viewpoint system) user could design and run document jobs. This left operators of these advanced printers to stand at the console of the printer and code documents by hand in arcane languages, taking valuable print time to test their documents. How could this situation arise? Lack of communication between Xerox divisions and the fact that Xerox was not (and still is not) a computer or software company. The story of the failure of Xerox to capitalize on the innovations from its own researchers is legendary in the computer industry.
Click here for the full Intran Story
In 1980, as sales of the Xerox 9700 printer started to take off, a number of individuals and companies jumped into the gap left by Xerox and developed tools and document composition systems that could connect to the printer. One of these companies was Intran (see our Intran Story here). Intran took the PERQ computer and built a comprehensive and impressive form, font and image editing system launching in 1982-83. Driven by a menu system on the right hand side of the screen (a design choice echoed later in early Elixir and other products), these products were highly effective WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) document creation tools. With these tools, documents and all their components could be developed and proofed off-line and uploaded to the hard disk of the printing system and put into production. The complete Intran system with its hardware cost over $100k in the beginning, but there was a good demand for it.
Basit Hamid and Carol Donovan at Seybold 89
By 1984, Intran, after being unsuccessfully courted by and courting Xerox and numerous financial and internal political problems, was close to bankruptcy. Basit Hamid and Eric Searle left Intran and moved to Los Angeles to found Elixir Technologies Corporation in 1985.
Xerox goes with Elixir! 1988
Seizing on the brand new technologies of the IBM PC/AT (with a speedy 8 MHz 286 with a hard disk built in) and the Digital Research GEM (Graphical Environment Manager), Basit and Eric set out to build the Intran product capability on this standard platform. By late 1986 they had a workable form designer (ElixiForm) and document converters, built by Eric, David Simon and others. In addition, David Simon built a key converter that took Ventura Publisher files out to the large Xerox laser printing systems (giving Elixir an excellent multi-page layout system in its product offering).
Mobbed! demoing the Elixir magic for the crowds at Xplor 88
I joined Elixir in early 1987 and over the next few years, designed and build the font and image editors followed by a graphical desktop to integrate the entire product suite. ElixiFont (1987-88) was designed based on the Intran right hand side menu metaphor. ElixiGraphics (1988-89) moved toward the standard windows and tool palette metaphor being utilized by Apple and others.
Kevin Laracey in a coy moment at the Ojai Country Club
The Elixir Desktop was our opportunity to bring to market a rendition of the original Xerox Star interface, but running on top of early IBM PCs and compatibles with high resolution monitors. Through hard work by Kevin Laracey, UI designer Ed Regan (founder of SalesBook Systems and now of Interguise.com), myself and the entire company, we brought the Desktop to market in 1990. See it all working together, cick here to go to the historical gallery of Elixir products. With all of these products to offer and a growing enthusiastic customer base, Elixir finally attracted the attention of Xerox, and especially one JJ Keil, a Vice President who was a major mover in the growth of printing systems. The Travelers was Elixir's key account which convinced JJ and Xerox that Elixir was serious business and in 1988 Elixir products were signed on by Xerox for worldwide distribution under the Xerox brand. After this point, Elixir went on to be the industry standard. By 1990 Elixir was also being promoted by IBM, Siemens and other printer manufacturers. It was this base that allowed Elixir to expand its development efforts far and wide, as we shall see next.
Strutting our stuff at Seybold 1989 in San Francisco
In May of 1990, Microsoft had launched Windows 3.0, the first viable version of their graphical environment for DOS. Using GEM had allowed Elixir to come out with fully functional WYSIWYG products years before, but the writing was on the wall. Elixir was now facing the challenge of porting thousands of lines of code in multiple products and converters to the Windows environment. Hiring programmers in the US would force the company to seek outside financing.
Eric Searle and Petr Holecek in the first Elixir office in Prague, 1990
The answers to our dilemma became clear in November 1989 as the Berlin wall crumbled and democracy was spreading across the nations of central and eastern Europe. Basit Hamid had experience of the Czech skill in engineering from a professor during his student days in Norway and so paid a visit to Prague in the then Czechoslovakia. He met a very weary Vaclav Havel in Prague only days after he had been voted interim president, in January 1990. Basit was impressed by the Czechs and Havel told him (to paraphrase): come here, you will not be disappointed by our people, they work hard.
Based on his vision I was sent frequently to Prague in 1990-91 where we began to interview candidates and establish a foothold. At first the goal was to build a printing facilty to serve the country and test our software but then, through convincing by myself and others, the mission became to establish a full software laboratory, the Elixir Prague Lab. This was a significant risk for the company and several battles were fought and won over this mission.
Prague was just emerging from 40 years in the Soviet bloc and life and doing business there was not easy. Many cultural practices had to be carefully adjusted in both the US and Czech sides. I moved to Prague in 1991 to help train and support the lab full time. For more on this period in my life, see my pages on Life in Prague in the 1990s .
Early picture of the Elixir Prague team, 1991: from left to right, Petr Holecek,
Marta, David Bares, Pavel Plachky, Karel Michek, Petr Dupal, myself
After hiring and training a core of a half dozen excellent Czech engineers, headed by our chief technologist, Petr Dupal, the team set about porting the Elixir product line to the Windows operating system. The majority of this task was to port tens of thousands of lines of software I had written personally. For me it was like letting children go from the nest. From 1987 I had structured libraries for the day when we would have to move away from GEM so this task was accomplished without throwing out and rewriting the code. For a time a single switch could allow a Windows and a GEM compilation of the same code. This was important during the cutover period and I was proud of how well the forward planning was paying off.
Showing the great stuff at Xplor 91
The basic Elixir product line for Windows came to market in 1994, including the updated Windows Desktop and totally rewritten ElixiForm. I left Prague and the Elixir company in mid 1994 to return to the US and pursue burgeoning opportunities offered by the explosion of the Internet. I formed two successful organizations, the Contact Consortium, a nonprofit research forum for the development of virtual worlds on the Internet. I also serve as President and CEO of Digitalspace Corporation a for-profit corporation devoted to the architecting of the next version of Cyberspace beyond the document metaphor of the World Wide Web.
Through Elixir, Xerox and others, I had a deep and profound experience of the art of the original Xerox PARC windows and icons interface metaphor. I was also able to design, build and bring to market three complete WYSIWYG products, sold in dozens of coutries to the most prestigious institutions in the world.
Bruce's Xplorer of the Year award at the 1992 Tampa Xplor Conference
Celebrating at the 1992 Xplor after Bruce's Xplorer of the Year award
In 1992 Xplor International honored me with the highest award in the industry, Xplorer of the Year for my work with Xplor, on the Elixir product line and in helping establish Elixir Prague. Using all of this background, I am pursuing a new mission in the much wilder frontier of the 3D avatar inhabited virtual world.
Dean Heckman, Jiri Fencl and Petr Holecek at Xplor 92
In December of 1997 I visited the Elixir Prague Lab during my tour of my book Avatars. At that time, they were up to 25 people and have produced a very fine new product called Opus which pulls together every aspect of document production. I am proud of the team, of Elixir US, and of my code still working out there in some form.
In June of 2001, I visited Prague again with my honey, Galen Brandt, and we had a wonderful meeting with some of the original guys at the Dobra Cajovna tea house in Prague. I was amazed to hear that the Prague lab now employed over fifty people. I also heard that Basit had reached his dream of establishing a large operation in his home country of Pakistan. You can see our pictures of our 2001 visit to Prague and the Czech Republik here.
Thanks and all the best to you Elixir!
More Links on Elixir and its Products
Gallery of screen shots of Elixir system running live on a VGA screen on a modern PC (2002)
Elixir Technologies Today
See these pages for more detailed pictures of the Elixir Prague Lab
See the Steven's Interview of Bruce Damer about the Elixir Prague Lab (on Dec 14, 2001)
Click here to go to the historical gallery of Elixir products
Review the Xerox Star 8010 Interface and Elixir Desktop
and last but not least, Elixir T-shirts over the years!
See also video of the Elixir products in action on DigiBarn TV!
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