The king of computer labs

Xerox PARC invented the modern PC but couldn't sell it. A definitive new history explores why.

Published March 24, 1999 7:00PM (EST)

The tale of how Steven Jobs visited Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) and nabbed the ideas that made the Apple Macintosh so "insanely great" is, as Michael Hiltzik observes, "one of the foundation legends of personal computing." Xerox PARC was the birthplace of the first graphical user interface -- including the very concept of using a mouse to click on an icon and the technique of multiple overlapping windows. Xerox PARC also created the Alto, a personal computer that the rest of the computing industry didn't catch up to for decades.

Yet Xerox, the corporation, is infamous for failing to capitalize on its own research laboratory's innovations. It could have been a contender in the digital revolution, so the familiar line goes, but it blew it.

It's a formidable story for a journalist to tackle -- bits and pieces of it have already appeared in countless magazine articles, books and documentaries. But Hiltzik pulls it off in his new "Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age." Hiltzik's book is an exhaustively researched, lucidly written history of what is arguably the world's most famous computer research laboratory. He even achieves that most elusive of journalist goals -- he gets the last word. No one even need consider writing another book about Xerox PARC: It's been done, definitively.

One testament to the thoroughness with which Hiltzik goes about his business is the fact that Jobs doesn't even make an appearance until three-quarters of the way through the book. "Dealers of Lightning" is about much more than just how Xerox managed to screw up. It is a book about the birth of the personal computer, the nature of invention, the relationship between corporate bureaucracy and unfettered scientific research and, most compellingly, a group of very smart, talented and creative people -- "one of the most exceptional teams of inventing talent ever assembled in one place."

Writing vividly about a research laboratory and a group of programmers, hardware tinkers and managers is, as the programmers like to say, a non-trivial task. It's not an inherently sexy topic, unless you're the kind of person who gets all hot and bothered by the very thought of inventing, say, Ethernet (another Xerox PARC achievement). Some of the key figures in the story of Xerox PARC have already been written about at length, notably Bob Taylor, the man most responsible for funding the initial growth of the Internet, and Alan Kay, the graphics specialist who is widely considered one of computing's most eloquent visionaries.

But rarely have they jumped off the page, warts and all, as they do in "Dealers of Lightning." Taylor, for example, is widely renowned for his ability to get researchers working together, motivated and focused. His predilection for office politics infighting is less famous, and far less attractive -- but, as Hiltzik shows, clearly all of a piece. Taylor here is a fully fleshed-out human being; the portrait revealed is an invaluable contribution to the history of computing.

At the expense of the poetry of invention, "Dealers of Lightning" focuses extensively on office politics. The power struggles, both at Xerox PARC and at Xerox corporate headquarters, occasionally become stupefying in their labyrinthine complexity. And yet the excruciating detail of endless bureaucratic turf wars is essential for our understanding of Xerox's corporate strategy and evolution. Without the back stabbing and the boardroom finagling, we wouldn't understand why Xerox became a lumbering behemoth unwilling and, in fact, unable to capitalize on Xerox PARC's innovations.

There is a compelling contradiction at work. Hiltzik's account makes a strong argument that to get the most creative work done in basic research, one must allow creative people to pursue their own interests without micromanagement or strict accountability to bottom-line profitability. At Xerox PARC, research teams could assemble, break apart and reassemble practically as they pleased -- "if an idea worked," writes Hiltzik, "a team stuck together for the next three or six months to complete the job; if not, everyone simply dispersed like free electrons in search of a new creative valence."

Yet at the same time, a 125,000-employee company like Xerox was overwhelmingly focused on one single task -- leasing huge copiers and charging for each page copied. Most of the sales force couldn't be trained to adapt to selling personal computers or other PARC innovations without great expense and massive corporate readjustment.

It's not fair, Hiltzik suggests, to blame Xerox for "blowing it" -- it simply wasn't in a position to take advantage of its own research success. Moreover, Hiltzik even makes a good case that Xerox didn't completely fumble the ball. Xerox PARC's invention of the laser printer alone earned Xerox billions of dollars, more than recouping its investment by several orders of magnitude.

Much smaller companies -- like Apple and Microsoft, both of whom have cherry-picked scads of former PARC researchers -- could, as Hiltzik points out, bet the company on a single idea or a new corporate strategy. On a wider scale, we now have a whole economic infrastructure devoted to funding new ideas and innovations: venture capital. When Xerox PARC was first assembling its research team, the venture capital model was still in its infancy. For the researchers who flocked to Palo Alto, the opportunity provided by Xerox was unprecedented. "Nobody was going to float money and start a company for them, as they would today," Hiltzik quotes one former PARC staffer.

As a result, even though Microsoft is now spending billions on basic research and Paul Allen's Interval Corporation is explicitly trying to recapture the PARC magic, we may never see the like of Xerox PARC again. "What is indisputable," writes Hiltzik, "is that Xerox did bring together a group of superlatively creative minds at the very moment when they could exert maximal influence on a burgeoning technology, and financed their work with unexampled generosity."

Such moments, or "inflection points" -- a term Hiltzik borrows from Intel's Andy Grove -- don't come around very often. And even if another one might appear on the horizon, chances are that the best minds in an up-and-coming field would be too busy sorting through business plans to be able to unite as a cooperative group.

Hiltzik doesn't directly address the question of who might be, in the long run, best situated to fund such open-ended research as Xerox did, but the answer seems obvious. As an administrator at ARPA -- the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Administration -- Bob Taylor was directly responsible for kicking off the entire field of computer graphics and the Internet; later, given the same free hand at Xerox PARC, he helped create the personal computer. But no one blames the federal government for not getting its money's worth from the Net or computer graphics, as they do Xerox for not dominating the personal computer business.

Perhaps there is, after all, a little room for a follow-up to "Dealers of Lightning" -- an addendum encouraging a return by the government to open-ended funding of basic research. The next Alto could be just another government grant away.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Business