Editorial license. (achievements of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center) (Column)
by Clifton Karnes
This issue's big story is the COMPUTE Choice Awards, and looking at the finalists, I was struck by how far the personal computer has come in the last ten years and by how critical graphical user interfaces, mice, laser printers, networking, and object-oriented programming have become to its success. Most of the software products in our finalist list are GUI based (most in fact run on Windows). Almost all of these programs support the mouse, and many-such as the desktop publishing and presentation programs--depend on laser printers for their final output. And communications (networking) software has become one of the fastest-growing categories in the last year. Lastly, many of these top programs were built with object-oriented techniques, and in fact, our programming-tool winner this year is an object-oriented programming language.
The interesting thing about all these injnovations is that they didn't come from Microsoft, Apple, or IBM, at least not initially. They originated someplace you probably wouldn't expect--Xerox.
As most of you already know, Xerox, which was originally called the Haloid Company, invented the photocopying process. It spend 15 years developing xerography, and when it finally brought it to market, the company was rewarded with instant success. Xerox realized, however, that paper was not the future. It felt that the future of the office lay indigital--computer--technology. To help it gain a foothold in this uncharted area, Xerox founded a research institute whose broad mandate was to discover the architecture of information. It built this institute in Palo Alto, California, and called it PARC, for Palo Alto Research Center.
To gauge just how impressive PARC's achievements were, we need to take a look at the computer situation in 1970, when PARC was founded. At this time, the mainframe computer was king, and most mainframes ran just one program at a time. As a programmer, you would create your program, punch it onto cards, and give it to a white-coated computer technician who would load it into the computer and run it. The next day or the next week, you'd get your results. In 1970, the cutting edge of computer technology was something called timesharing. In a timesharing system, there are several u9sers connected to one computer, and each gets a portion of the computer's time. Using the model, the computer can serve more users, but with a slight degradation in performance.
At first, the researchers at PARC considered jumping on the timesharing bandwagon, but an insightful leader. Bob Taylor, saw beyond timesharing to the personal computer. In his vision, each user would have his or her own computer, connected to other personal computers so information could be shared.
Through Taylor's persistence and vision, PARC skipped timesharing and started working directly on building a personal computer. It succeeded called its creation the Alto. It wanted the Alto to have a graphical user interface and a mouse, so it built that in. It also realized that a WYSIWYG display demanded a WYSWIWYG printer, so it invented the laser printer (which is based in the xerographic process). Since laser printers were even more expensive then than now (the cost for the first ones ran around $30,000), it designed a way to connect the personal computers to the printer using cables and protocols. It called this Ethernet, the first local area network or LAN.
To make it easy for end users to program their machines, Alan Kay and a team of researchers developed one of the first object-oriented programming languages--Smalltalk.
It would be 15 years before the world at large would see these developments reach fruition, and none of the successes would come from Xerox.
With a combination of bad timing and inept management, Xerox failed to turn even one of these miraculous inventions into a viable product. PARC's seeds bore fruit in other people's gardens, however. PARC showed the GUI-based Alto to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, for example, and it formed the impetus for Apple's Macintosh and Microsoft's Windows. And several researchers left PARC to found their own companies to develop products based on the ideas that orignated at PARC.
Why did Xerox ignore these breathtaking innovations? The answers are complex, but they're put forth well in Fumbling the Future by Douglas K. Smith and Robert Alexander (Morrow, 1988), which has been the basis for most of my PARC info.
The point of this bit of history is that the five most important technologies in the last 20 years were all created at PARC: the personal computer, the graphical user interface, the laser printer, the local area network, and object-oriented end-user programming. In this issue, we're honoring the winners of the COMPUTE Choice Awards, but I'd like to take a moment to honor the men and women at PARC who invented our future.