HEADLINE: Xerox vs. Apple: Standard 'Dashboard' Is at Issue
BYLINE: By JOHN MARKOFF
The Xerox Corporation's $150 million copyright suit against Apple Computer Inc. is one of the most important skirmishes in a battle to determine whether desktop computers, like automobiles, should have a standard ''dashboard,'' and if so, who should control the rights to use it.
A victory for Xerox could encourage companies to adopt standardized versions of the software that controls desktop computers, providing more of the uniformity that the automobile industry enjoys, industry executives said. As a result, future software products, while they might still have cosmetic differences, would be far more similar to each other, enabling computer users to master each more readily.
A victory for Apple would discourage an industry standard and therefore produce continued uncertainty among manufacturers about what control systems should be used in future computers, the executives said.
In the suit, filed last Thursday, Xerox accused Apple of unlawfully using, in two of its computers, copyrighted Xerox software that controls desktop computers. Xerox also argues that Apple has undermined Xerox's ability to license its own software widely by suing two other companies marketing similar software.
Xerox contends that such software should be licensed widely to encourage a single industry standard. But Apple has tried to prevent other companies from imitating its software, in an attempt to differentiate its products from those of competitors.
An Industry in Transition
The Xerox-Apple case is particularly important because the computer industry is now in transition, from the equivalent of a manual gearshift to that of an automatic transmission. To simplify the control of desktop computers, the industry is moving from complex sets of commands that must be remembered and typed into the computer, to a ''mouse'' pointing device that allows the computer user to select from a menu of choices.
Xerox and Apple, as well as I.B.M., Next Inc., Microsoft and other companies, have all designed ''visual interfaces'' - distinctive screens that permit users to control several programs at once with a pointing device. Each company hopes to make its product a popular standard for future desktop computers.
In cars sold in the United States, every accelerator pedal, speedometer and steering wheel is in basically the same shape and in the same place. People who can drive one kind of car have little trouble driving another. That is not always the case in computers, and some analysts think this is hurting the industry.
Some computer industry experts see a parallel between the cases of visual interfaces and another invention by Xerox, a product known as Ethernet that allows computers to talk to each other. Xerox licenses the technology widely, and it has become essentially an industry standard. A similar situation could arise if Xerox wins its case.
There have been other suits over the appearance of visual interfaces. The Lotus Development Corporation has sued several imitators of its spreadsheet interface. Apple itself sued the Microsoft Corporation and the Hewlett-Packard Company, contending that their interfaces were too similar to those on the Macintosh.
Apple may face special problems because of admissions made by its chairman, John Sculley, in his 1987 book, ''Odyssey,'' a chronicle of his split with Apple's co-founder, Steven P. Jobs. ''Much of the Macintosh technology wasn't invented in the building,'' he wrote. ''Indeed, the Mac, like the Lisa before it, was largely a conduit for technology developed'' at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center.
The dispute between Apple and Xerox has its roots in the mid-1970's, when Xerox researchers at the research center developed a new class of computer systems that did not require entering complex commands at the keyboard. That research led to the introduction of Xerox's Star work station in 1981. The Star permitted a computer user to use a mouse pointing device to select from a menu of choices.
Despite enthusiastic reviews, the Star was never a business success because Xerox could never figure out the personal computer market. The company ultimately withdrew from the market.
But the Star's interface has been widely copied, most successfully by Apple, in its Macintosh computers. Mr. Jobs had been permitted to visit the Xerox laboratory in return for allowing Xerox to invest in one of Apple's last private financing offerings. Mr. Jobs later hired computer researchers away from Xerox to help build personal computers with many of the features he first saw at Xerox.
The intellectual debt that Apple owes Xerox is almost universally acknowledged. As one example, Bruce Horn, one of two principal designers of the Macintosh ''Finder'' interface, spent some of his youth participating in a program at the Xerox research center to make computers more accessible to children.
The new suit, therefore, presents Apple with a problem.
'' Apple can't have it both ways,'' said John Shoch, a former Xerox computer scientist involved in the original research at the company's Palo Alto Research Center. ''They can't complain that Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft have the look and feel of the Macintosh without acknowledging the Mac has the look and feel of the Star.''
The Xerox suit has also been an occasion for a good deal of talk within the industry that the sharing of information that fosters innovation is giving way to aggressive protection of intellectual property.
''It's a sign of maturity in the industry when the news is lawsuits instead of new technology,'' said Richard Shaffer, editor of Technologic, a computer industry newsletter.
A Visit Is Questioned
Others wonder whether Xerox did not cede its right to the technology when it invited Mr. Jobs to visit. ''When they sent him on a tour, what were they thinking of, if they didn't expect him to walk away with the technology?'' said Frank Rose, author of ''West of Eden,'' a history of Apple Computer.
Both former and current Xerox executives said the company's decision to sue Apple can be attributed almost entirely to the arrival of William C. Lowe, a former executive of the International Business Machines Corporation, who joined Xerox last year. Mr. Lowe, who while at I.B.M. oversaw the early development of the I.B.M. PC, has said in interviews that Xerox is evaluating its technology and will take a much more aggressive stand on patent and copyright issues. Was It a Trap? Some have suggested that Xerox may have laid a subtle trap for Apple. The lawsuit is not simply a copyright infringement challenge. Xerox has also indirectly attacked Apple's lawsuit against Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard by noting in its suit that that suit has hurt Xerox's chances to license its own technology.
'' Apple is saying, 'We will say who can write this software and determine which PC's it will run on,' '' said David Liddle, chairman of Metaphor Computer Systems Inc., which with Sun Microsystems Inc. has licensed the Xerox software. ''Xerox is saying, 'No, we intend to license this software consistently.' ''
But the principal irony may ultimately be that Xerox, which invented
many of the innovations shaping the personal computer industry today but
which failed to capitalize on them in the marketplace, may also lose the
suit because it was filed too long after the introduction of the technology.