Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve heard of Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) for years now and of its importance, but this book really drove home just what a critical place PARC was for the development of the personal computer. It was an excellent, excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Back in the mid-60s, Xerox decided they wanted to compete with IBM and AT&T by developing their own research labs in the hopes of winning prestige and a possible Nobel or two, just like Bell Labs did. They set PARC up with a virtually unlimited budget and told the director he could hire whomever he wanted. Pake, the director, had heard of one Bob Taylor, formerly of ARPA, the precursor of the Internet, and hired him to head his computer lab. Taylor instilled a fierce commitment in his employees, but had a very adversarial management style and made a lot of enemies around the company. Another key hire was Alan Kay, a programmer with a dream of creating laptops and one day tablets (30 years before they ever came out) which would be so easy to program, kids could do it. Soon PARC had the best and the brightest from Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, UC Berkeley, Utah, etc. They came from all over, from the best computer science programs. And there were no deadlines and nothing to produce – it was like a giant think tank where you could just follow your dreams to see where they’d lead with unlimited funding. For the most part.
By the late 60s, one of the programmers had produced a mouse, ancient by our current standards, but radical by theirs. Also, they were producing GUI operating systems for point and click possibilities. By the mid to late 70s, the inventers had invented a graphical user interface, an operating system, overlapping windows, a text editor (word processor), a programming language, software, Ethernet for networking, a mouse, display, keyboard, audio, and a laser printer, which would be the only thing Xerox would go on to make money with. And that’s the crux of the situation. Xerox didn’t know what it had. Xerox did nothing with PARC. PARC embarrassed Xerox. The wizards at corporate were so far behind the times that change of that enormity just unnerved them too much to act, so they didn’t. In fact, they got rid of the R&D people who had created PARC, brought in new managers to run PARC, got rid of Bob Taylor (who had gotten too big for his britches), prompting a ton of resignations from his team members, and lost a lot of people who went on to form companies like 3Com, Adobe, SGI, and others. Xerox could have OWNED computing and they blew it! They literally could have been Microsoft, IBM, and Apple rolled into one and they blew it. The author tries to shield them from this criticism. He tries to say that as a copier company, they weren’t equipped to sell computers. Well, why invest in researching them, then? He tried to say you’d have to retrain 100,000 salesmen. Well, do it. Piss poor excuses, in my opinion. Xerox has no excuse for blowing things the way they did.
One last thing. I really enjoyed the chapter on the visit by Steve Jobs. Of course, it’s a famous story about how Jobs visited PARC, saw what they had, ripped them off, put everything in the Mac, and made a killing. Part of which is true. However, with his first visit, he was given just a main demo given anyone who would visit. Apparently he wasn’t impressed and he had the ear of the Xerox CEO, who was investing in Apple, so PARC got a call telling them to show Apple everything. Jobs and his crew went back again and this time got more, but not everything. Somehow Jobs knew this, and before Jobs was out of the building, the Xerox CEO was on the phone to PARC telling them to show them everything. This elicited a great deal of stress and agony in some Xerox employees, who thought they were giving away the store. (They were.) So Jobs went back and apparently went nuts when he saw the GUI interface, and his engineers also appreciated the mouse and networking, etc, et al. And so the Mac was born.
This book isn’t perfect. There are a ton of people to keep up with. It gets hard. Sometimes the book gets a little boring. But all in all, if you’re into computers and into the development of the personal computer, the story of how the first one was built before Steve Wozniak came along and claimed to do it is pretty awesome and the story of Xerox PARC is pretty awe inspiring. Definitely recommended.