📙 Book Review – Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age

Continuing with biographies, I picked up Dealers of Lightning and was absolutely stunned by PARC. It’s no secret their work brought about the UI for both Windows and Mac. But, there is so much more. Dare I say, the UI was the tip of the iceberg.

There was the laser printer, Ethernet, multi-node networking, ARPANET, photo editing, the “desktop” paradigm, object oriented programming, the mouse, bitmap graphics, and of course, the Alto which tied all this together.

Even the concept of the iPad was conceptualized at PARC, the DynaBook.

So much of our everyday computing lives trace their roots back to PARC. It’s amazing and impressive how much they developed, and this was before 99% of the public even knew what a computer was or what they could do with it.

It’s almost laughable there was a time when a computer didn’t have an express purpose. And the idea of an idle computer was unheard of. You paid for compute cycles. Computer cycles far less power than the original iPhone.

Aside from their innovation and forward thinking was how they dealt with obstacles. If it didn’t exist, they build it. If it hadn’t been made before, they created it. If they needed a program, they coded it. If it was a combination of several things, they bought what they needed, dismantled them, then put them together how they needed.

Obstacles and roadblocks had no meaning. It’s incredibly impressive and awe inspiring. There was no, “If only we had …”

Not to mention they were always on the verge of being shut down.

What also boggles the mind and what most people associate with PARC is how Xerox didn’t capitalize on 99% of these ideas. The only one that really fit in their way of thinking was the laser printer.

Much of the tale is about mindset. Xerox was happy to have a think tank, and use the number of PhDs working for them to their advantage. But, in the long run, almost everything PARC created was seen as putting the copier out of business so they didn’t want to press ahead.

They weren’t seen as dozens of new business opportunities. If we build and sell these, we’ll shoot ourselves in the foot. Quite literally, they were at the fore of a dozen markets they invented.

It’s hard to comprehend what the computer landscape might look like today if Xerox brought the mouse and UI to market. What if they brought the electronic office to fruition? If they sold developer tools for object oriented programming?

How would things have turned out? Where we would be today? Where would Apple and Microsoft be today if Xerox held on to the UI they invented and developed the Alto to its full potential?

Lack of foresight? Loss of opportunity? Misguided management?

So many things can be said, but the fact remains, PARC has an amazing history of discoveries and inventions. They shaped and steered the computer industry. They shaped the graphics industry. They shaped the networking industry.

In fact, over time, dozens of companies who became leaders in those very fields, were created or helmed by former PARC employees.

It would be amazing to be part of a company that brought one of those ideas into existence, let alone create them all.

This space for rent.
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