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Dealers of Lightning

“Dealers of Lightning” the legendary story of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Written by Los Angeles Times corespondent, Michael Hiltzik. The Book brings together moments behind the research labs trailblazing technological achievements.

Hiltzik also gives you vast amounts of insight and information about such people as Jack Goldman, Xerox chief scientists who convinced the corporation to sink tens of millions of dollars into PARC, while acknowledging that it may never pay off; Alan Kay PARC’s philosophical soul, who was ridiculed for many years envisioning a computer that could be tucked under the arm yet would contain the power to store books, letters, and drawings until he arrived at Palo Alto and met the people who would build it.

Finally Steve Jobs, who staged a daring raid to obtain the technology that would end up at the heart of the Macintosh. In the late 1960s, Xerox founded a PARC, California. Eventually, that facility, became ground zero of the computer revolution. the dinosaur era of computing, a typical machine filled a large room and was shared by dozens of researchers. Hiltzik credits Robert W. Taylor, who assembled the PARC team, with changing that. A psychologist, rather than an engineer, Taylor’s vision of the computer as a communications device proved to be a revolutionary idea.

He found his chance to realize it when Xerox’s chief scientist Jacob Goldman persuaded his superiors to launch a basic research facility along the line of AT&T’s famed Bell Labs. Xerox management, more interested in marketable products than in pure science, nearly killed the center before it opened. But Taylor gradually built his team of young computer hotshots, and the innovations flowed: mouse, Ethernet, even the term “Personal Computer”. By 1973, a team led by Chuck Thacker had created Alto, a computer small enough to fit under a desk.

The first program of the so-called “Alto” displayed an animated graphic as a test of the user interface: Cookie Monster, from Sesame Street. Two years later, Xerox was selling a mail-order computer kit called Altair 8800, which inspired young hobbyist such as Bill Gates. Yet except for the laser printer, Xerox consistently failed to exploit PARC’s innovations. The only other was released in September 1980, when Xerox, Intel, and Digital Equipment jointly issued a formal specification for the Ethernet and made it publicly available for a nominal licensing fee.

This move made Ethernet the networking technology of choice. But remember; even the technology that makes it possible to type this paper can trace its roots to Xerox’s band of innovators. But despite PARC’s many industry-altering breakthroughs, Xerox failed ever to grasp the financial potential of such achievements. And while Xerox’s inability to capitalize upon some of the world’s most important technological advancements makes for an interesting enough story, Hiltzik focuses instead on the inventions and the inventors themselves.

You can trace the term “Personal Computer” back to Alan Kay, a visionary who dreamed of a machine small enough to tuck under the arm. Granted, PARC’s farsighted principles led to collaborative brilliance even so Hiltzik’s claim that the Alto was the world’s first personal computer, seams overstated; his strictly technological, mine involving price and marketing. However, in writing the book Hiltzik drew on the recollections of those who participated in the technological revolution of the 1970’s He interviewed all the obvious suspects and not a few innocent bystanders.

Long before IBM launched its PC and laid the foundation for Microsoft’s Windows with a prototype graphical user interface of icons and layered screens. After seventy pages where Hiltzik begins to tediously describes how the PARC employees were hired, in order to get to the good stuff. Then Hiltzik never quite leaves alone the personality clashes and company politics. Not, that it isn’t, interesting. And the PARC story seems to indicate that such interpersonal dynamics make or break some companies. But it became tiresome.

Readers will find difficulty in starting this book because of the people crap. They may also find the text on technology weak and thinly covered, despite glimmers of interesting comments about software and hardware, such as Smalltalk’s role and the birth of the laser printer. But the book could have lost one hundred pages and been a better read. Hiltzik had a point to prove about how people often conflict over work. Surprise, surprise! People have known this for years. To make this more palatable, Hiltzik should have included some photos. I had to look in “Nerds 2. 0. 1” for good photos.

Somehow, just seeing faces made the whole drama a bit more real and a bit more human. Maybe it was because the book gave this really weird (and totally untrue) image of who and what these people were from Hiltzik’s description. After seeing the pictures, you might feel more sympathetic to some of the situations. On the other hand, I thought Hiltzik’s depiction of the Steve Job’s “raid” on PARC was fascinating and I applaud his scrupulous efforts to finding out the real truth, but in the end saying most of this seems to be lost in myth. Although it seems A major part of the story is missing.

The mouse and many other personal computing innovations actually began with Doug Engelbart and his lab at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). At the Joint Computer Conference in 1968, Engelbart and his SRI team debuted the mouse, the graphical user interface, networking, e-mail, and video-conferencing. The ideas came to PARC as former SRI researchers started working there in the early 1970’s. Although Hiltzik headed for a conclusion in mid book, by saying Xerox “fumbled the future” (391), he fails to deliver. His book corrects a lot of misinformation about PARC research and Xerox commercialization efforts.

It is a good read for anybody interested in the history of technology. It should be required reading for everybody in research management—for many examples of what to do and what not to do. This history should also be read by anyone who believes another big leap in software technology can be achieved while research funding is cut back, universities are drained of their talent, and almost everyone competitively focuses on six month commercialization goals. But if you are interested in the real story on PARC, both the extraordinary and the all too ordinary, warts and all, read “Fumbling the Future” by Douglas Smith and Robert Alexander.

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