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Dealers of Lightning 104

Posted by timothy
from the wholesalers-even dept.
jnazario writes "In Dealers of Lightning, Michael Hiltzik illustrates a remarkable setting where research was leading to commercial products. Not all of it, though -- he is telling the story of Xerox PARC and discusses both technologies that made it to commercial shelves and too many that didn't. This is the central story of the book, told with great joy and creativity as well as skill. I got this book originally because I wanted a good read on the origin of network-based worms. What I got was one of the better books on the subject of the history of the computer industry I have yet found." Read on for more on Dealers of Lightning.
Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age
author Michael Hiltzik
pages 448
publisher Harper Business
rating 7.5
reviewer jnazario
ISBN 0887309895
summary A worthwhile read for hackers and their managers, alike.

PARC, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, was created after Xerox bought the research heavy SDS, (Scientific Data Systems), in the late 1960s. Almost immediately the seeds are being planted for a research arm of Xerox. Great minds are obtained in the process and in the same year the ARPANET becomes functional. The timing couldn't have been better.

What quickly emerges is the story of a large group of people, led by great minds and personalities like Bob Taylor and Charles Thacker. Strong of mind and personality, these are bright, visionary people who know what they want to do and how they will have to go about it. No hesitation, the bigger problems are things like How do you bring the right people together? And once there, what do they need?

Taylor brought together the best and brightest he could find, which is to say he got some of the best minds on the planet.

At every stage of the story, Hiltzik captures the mood, the emotion and the environment. In the early stages, he describes how this wondrous world was hatched out of determination and willpower. Xerox looked on during this early stage, perhaps a bit apprehensively, but also expectantly.

With a lot of freedom to tinker, a strong group of physicists and computer scientists were assembled and began building some of the greatest stuff in the world. By the time the 70s are over, Hiltzik's story is thick with the tension of researchers who design without products in mind and with management which attempts to see the value proposition in everything coming out of PARC.

Hiltzik's tour includes stories of how Ethernet was built, how the first personal computers were created and networked, how WYSIWYG applications emerged, and how so much else was created. He spends a lot of time discussing the invention of the laser printer, originally a dream of an idea by outcast physicist Gary Starkweather. Fighting sneers and doubt all along the way, he persisted and created the laser printer. But management only saw a threat to their core business of toner transfer copiers and the outrageous price of the device. However, they did patent the technology and that one invention alone paid for the entire PARC venture.

Several inventions seem so basic that you have to wonder how a company as apparently adept and bright as Xerox failed to capitalize on. Desktop publishing, which seems like a natural outgrowth of a document-processing company like Xerox, was born at PARC but discarded. Color printing as well was dismantled by Xerox. Other ventures, such as the personal computer and the Smalltalk language, seem obvious as unnatural fits for Xerox.

This is the crux of the book, and why it is such a valuable read for both engineers and management alike. For engineers, it is important to get a feel for how management operates, how they best appreciate ideas as marketable products. The same goes for managers, who often don't appreciate the value of research ideas; in this history, Hiltzik shows how that even when things were on the brink of falling apart for Xerox, management was able to continue its course, hoping the rest of the world would be content to buy only a handful of large-scale copiers.

Ultimately the book's epilogue gets it right, more or less. Xerox didn't fumble their future, though they did fail to understand the value of several of PARC's achievements. This is a hotly debated topic for many who feel that Xerox could have easily demanded hefty sums from Apple, IBM, and Microsoft or simply gone to market first with a mass-market personal computer.

The geek in me loves this book for so many reasons. Hiltzik's book is in the same spirit as The Soul of a New Machine and Fire in the Valley -- it's presented in a really thrilling way. The historian in me loves the modern history of the computer science community, and loves to see how the spirit of PARC has migrated to Apple, SGI, Microsoft, and beyond.

All in all I am very glad I read this book. It's inspirational, interesting, and of course relevant to what I do. A highly recommended book.


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Dealers of Lightning

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  • by Anonymous Coward


    Does this book have the story of how Steve Jobs swindled Xerox?

    How he ran in, took pictures, took notes, stole the scientists brains, and ran out with the ideas?

    Snoodlers rock!

    • by pcraven (191172) <paul@NosPAM.cravenfamily.com> on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:10AM (#5118556) Homepage
      I'm not sure I'd really make that post a troll.

      Cringely's documentary has some interesting interviews about how Xerox gave away a lot of their technologies. Many of the workers thought the management was insane.

      While the failures of recognizing the loss of Xerox ideas seem obvious now, one must realize that nothing like that existed at the time. Developing any of those technologies would have involved huge risk and cost. The important thing is that certain people did realize it, and the technologies were marketed. Just not by Xerox.

      Ideas are easy. Developing and marketing them takes real work.
      • While the failures of recognizing the loss of Xerox ideas seem obvious now, one must realize that nothing like that existed at the time. Developing any of those technologies would have involved huge risk and cost. The important thing is that certain people did realize it, and the technologies were marketed. Just not by Xerox.
        Ideas are easy. Developing and marketing them takes real work.

        That is really to under-rate PARC. I cut my teeth on PARC technology - Dandelions, Dandetigers, Daybreaks, running InterLisp-D and LOOPS. There were a few things that modern computers have that they lacked - the network security was pretty much non-existent, and you could easily do more or less anything on a colleague's machine over the network. But they came with word-processor, spreadsheet, object oriented graphics editor, bit map graphics editor, distributed hypertext browser, email client and so on, all built as LISP components so you could re-use them in your own programs easily. And while they weren't as reliable as you'd sometimes like - it was possible to crash them horribly - they were a lot more reliable than Windows 9X.

        The boxes Xerox PARC produced were solid and usable, entirely ready for prime time. They were, of course, extremely expensive - but then in those days 4Mb of RAM and 80Mb of disk was very expensive. If Xerox had mass-produced the Daybreak hardware and been able to sell it at about 20% of the UK Pounds 25,000 which it cost in 1986, either with the 'Star' office productivity software build or with the InterLisp system, I am sure they would have found a market for it, just as it was. I'm sure that the development of the personal computer would have happened much faster and Xerox would still be a major and influential player. Compared to the Daybreak, with its 1100 by 900 pixel display and sleek chocolate brown cabinet, Lisa and Macintosh were just crude, clunky toys.

        Sure, developing ideas to the point they're usable is hard work. But Xerox PARC had done that work. The work had been done. There were some people queuing at the doow with money, and if the production volumes had been increased and the price dropped, there would have been many more. All that was missing was the marketing vision...

        I can't help thinking it's really, really sad.

        • <quote>There were a few things that modern computers have that they lacked - the network security was pretty much non-existent, and you could easily do more or less anything on a colleague's machine over the network. </quote>

          Plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme ... oh well, not much has changed. Proof that Microsoft really did steal all their stuff from Xerox.

    • Apple paid! (Score:4, Informative)

      by Draoi (99421) <<moc.cam> <ta> <thcoiard>> on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:31AM (#5118628)
      Not this again. Once again, Apple paid [mackido.com] for the privilege of accessing PARC research. *sigh*
    • Actually, if you read the book you'd know that Xerox paid Apple for showing all this stuff to them.

      Apple invited Xerox to invest, Xerox took up the offer and in return let Steve Jobs and his crew have a close look at the Alto.

      Bernd
  • by stevens (84346) on Monday January 20, 2003 @10:52AM (#5118467) Homepage
    All in all I am very glad I read this book. It's inspirational, interesting, and of course relevant to what I do. A highly recommended book.

    So why only a 7.5? What's missing?

    • by Anonymous Coward
      I would avoid this book like the plague. This is a very substandard book. A point and a half below the standard "9" must truly be a horrible book.
    • to get a 9 it would have to grant total enlightenment. And of course there is that last point, for which it would have to (physically) sexually pleasure the reader during the reading.
  • Sounds like... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Omkar (618823) on Monday January 20, 2003 @10:53AM (#5118469) Homepage Journal
    'How the web was won', a book on MS by an author I can't remember. Contrary to /. belief, MS seems to be populated by smary visionaries. The problem is that these books seem to carry the prejudices of their authors. Try reading that webwon book and World War 3.0 and compare the authors' views on MS. Everyone is biased to some extent. Total objectivity is a myth.
    • Re:Sounds like... (Score:3, Insightful)

      by RevDobbs (313888)

      "Total ojectivity" is only going to be found in yourself, hopefully after reading enough conflicting viewpoints. Anyone with the fire to write about something is probably a deep fan or critic.

      • "Total ojectivity" is only going to be found in yourself...

        Errrr... isn't that a bit of a contradiction? That would be subjectivity. An opinion formed after taking in a multitude of other opinions is still a subjective view.

        --the verb
    • MS visionaries? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by goombah99 (560566) on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:19AM (#5118591)
      Are you suggesting that like PARC, Microsoft is full of visionaries but never produces anything original because like xerox it gets misunderstood by management?

      MS has been a genious at settling the frontiers of computing with a sustainable and growing bussiness model but not in pioneering. In fact I cant think of any technology that ever came from MS that was not derivative. Nor can I even think of a slick integration of technologies (e.g. apple's forte), nor even a novel presentation of a new technology.

      Maybe some MS folks can contadict me with a couple trivial examples. But look for a billion dollar company with 90% of the market their creative output is pathetic. Maybe some MS worker bees reading slashdot can say why. Does MS have a creative research dept? if so where's the products?

      • by HiQ (159108) on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:42AM (#5118666)
        I can't believe you're saying that their 'Clippy' wasn't innovative technology. That bloody marvellous contraption helped me through a lot of difficult moments. ** sobs uncontrolably **
      • Re:MS visionaries? (Score:3, Insightful)

        by slipandfall (580688)
        You want to know what was visionary? How about the MS-DOS licensing agreement that got them on to every PC and set them up to move into desktop applications, programming languages, back-office applications, handheld computers, cellular phones, gaming consoles, etc, etc?

        Just because Microsoft's visionaries are in management and not technology doesn't make them any less visionary. Now, whether it makes them law-abiding, that's a different question.
        • No. Visionary was writing up the weasel words for the first Consent Decree. This was the one that was the result of these illegal agreements that forced manufacturers to use MS or pay anyway.

          The weasel words provided plausible deniability for breaking the Consent Decree during the second trip to Federal Court.
      • The cool little scroll wheel on mice. Wonder how much investment dollars went into that one?
      • Microsoft's Research department is at http://research.microsoft.com
      • Re:MS visionaries? (Score:1, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Compared to PARC there is hardly anyone
        in the computer industry who can claim
        to be innovative and certainly Microsoft
        haven't produced anything revolutionary -
        rather their skill is in taking existing
        ideas and integrating them, making incremental
        improvements and, most importantly,
        making them available cheaply and on
        commodity hardware. Many comments on
        slashdot complain about an 'MS tax'
        but they forget that when UNIX ruled
        the roost the OS might have been
        cheap but the choice in the mini or
        workstation market was very limited.
      • Like any big company, MS does have a busy research department [microsoft.com]. Like any big company, there is no logical or consistent flow between research and the products we actually see.

  • all of my technical and management knowledge.
  • by Hairy_Potter (219096) on Monday January 20, 2003 @10:54AM (#5118483) Homepage
    for the masses, they could have joined such mega corporations like Packard-Bell, Digital, Monorail, Acer, Commodore and Amiga!

    Instead, they focused on high margin expensive high speed copiers and duplicators and printers.

    Though, it would have been nice to squeeze a few million out of Jobs and Gates.
  • by HealYourChurchWebSit (615198) on Monday January 20, 2003 @10:55AM (#5118484) Homepage


    One of the knocks I heard about the book was too much time on the personalities -- not enough on the
    technologies. I'd be curious to the voracity of that claim, and if it did or did not make it a better book?

    I'm also curious to know if the book covers the reasons Xerox didn't pursue legally look-n-feel issues? From what I understand, they could have made claims against both MSFT and Apple.

    FYI, here's the book via Amazon [amazon.com]

    • I'm also curious to know if the book covers the reasons Xerox didn't pursue legally look-n-feel issues? From what I understand, they could have made claims against both MSFT and Apple.

      Xerox had/has no case against Apple, because Xerox was compensated by Apple from the very beginning:

      Xerox was allowed to buy a piece of Apple [jcn.net] (before Apple went public) in exchange for the Apple employees' tour of PARC and the research demos.

      When Adele Goldberg, formerly of PARC, was interviewed in Cringely's "Triumph of the Nerds" documentary, she made it known that the Xerox executives were very aware of the possibility of PARC ideas walking out the door with the Apple people-- because Goldberg herself refused to demo anything for the Apple contingent for just that reason, unless she were ordered to do so from her Xerox superiors. The order was given without hesitation, the demos were shown, and the rest is history.

      ~Philly

      • Hiltzik shows how Apple engineers - particularly Jeff Raskin - were aware of what was going at PARC in terms of GUI research. They were reading all of the PARC research. These engineers encouraged Jobs to facilitate a visit, and in fact Apple "traded" Xerox the opportunity to buy into their IPO for $1 million in return for a complete tour of their new GUI developments.

        Quite a different picture from how this story is usually presented.
      • Apple already had those ideas, it even had a little bit of the technology needed to bring it to the "normal" computeruser of that day (you have to admit that's a bit different than the PARC setting). Raskin, the father of the mac spend some time at PARC years before and already knew a lot of those things. Despite being a macfanatic, I too thought the ripped it all from PARC, untill I read in Infinite Loop: How the World's Most Insanely Great Computer Company Went Insane by Michael S. Malone, which has a rather detailed chapter about that period. (2 posts, 2 plugs for the same book, Malone, where are my royalties ;) )
    • I'd be curious to the voracity of that claim

      I'd be careful, if I were you. You may be curious, but don't stay too close to that claim! If it is voracious, it might bite you.

      Oh, you meant veracity, not voracity? Sorry... ;-)

    • Xerox did pursue legal action against Apple, for one. This and lots of other stuff about Apple, but also about the origins and evolution of Silicon Vally, and thus also PARC, Apple, Intel, ... I read in Infinite Loop: How the World's Most Insanely Great Computer Company Went Insane by Michael S. Malone. (No link to Amazon, because they're (temporarily) out of it.) Contrary to the title it's certainly not only about Apple and gave me more info about tthe information revolution than anything I read before.
  • by jb_nizet (98713) on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:00AM (#5118506)
    When I was a student, in Belgium, my network professor told us he went to Xerox PARC.
    His interest for networks started from there.
    But he also told us how dumb the managers were already. Basically, he told us, researchers had white cards for a whole lot of things, and really invented beautiful things.
    For example, the principle of a UI, where you could type and store a whole document and then print it later on was realized there, but a dumb manager refused the idea, claiming it was too complex: all the users want, he said, is a typewriter where you can validate your text one line, print it, and then validate the next one.
    No doubt that if the Xerox manegers had been smarter, Xerox would be a far bigger company than it is today.

    JB.
    JB.
    • by Drakula (222725) <tolliver@iee e . org> on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:17AM (#5118587) Homepage Journal
      It's hard to say what would have happened had brought many of these high volume, low margin products to market. As was stated in an earlier post, Xerox is a compnay that deals with low volume, high margin products. They also make money by selling services. This was how they made their money and it made sense to keep going in that direction. Other very large companies, like GE, do this.

      I think their biggest mistake was not liscencing all those great ideas.
      • It's hard to say what would have happened had brought many of these high volume, low margin products to market. As was stated in an earlier post, Xerox is a compnay that deals with low volume, high margin products.

        A few years ago on the Squeak mailing list, there was a discussion about whether the switch in the 70s from expensive but powerful to cheap but limited computers was really necessary. Alan Kay posted a very interesting perspective:

        (trimmed from http://lists.squeakfoundation.org/pipermail/squeak -dev/2000-May/011045.html)

        >...Must early computing really start with Basic and friends and
        >must better things wait for the arrival of "real machines"?

        Remember that BASIC on the Altair didn't do much. I don't think that a
        Smalltalk type system would have to be much larger if it "didn't do much".
        Peter Deutsch's original interactive PDP-1 LISP from the early sixties did
        do quite a bit and it was implemented in about 2000 instructions on a 4K
        (18 bit word) PDP-1. Smalltalk-72 did quite a bit and it ran quite well in
        about 16kb + the display memory. It would be interesting to see how well
        the "page long" interpreter for ST-72* would do if all that were added were
        a few auxillary classes.

        Of course, old PARC hands would also point out that the Altair was quite
        irrelevant since the Alto at PARC started running two years earlier in
        1973, and there were quite a few of them by 1975. All personal computers
        today are like the Alto, none are like the Altair. The hobbiest PC movement
        was kind of a red herring and dead end (and one could say that 8-bit micros
        and most of the software that was put on them led several generations
        astray from better ways to approach personal computing. Those bad defacto
        standards are still holding back progress).

  • by EvilTwinSkippy (112490) <yoda@e t o y o c .com> on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:00AM (#5118507) Homepage Journal
    Have you ever noticed that Kids pick right up on the Graphical User Interface, but adults need to be taught. The reason has less to do slower grown ups, than it does to the fact the GUI was designed for 4 year olds!

    Yes folks, they used research on children to determine that people process information visually. I dare say, having been one of those kids that picked everything up immediately, I approach problems very differently as an adult.

    • If a GUI was designed to be used by a 4 year old, it explains why so many /.ers use the command line, since the average age here appears to be two. I guess you need to be twice as mature.
    • Kids pick up a lot of things faster than adults - in particular, language. Their brains are just wired for it. I would guess that learning a UI has several aspects in common with learning a language, with vocab (different icons, menus, toolbars, dialogs etc.) and grammar (common ways of using the mouse, keys/buttons working in different ways according to context, occasional deviations from the standard.)

      I suppose you could argue that a GUI is a sort of visual language. Or does that sound stupid?
      • Ah, but if it language-acquisition skills make it easy for kids to learn GUIs, then why don't they all become comfortable with CLIs?

        After all, those are definitely a language---cat `locate bob-unique.conf`|grep FOOBAR most certainly expresses and order, unlike GUI elements, some of which may be declarative, not imperative, in function. (Information meant to be declarative in CLIs is nearly always translated into English first.)

        --grendel drago
        • On second thought, I think personality may play a larger role in problem solving than age. I was a very verbal kid at a very early age.

          I started toying with computers back in 1982. I was (lets see 1982-1974...) 8. Really 7, I was born in December.

          My first computer was a PCjr running IBM-DOS, and BASIC. I learned to navigate around BASIC because, well, there weren't many games for the damn thing. Beyond the rudimentary ASCII art games for the PCjr, there were the Text adventure games ala Infocom. I loved them, but my brother (a year younger) never did like them.

          He was always better than me at the hand-eye coordination games. That and he could site read music for the violin at 6, but despite years of music classes, but I still can't even sing from sheet music. (I match pitch with the orchestra, or I memorize the tune. It's cheating, but I have managed to fake it well enough to be a lead in the school musical a few times.)

          Then again, when I was 4 or 5 I sat down and read my family's set of Encylopedias cover to cover. I would sit an follow the links between articles for days at a time. After a while I would just systematically skim the index and follow the topics in order. God only knows what information I actually retained, but man did I pick up how to classify information.

          Regardless, there seems to be a difference in wiring between 2 people who have the same genetic backgrounds, intelligence, and sex. (Granted, birth order does have a profound impact on personality.)

        • Who says they don't, myself, and I'm sure many other people on /. spent most of their childhood using a variety of computers with no GUI.
          Kids these days (oh no, I'm sounding like an old man already) may not pick up CLI stuff as quickly or at such an early age, but I don't think its because they can't. It's possibly more to do with the focus on GUI's and the visual, interactive medium in today's world, and the prevalence of such systems, certainly over CLI systems.
          Oh well... whatever the reasons, I certainly have fond memories of sneaking into buildings, finding a terminal, and playing away to find out what happened.....
    • It's harder for old people because they're "set in their ways", not because a GUI in inherently childish.

      My dad was never able to set the clock on the VCR, yet he was a whiz with the internal combustion engine.

      I suspect that old hunter-gatherers marvelled at their kids ability to do that agriculture stuff.
  • Table of Contents (Score:4, Informative)

    by patrickoehlinger (445411) <patrickoehlinger@gmx.net> on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:01AM (#5118510) Homepage Journal
    Part I: Prodigies
    1. The Impresario
    2. McColough's folly
    3. The house on porter drive
    4. Utopia
    5. Berkeley's second system
    6. "Not your normal person"
    7. The clone
    8. The future invented

    Part II: Inventors
    9. The refugee
    10. Beating the dealer
    11. Spacewar
    12. Thacker's bet
    13. The Bobbsey Twins build a network
    14. What you see is what you get
    15. On the lunatic fringe
    16. The pariahs
    17. The big machine

    Part III: Messengers
    18. Futures day
    19. Future plus one
    20. The worm that ate the ethernet
    21. The silicon revolution
    22. The crisis of biggerism
    23. Steve Jobs gets his show and tell
    24. Supernova
    25. Blindsided
    26. Exit the Impresario
    Epilogue. Did Xerox Blow It?
  • by MosesJones (55544) on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:05AM (#5118528) Homepage

    What is most impressive about this book is the way it doesn't condemn the Xerox execs out of hand for not taking up ideas, it slates them for destroying the atmosphere that created those ideas. The execs made a bundle of cash out of Xerox Parc, sure they could have made more but it more than paid for itself as it was.

    Where the execs went wrong was because they _tried_ to make Parc more commercial, and more commercially driven. The power of PARC was that it started as basically a University within a corporation, and the corporation gained many valuable elements from it. As soon as they moved towards a more commercial model (Star et al) then the suits began to exert more control and the brains began to leave or get pissed off.

    Don't slate Xerox for not capitalising on all of the ideas, slate Xerox for trying to capitalise on PARC and destroying it in the process.

    Xerox PARC invented the majority of the important technology today, in the sense that they made it a reality even if others had thought of it first. Your PC has windowing because Apple saw PARC, your PC has ethernet because they needed to network computers, your printer works because PARC made it so.

    PARC founded the modern computing world, but commercialism and the attempt to exploit the ideas are what destroyed it. PARC made Xerox HUGE amounts of cash, it was a desire (greed?) to get even more than led to the bright lights leaving.

    These bright lights have gone on to bigger and better things, how Xerox must now think "if only".
    • by anonymous loser (58627) on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:23AM (#5118608)
      Nowadays most R&D centers within a company operate as a separate business unit, whose "customers" are the other business units. In a sense, almost everything that gets funding at a modern R&D center is commercial in the sense that the R&D guys have to "sell" the research (usually to the other business units) in order for it to survive.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    I bought this book over 2 years ago.

    Nothing like a timely /. review!
  • I am sorry to say, but many books I have read on technology related topics just dont seem to capture the moment. I usually enjoy history books in general, but technological history books just seem overly bland, dry, and ininformative. Hind sight is 30/30 in the technological field, so to look back and see if xerox "blew it" is not how I would go about writing a book. But enough hating on the book, I have read worse and it is *slightly* interesting.
  • by jj_johny (626460) on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:20AM (#5118597)
    I dealt with the PARC on their AI products and when they tried to commercialize their extensive work. (mid-80's)

    From my dealings with the people there, it was clear that they had the whole research and development thing down. They inspired their people to build things that were unbelievable. But the marketing and sales folks all came from the copier side of the business whenever they wanted to roll things out. Although Xerox folks were great people, they could not bridge the gap between their experience and the future. (See Clayton Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma.)

    As time went on Xerox say more and more that they were not capturing the benefits of the PARC developed technology and got desperate. So all good things come to an end.

  • I'm 17 and I read this book in '98 when it first came out. It was actually at a library so this i tried to go buy it but It had to be special ordered because I guess its actually out of production now which made me really sad... so everyone that reads this should go and buy "Dealers of Lightning" and maybe we can put enough orders in for them to reprint it!! It is the most definitive guide to the complete beginnings of the real computer age and is the whole history of was quite possibly the largest convergence of wonderful awesome genius ever in the history of the world!! inspiring, motivational, well written, and actually interesting and worth every cent. buy it now!!
  • by gelfling (6534) on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:36AM (#5118649) Homepage Journal
    Dave: Something wonderful.

    BOOOM

    (-from 2010)

    Do you people read this ancient history computer archeologic anthropology like it's a cult religion or something? Do you really think that the only place that ever generated any technology worth discussing was the sacred Mount XPARC?

    For those us who lived and worked in the real world during the 70's-80's and other Bronze Age periods we saw an awful great lot of new and good ideas from commerical vendors and universities. Most of it died out, was bought up or simply abandoned but this whole cargo cult ethos of PARC this and PARC that looking for the holy fucking grail of the First Good Idea of Computing (Slashdot 3:16) is, how do you say.....

    Horseshit

    (that's a technical term).
    • For those us who lived and worked in the real world during the 70's-80's and other Bronze Age periods we saw an awful great lot of new and good ideas from commerical vendors and universities. Most of it died out, was bought up or simply abandoned but this whole cargo cult ethos of PARC this and PARC that looking for the holy fucking grail of the First Good Idea of Computing

      OK, but the point is that the stuff PARC did largely didn't die out. Is your computer connected to an ethernet? Where do you think that came from? Does it use a windowed interface, with icons and mice? Where do you think that came from? Do you send documents to people in as PDFs? Where do you think that came from? Do you have an optical mouse? And so on, and on, and on.

      This isn't to say nothing useful happened elsewhere. But anyone who used PARC technology in the late seventies and early eighties, as I did, would find every aspect of Windows XP, KDE or Mac OS X entirely familiar.

      • Oh yes. I remember way back in the day seeing a PARC workstation with an actual GUI, mouse and 17" monitor.

        Now I use fancy 48x48 truecolor SVG icons from Everaldo, but they're conceptually no different from those 16x16 black and white icons on the PARC.
        • Oh yes. I remember way back in the day seeing a PARC workstation with an actual GUI, mouse and 17" monitor.
          Now I use fancy 48x48 truecolor SVG icons from Everaldo, but they're conceptually no different from those 16x16 black and white icons on the PARC.

          Well, that just demonstrates your ignorance. Icon size on the Xerox boxes was entirely up to you; some of mine were substantially bigger than 48x48. And yes, 24 bit colour was available by 1982 at least (but it cost a lot and I didn't have it).

    • Of course the rest of the world was doing stuff too, but nowhere else was as much going on under one roof that ended up coming to revolutionary or at least important fruition. You gotta at least understand some of the fascination. Certainly for many of us who were too young or didn't witness the time first hand, there is a danger of a holy grail attitude--but on the whole it seems to me that a history of computing that focuses too much on PARC isn't the end of the world--and on the whole, if it gets people to read about it where the wouldn't otherwise, that's a Good Thing.

      Personally I've always been most fascinated by Bob Taylor's abilities to assemble brilliant, and more importanly productive people. Perhaps more important than the actual products from PARC (though obviously closely related) was the people and what they did there as well as in their own or other companies.

      And if nothing else, hopefully the continued attention to PARC will teach management, not only the importance of putting together quality teams, but also giving them the freedom to create. Pure research seems to be at an alltime low--academia seems to be getting so much funding from corporate interests, inevitably with strings attached. Companies seem to be letting marketing & market research dictate the direction of R&D. Hopefully PARC reminds people that sometimes you need to put smart people together & let them do what they want in order to get really revolutionary ideas.

    • by TheAncientHacker (222131) <TheAncientHacker&hotmail,com> on Monday January 20, 2003 @03:32PM (#5120258)
      Well, as somebody else who "lived and worked in the real world during the 70's-80's and other Bronze Age periods" I'd yhave to say that you're completely wrong.

      Let's look at it:

      Xerox PARC

      • Laser Printer
      • GUI
      • Context menus
      • WYSIWYG
      • Ethernet
      • CSMA/CD
      • Object Oriented Programming including:
        • Message Passing
        • Encapsulation
        • Inheritance
        • Late Binding
      • IDE
      • Desktop font support
      • Desktop publishing

      Everybody Else Combined

      • Ink Jet Printer
      • Microprocessor based PCs
      • Spreadsheets

      But I guess we "real world" types didn't find any use for the Xerox PARC stuff...

  • "I got this book originally because I wanted a good read on the origin of network-based worms."

    Well, I was born to middle-class parents in the suburbs of...oh. Thought you meant "network-based cretins"....

  • by kreinsch (82720) on Monday January 20, 2003 @11:47AM (#5118688)
    A good piece of companion reading to "Dealers of Lightning" is "Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer" by Douglas K. Smith, Robert C. Alexander [amazon.com].
    Originally published in 1988, and largely based on a business school case study of PARC, it presents a nice second perspective on things. Thankfully, it is back in print again.
    Cringely even cites it in his book "Accidental Empires".

  • that Xerox didn't take advantage of the many innovations that came from or were inspired by PARC.

    A great many companies (Sun, Apollo etc.) benefited either directly or indirectly from their work, and over the years we have all benefited.

    In the early 80s I worked on a couple of projects that certainly had their roots there. One was interfacing a laser printer (Seimens) to a batch processing mainframe (where the biggest problem was whether the unions would allow non union labor to use it). The other was the ICL (sort of defunct UK equiv. to IBM) port of Unix to the Three Rivers Perq. Fun times back then (must be getting old).
  • There is a problem with this news submission. On the front page it is missing the closing /i tag where it says "Dealers of Lightning." so all the stories below it are shown in italic.
  • Careful with those <i> tags, timothy
  • Seems to me that most big corporations have gutted their research budgets - especially when it comes to pure research like PARC was doing. For that kind of reasearch to take place a company has to be able to look beyond the bottom line for the next quarter and few seem to be able to do that. What's happended to Bell Labs? (is it somewhere in Lucent?) How about HP? Used to be a great engineering company, but now it's just a marketing company looking to put the HP logo on OEM products. ...look for a line of HP athletic shoes coming soon to a KMart near you!
    • Seems to me that most big corporations have gutted their research budgets - especially when it comes to pure research like PARC was doing.

      I'm with Siemens Ultrasound Division (formerly Acuson), and we still lead the way in the medical ultrasound technology. We invented computed sonography, doppler imaging, native tissue harmonic imaging, etc. We still have a research group that does nothing but come up with new amazing stuff. Like PARC, we won't develop all of the ideas into a marketable product, but we have some stuff in the pipeline that will amaze the medical world when it's released.

      Enough about me. A lot of big corporations have pure research departments. As long as the tech corporation hasn't been taken over by the "stock price is everything" mentality of the dot.bombs, it will still have a research department. Think IBM, BASF, etc.
    • What's happended to Bell Labs?

      It got broken into a [bell-labs.com] number [att.com] of [avaya.com] pieces [telcordia.com], just as AT&T split up.

      (is it somewhere in Lucent?)

      The piece called Bell Labs did.

      How about HP?

      HP Labs [hp.com] still exists; whether they're doing less, or just doing stuff other than the commodity stuff HP's using more of, is another matter.

      But, as has been noted, there are some research departments in big companies that are doing interesting stuff, such as IBM [ibm.com] and even a favorite whipping boy on Slashdot [microsoft.com]. How pure the research of any given company is might be a different matter.

  • You broke the home page. Try matching your HTML tags.
    • The tags match... when you are in the story. I think each paragraph should have its own HTML tags. You want italics, fine, just do it for each paragraph. Then, when only the first bits make it to the front page, they have their own matching HTML tags.
  • This book was published in '98 - jeez.
  • I hiked around the U.S. last summer, and found myself in Palo Alto, and thought I would just go see the place for myself. After some kind bus drivers helped me out, I walked up to the front door and walked in. I explained that I was college student, majoring in Engineering, and had read and heard about all the wonderful things that had come out of the place, and that I just wanted to see it and wanted to know if they did tours.

    They blew me off totally. She said that they don't do things like that, they are a business and people there Important Things To Do, and treated me like I was either an idiot or industrial spy. That was just the receptionist. She sent email to someone who worked there and they called my cell phone and explained to me why I would be wasting there time, and that time is money, and while many cool things were done there, I should just go away.

    In my opinion, if the spirit of scientific inquiry is so boxed up there, they may have been productive in the past but they can't be doing anything now.

    For what its worth, I spent the rest of that day on Stanford's campus, and had a much better time, and found lots of friendly people doing cool things.

    • Well bully for them. Unlike Stanford, PARC is not a college campus, nor it is it a tourist attraction. If Steve Jobs himself couldn't walk in for free, what makes you think you should? And yes, PARC does have company assets that they can't just show any Joe Blow who walks in the street. Not to mention the hordes of geeks that would show up if the idea got around that they could just waltz in the door and be given the grand tour.

      On the other hand, writing to them can be productive if you do right.

    • Well, I work at PARC and can assure you that the people here are some of the nicest uber-geeks you'll ever find to share a workplace...and the most "adult" place I've ever worked, i.e. take care of your stuff, ask for help when needed, give help when asked. But yes, it is a business and some of the work is quite proprietary. You would get the same reaction at just about any other business operation...even more so in the hysteria of post-9/11.

      I have never had a problem giving tours to any of my geek friends who wander down to Palo Alto...including lunch at our amazingly good cafe with a hillside view over Silicon Valley. A little advanced contact with a request for a tour would certainly have a better chance of success than just dropping in off the road.

  • by Animats (122034) on Monday January 20, 2003 @03:24PM (#5120219) Homepage
    That book came out in 1998, and discusses events from the 1970s and 1980s. Why now?

    First, PARC wasn't that secretive. I saw the first batch of Altos in 1975, long before Jobs. Alan Kay described the first Ethernet as "an Alohanet with a captive ether", which we (being computer design students) all got. We were given an early Smalltalk demo. In the 1980s, I programmed an Alto in Mesa. I've been there many times, and met many of the PARC people over the years. Almost went to work there once. So I know something about this.

    The blind spot at PARC was that they, and Xerox management in Rochester, thought that stuff should just work. They visualized boxes that you plugged together in an office environment and that didn't need any on-site expertise to operate. This made sense, because that's what other office products looked like back then. Xerox copiers of the 1970s, while incredibly complicated internally, hid all that complexity; only the Xerox service people had to understand what went on inside.

    Early word processors were as simple as possible from the user point of view. Wang was the leader in "shared-logic word processors", which were dedicated time-sharing systems for word processing. A Wang-equippped office had a computer in a box the size of a filing cabinet, running nothing but Wang software and maintained by service people who came when called. The users didn't think of it as a computer.

    PARC tried to replicate this with the Xerox Star, a networkable box which contained an suite of office programs. It was expensive, but good. By design, it was not user-programmable.

    What PARC didn't see was that the future of computing involved cheap machines running crappy software. The future was CP/M on green screens tied to daisy-wheel printers interconnected with 300 baud modems. The future was DOS, WordStar, and VisiCalc. The future crashed a lot. People at PARC regarded this with horror.

    Remember, the original IBM PC was considered a joke by everybody in computer science. It was clear what you wanted - a real CPU like a Motorola 68000, with an MMU and some kind of real operating system, with at least "a MIP, a megapixel, and a megabyte". The Apple Lisa (not the Mac) reflected those goals.

    But it just couldn't be done cheaply enough. The hardware wasn't really there to do it right until the late 1980s, when Motorola released the 68030 and Intel released the 386. By then, mainstream computing was locked into the model we all love to hate.

    It was all a cost problem. The original Altos cost about $50K each. Xerox Star machines were in the $20K range. UNIX workstations used to be in the $10-20K range (some still are). But PCs launched at $2-3K, and went down from there. And that's why things went the way they did. Not because Xerox blew it. But because it was just too early to do it right.

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