New: Book Report: Dealers of Lightning

Sometimes, it's good to be wrong. For example, I claim to be pretty jaded. But when I saw a little dog, a Yorkshire terrier-style dog, walking along this morning carrying a rubber chicken, I was filled with joy. I would have thought I was too blasé to enjoy such a thing; I was glad to be mistaken. For another example, there's Xerox PARC.

There's plenty of Xerox PARC myths floating around and I fell for most of them. Until I read this book by Michael Hiltzik, which does a good job of squooshing the history of a far-ranging computer research lab into something resembling a narrative.

Anyhow, I'm quoting this bit from the introduction as a myth-debunking public service. But if you want the details, you should read this book.

...That Xerox proved only sporadically willing to follow them is one of the ironies of this story. The best-publicized aspect of PARC's history is that its work was ignored by its parent company while earning billions of dollars for others. To a certain extent this is true. ...

Yet this relationship is too easiy, and too often, simplified. ... Xerox was so indifferent to PARC that it "didn't even patent PARC's innovations," one leading business journal informed its readers not long before this writing--an assertion that would come as a surprise to the team of patent lawyers permanently assigned to PARC, not to mention the center's former scientists whose office walls are still decorated with complimentary plaques engraved with the cover pages of their patents... Another business journal writes authoritatively that the Alto "failed as a commercial product." In fact, the Alto was designed from the first strictly as a research prototype--no more destined for marketing as a commercial product than was, say, the Mercury space capsule.

Another great myth is that Xerox never earned any money from PARC. The truth is that its revenues from one invention alone, the laser printer, have come to billions of dollars--returning its investment in PARC many times over.

Along with all of this myth-busting, this book showed me something scary. As Xerox was ignoring plenty of computer innovation and sticking to copiers, it thought of itself as a high-tech company. Executives didn't think of themselves as manufacturers of boring office equipment. They thought they were cutting edge; they did not handle it well when other companies caught up with their copier technology. That felt familiar. Just because everyone at your company tells each other, "We're working on cutting edge stuff," you might all be pulling the wool over each others' eyes. Of those companies beating dead horses, few of them have employees who say, "We had our last great idea ten years ago." (Disclaimer: my snide remarks about faux high-tech companies are my opinion, and not those of my employer. Heck, if my employer turned cut-throat, my employer would probably be glad for the self-delusional mindset of some high-tech companies... but I digress.)

Thanks to Piaw's blog for pointing me at this book.

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Posted 2005-11-15