Monday, February 27, 2006

Fumbling the Future

With my pulled Achilles tendon, cracked bone spur and now a cough and fever, I barely slept last night. Woe is me. Finally, I gave up trying to sleep and sent an email to our Library Director: Kathy, Here it is 4:35 in the morning and I'm awake at my computer. It reminds me of grad school. In the 1970s the only people in the world with "personal computers" were a few lucky Xerox employees. But that's another story. This time my cough and fever woke me up every hour like clockwork. Anyway, I don't want to infect you and Bob so I will phone into the meeting at 10AM. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Well that got me thinking of the good old days at Xerox and the birth of the personal computer. I wonder how many people know that the PC was a Xerox invention. I think I’ll tell a bit of that story from my personal perspective.

In 1972 I was finishing up my doctorate, teaching a full load of physics at the community college and doing research at Xerox. Not a lot of free time for me. But I had a wife, Lee, and two kids, Carolynne was nine and John was three, and cash flow was a problem. One day early in 1972, my thesis professor, Len Mandel, came into my lab where I was repairing my latest broken apparatus. Len had allowed me to work at this experiment for three years spending a large portion of his equipment budget. I was a klutz.

Very gently Len asked if I might like to consider doing a theoretical thesis. He couldn’t afford me and wanted to get me out before my kids entered high school. For the year he tutored me in advanced quantum optics, we wrote three papers and I finished my thesis.

Now the thesis brings me back to Xerox. In 1972 Xerox started work on a personal computer that was a marvel. By 1975 the Alto was born. It had a powerful CPU, lots of memory, an operating system with windows, “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” graphics, a word processor, a mouse, an Ethernet card and a network and networked printers. Imagine writing your thesis and printing it out on that machine. But I was a couple of years too early.

Fortunately for me our kindly physics department secretary was looking for some part time work and she offered to type my thesis on her IBM typewriter for 50 cents a page. That cost included two drafts, handwritten equations and lots of White Out. When the thesis turned out to be 135 pages, I paid Nancy $100 and she was thrilled.

Now the question I want to address is this: Why isn’t Xerox a big name in the personal computer business? They had a several year head start on Apple and a decade or more on IBM/Microsoft. What happened?

Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) had invented the computer technology and developed a dazzling product prototype. In 1979 when Steve Jobs visited PARC for a demo, he was astonished and went back to his office determined to duplicate the Xerox technology in the Apple Lisa and Macintosh. “It was one of those apocalyptic moments,” he said. “I remember within ten minutes of seeing the graphical user interface, just knowing that every computer would work this way some day.”

So Xerox had the technology. And Xerox was founded on a huge gamble on another novel technology that nobody thought would work (IBM, Kodak and many other companies passed on the opportunity to develop Xerography) for a market that looked miniscule except to Xerox and with a machine that was hazardous to your health. (The first machines were shipped with fire extinguishers inside)

The problems were a bad business/technical strategy and internal politics.

The PARC scientists were very bright and very proud. They designed a proprietary computer system built on home made electronics that prevented software developers from creating programs for the Alto. Xerox wanted to do it all. And the proprietary system made it impossible to use off the shelf microprocessors that followed Moore’s Law. (Every processor generation takes about 1.5 years to develop and by squeezing more transistors on the silicon chip achieves twice the performance or half the cost of the previous generation. Thus in 6 years or 4 generations, the processing speed goes up by 2x2x2x2 = 16 times or the price goes down by 16 times. It’s been happening since the mid 1970s) Thus when the IBM PC was introduced in 1981 it was a pale competitor in terms of features but it cost far less that the Alto. When the Apple Macintosh launched in 1984 it had a similar user interface (Jobs learned from PARC) but again at far less cost.

While the bad decision to use proprietary technology could have been reversed, the internal political problems were insurmountable. It was a war between two cultures. On the East Coast were the old time big iron guys who made all the (huge) profits for the company. On the left coast, in Palo Alto, were the tofu-eating computer geeks who created much of the losses. It’s easy to see who wins that war. By 1984, Xerox was out of the computer business while Apple and IBM/Microsoft were about to create an industry.


“Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored, the First Personal Computer,” Douglas Smith and Robert Alexander.

“Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age,” Michael Hiltzig.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Xerox really missed the boat, huh? I knew that Xerox originally invented the PC (must have heard it from you), but never knew the rest of the story! Interesting....

Hope you feel better,

Love, Carolynne

4:22 PM  
Blogger pappy said...

Very good story, Never knew that. I go back to the days of basic and word star

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the history lesson. You brought back memories of many late nights/early mornings in the bowels of Berkeley waiting for the card punch machines to throw out my run because I inadvertently put in a comma or something that screwed up the run. Hard to believe now I actually have a minor in computer science - since I can barely handle my cell phone technology!

And I am sorry to hear about your tendon and now the flu.... Hope you recover nicely.


2:35 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Thanks Linda,
Some critical resources for the Xerox personal computer venture came from Berkeley. In 1968 the Berkeley Computer Corporation was formed of a small group of grad students and profs to create a 500 user time sharing computer based on the Scientific Data Systems SDS-940, for a dozen users. that they had created and marketed through SDS. The job was too difficult, they got cought up in the "second-system effect" and the economy went in the tank. By the end of 1970 BBC was out of business and Xerox PARC was able to snatch up the best talent including Butler Lampson, Chuck Thacker, Peter Deutsch, Ed Fiala, Richard Schoup, Jim Mitchell and Charles Simonyi. Do you recognize any of these names, or is this a decade before your time there?

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember the computer room at college in 1972 as the most intimidating, LOUDEST, place on the planet. It was like a James Bond movie, with lights flashing, buzzers sounding, and the continuous groan of the computer. We couldn't get it to do anything, so we went to the Old Town Bar. Just think if I stayed in there or walked the 6o feet from my dorm to the ROOM, I might be a really rich computer geek today. I don't even like beer.


2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Bill

Sorry to hear that the cold bug has got a hold of you. Hope that you will have a quick recovery.

Thanks for the history of the computer with Xerox being the first. I still have my Apple II+ which I have had since 1979, though have not turned it on for over 20 years.


2:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story about Xerox. Loved it.


2:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

4:35 in the morning? Get a life. hope you feel better.


2:45 PM  
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11:18 PM  

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