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Dealers Of Lightning [Paperback]

Michael A Hiltzik
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 23 2000

In the bestselling tradition of The Soul of a New Machine, Dealers of Lightning is a fascinating journey of intellectual creation. In the 1970s and '80s, Xerox Corporation brought together a brain-trust of engineering geniuses, a group of computer eccentrics dubbed PARC. This brilliant group created several monumental innovations that triggered a technological revolution, including the first personal computer, the laser printer, and the graphical interface (one of the main precursors of the Internet), only to see these breakthroughs rejected by the corporation. Yet, instead of giving up, these determined inventors turned their ideas into empires that radically altered contemporary life and changed the world.

Based on extensive interviews with the scientists, engineers, administrators, and executives who lived the story, this riveting chronicle details PARC's humble beginnings through its triumph as a hothouse for ideas, and shows why Xerox was never able to grasp, and ultimately exploit, the cutting-edge innovations PARC delivered. Dealers of Lightning offers an unprecedented look at the ideas, the inventions, and the individuals that propelled Xerox PARC to the frontier of technohistoiy--and the corporate machinations that almost prevented it from achieving greatness.

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Throughout the '70s and '80s, Xerox Corporation provided unlimited funding to a renegade think tank called the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Occupying a ramshackle building adjacent to Stanford University, PARC's occupants would prove to be the greatest gathering of computer talent ever assembled: it conceptualized the very notion of the desktop computer, long before IBM launched its PC, and it laid the foundation for Microsoft Windows with a prototype graphical user interface of icons and layered screens. Even the technology that makes it possible for these words to appear on the screen can trace its roots to Xerox's eccentric 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, Los Angeles Times correspondent Michael Hiltzik focuses instead on the inventions and the inventors themselves. We meet fiery ringleader Bob Taylor, a preacher's son from Texas known as much for his ego as for his uncanny leadership; we trace the term "personal computer" back to Alan Kay, a visionary who dreamed of a machine small enough to tuck under the arm; and we learn how PARC's farsighted principles led to collaborative brilliance. Hiltzik's consummate account of this burgeoning era won't improve Xerox's stake in the computer industry by much, but it should at least give credit where credit is due. Recommended. --Rob McDonald --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Anyone who uses a personal computer is familiar with technologies pioneered by Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which started operation in 1970. The received wisdom is that Xerox muffed the chance to dominate the personal computer era by allowing revolutionary technologies developed at PARC to be snatched up by strangers and rivals (most famously, Apple, which took the mouse and the graphical user interface from PARC). L.A. Times reporter Hiltzik argues that the received wisdom is wrong. He expertly situates the story of which products actually made it to market for Xerox (e.g., the laser printer) and which technologies Xerox leaked away (WYSIWYG word processing, hypertext, Ethernet and TCP/IP, to name a few) in a broader analysis of the role of basic science research in business. He praises Xerox execs for understanding the difference between basic research and product development and for exempting PARC from the stultifying effect of having to do the latter. Among the many facts of life on the cutting edge that Hiltzik makes abundantly clear is that very bad decisions are often made for very good business reasons. While granting that Xerox could certainly have better exploited the new technologies issuing from PARC, he emphasizes that the company brought together "a group of superlatively creative minds at the very moment when they could exert maximal influence on a burgeoning technology, and financed their work with unexampled generosity." This is a top-notch business page-turner. Unburdened by any gee-whiz jaw-dropping, yet fully appreciative of the power of creative minds, it is informed by a sure understanding of the complex relationship between business and technology. Major ad/promo.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating read Feb. 13 2004
By adam872
As someone who has been working in the IT field some time and a keen student of history, I approached this book with some anticipation and curiosity. I am happy to report that not only was the "story" interesting but also very enlightening. The focus of this book is a historical account of the legendary Xerox technology centre called PARC and the people who worked there. The author has done a remarkable job in making the events of interest to the reader but also take you literally inside the organisation and the thought processes driving all manner of decisions.

The story is at once inspring and tragic. Inspiring in that the centre produced some of the most incredible advances in the computing sciences ever seen, but tragic in that many of those advances never saw the light of day (at least not with a Xerox badge on them). Several things come across when reading the book: the collection of people working in the facility were of an extremely high calibre and some of the sharpest minds of the day, they also possessed (in many cases) collossal egos to go with their staggering intellect, Xerox in many cases had neither the foresight nor the wherewithal to bring these great ideas to market and that the inventions coming out of PARC were perhaps too far ahead of their time to be practical in the "real world".

In the end, as in many organisations, internal politics and ego/hubris brought down this fine institution from what it was to what it is today. I guess that was to be expected with the cast of characters involved and the inability of Xerox to understand their work. As an aside, I think the author handled the question of "did Xerox blow it" very fairly and comes across as surprisingly sympathetic to the company.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely Good Book about Computer R&D Dec 31 2003
I do not know why this book was never more popular. It is a great read and has lots of detail on the evolution of computer R&D.
It is a very well written and detailed book about the computer R&D from Boston-Washington to Palo Alto at HP - written like a smooth flowing novel. It is mainly about Xerox and the research people and how they eventually decided to move the computer R&D to California. But it includes a lot more stuff. It Includes DARPA funding of the internet and work at MIT, and in house fighting at Xerox, and then the evolution of the projects in California. Xerox did not run with the ball in an effective way post 1980 but the technology and people went on to other companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and HP. Also there was a lot of innovative work that was transferred to industry.
It gives a lot of insight into the evolution of computer systems and the internet and local networks and on and on. It covers the people - grad students, scientists, spin off companies, crazed computer types working all night - that are just as interesting as the wires and machines.
Great book, one of the best ever Tech Books.
Jack in Toronto
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The history of PARC without the myth and bias March 21 2003
By Charles Ashbacher TOP 500 REVIEWER
Although the history of the ubiquitous computer is a short one, it has a mythology so extensive, it could have been developed over centuries. Some of the most unusual, imaginative, intelligent and powerful personalities in the history of the human race have been a part of its' development. One of the most pervasive myths is that Xerox could have become the most dominant company in the history of the world as a consequence of the leadership it could have had in computing. There is no doubt that the ideas that were developed in the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) were some of the most original and now most widely used. There will probably never again be such a concentration of the leading talent of a particular field in one place. Without question, they were also a strong-willed group, that led to natural personality conflicts, which no doubt would have led to dissolution of the group after a few years no matter what. Hiltzik is very pragmatic about this, understanding and explaining that this is typical of leading people in the computing field.
While it is true that Xerox could have dominated the computer field had they been able to exploit all the ideas, the reality is that it was most likely impossible for any company to absorb all that was produced there. It is ironic that the problem was that the researchers were too productive for their parent company to handle. Once again, the author understands this very well, unlike others whose focus seems to be trying to make Xerox a laughingstock. Furthermore, these were the early days of computing and there were few that could truly see where the computing field was going. Nevertheless, the management of Xerox was hardly blameless, their level of cluelessness has to rank among the highest.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating story April 23 2000
I read this book because it was mentioned in The New New Thing - a book about Jim Clark. What I found was a very well written story of PARC (Xerox's research centre in Palo Alto).
The story is really set in the 1970s and 1980s when Xerox set up PARC really to support a newly acquired computer company SDS. What happened instead was that PARC itself outshone the acquired company and for a corporation that built up its name in the photocopier business, it caused many problems.
Hiltzik is a master at capturing the mood and feel. He brings a multitude of characters to life in bite sized chapers. (The book has almost 450 pages but the chapters are about 8-12 pages long making it easy to pick up and immerse yourself in a piece of history.)
What I found astounding was the level of technology reached in PARC. This is well documented in this book. You have Douglas Englebart who used research and ideas raised in the 1940s as a blueprint for interactive hardware and software aimed at manipulating text and video images (he was the "inventor" of the mouse). You have explanations of the floating point function (which caused Intel so many problemns with its Pentium chip). You have descriptions of culture shaping events such as Bob Taylor's "Beat the Dealer" where his people would spend an hour or so explaining their research and then were let loose to the erudite audience "like a rank steak to a pack of hungry wolves." You even have the origins of Ethernet and TCP/IP documented here.
This is a very detailed book but unlike say "competing on Internet Time" it is much more like a story with real characters and real-life issues. It reads as well as a Southwick book but with much more to say.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars good stuff
This book gives you the raw details of what went into the creation and running of the most (in)famous research facility in computing. Read more
Published on Jan. 19 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating account of the magic that took place
Michael Hiltzik has done an incredible job in describing the context of the environment and the dynamics of the personalities as they interacted in the birthplace of computing... Read more
Published on Jan. 17 2000 by Robert A. Navarro
5.0 out of 5 stars Being There at the Dawn of the Computer Age
What I really appreciate about Dealers of Lightning is that, for the first time in a single volume, there is a comprehensive analysis of the legendary Xerox PARC (Palo Alto... Read more
Published on Dec 29 1999 by Robert Morris
2.0 out of 5 stars My Mileage Was Low...
As always your mileage may vary. My mileage was low.
I ended Michael Hiltzik's book on Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center and the invention of the computer technologies we use... Read more
Published on Nov. 27 1999 by James B. Delong
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent on names and places, deficient on dates.
Perhaps spoiled by Owen W. Linzmayer's precise dates and timelines (Mac Bathroom Reader, Apple Confidential), I found it difficult to be certain of even the year in which certain... Read more
Published on Oct. 19 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars Who says Xerox gets off easy?
Anyone who thinks "Dealers of Lightning gives Xerox a pass for its handling of PARC technology must be reading with one eye closed. Read more
Published on Aug. 26 1999
1.0 out of 5 stars Where's the business logic?
I have been a fan of the story of Xerox PARC ever since reading "Fumbling the Future" by Douglas Smith and Robert Alexander. Read more
Published on Aug. 23 1999
3.0 out of 5 stars More about personalities and company politics than computers
You have to get past the first 70 pages or so where the author tediously describes how the PARC people were hired, in order to get to the good stuff. Read more
Published on June 30 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitive and thrilling
Anyone who has worked in science and technology knows how hard it is to get one's ideas through the bureaucracy and out into the world. Dealers of Lightning shows we're not alone! Read more
Published on June 27 1999
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