5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating read
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...
Published on Feb. 14 2004 by adam872
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. Then the author never quite leaves alone the personality clashes and company politics. Not that that stuff's not interesting; it is! And the PARC story seems to indicate that such interpersonal dynamics make or break...
Published on June 30 1999
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5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating read,
This review is from: Dealers Of Lightning (Paperback)
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. I think this is reasonable, as it's very easy to be wise after the event. I think many other organisations may have acted the same way when confronted with the economic realities of the time coupled with this bleeding edge technology.
In all, I would recommend "Dealers of Lightning" to anyone curious about the history of computer science or technology in general.
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely Good Book about Computer R&D,
This review is from: Dealers Of Lightning (Paperback)
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
4.0 out of 5 stars The history of PARC without the myth and bias,
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.
What I liked best about the book were the last sections about the supposed conversion that Steve Jobs underwent when he was shown the technology being developed at PARC. The myth is that the basic ideas of the Macintosh were "stolen" from PARC when they were shown to Jobs and his engineering team during a tour. While it is true that Jobs was convinced, saying that the technology was taken from PARC does an enormous disservice to the engineering staff at Apple, who did their own research and development. The most that can be said is that what they saw at PARC convinced them that it could be done, but did little to show them how to do it.
This is a fascinating book about a set of incredible people. If you were to make a list of all of the major ideas of computing, you would have to take some time before you could separate out those that did not undergo a large amount of their development at PARC. Bereft of the myth and biases, from this book you can learn what actually happened in that incredible place and at that unique time.
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating story,
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.
It is amazing what PARC produced using a bunch of the best people around, and it is the characterisation of these very talented people which made me enjoy the book so much. Hiltizk masterfully adds an epilogue that goes some way to trash the view that Xerox must have been just plain stupid to let all this technology go. A very thoughtful and broadminded ending to a superb book.
5.0 out of 5 stars good stuff,
By A Customer
This book gives you the raw details of what went into the creation and running of the most (in)famous research facility in computing. A captivating book of human drama, lessons, sucesses and failures. Any one who has an interest in the history of an important revolution in computing should find it a good read.
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 technology. All of the computer interfaces that we take for granted today were developed at PARC. Hiltzik weaves a tale of the evolution of the group of geniuses and the obstacles that they encountered in dealing with the hierarchy at Xerox headquarters. In many ways, the top management at Xerox was the forerunner of the "Dilbert Boss Syndrome"--a total lack of appreciation and knowledge of what was being developed by these research magicians. It is a story of a very unique period in the history of technology and is very similar to what took place during the Manhattan Project of the 1940's. I for one am glad that Mr. Hiltzik did not spend very much of the book in explaining the technology that was developed for that would have distracted from the account. He did describe the essence of what was being developed in a brief, very excellent and informational manner--enough to let the reader know its importance. The book represents a milestone in relating the events that have brought us to our present state in the computing industry. Kudos to Mr. Hiltzik for a fine job of writing!
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 Research Center). Its brilliant young inventors produced a number of breakthroughs in office technology. Hiltzik examines each of the key scientists, led by Bob Taylor, as well as Steve Jobs and others who visited to observe and to learn... and departed with information without which they probably could not have succeeded. This is a riveting account of collaborative genius. It has the colorful characters and multiple of plots (and sub-plots) one encounters in a novel written by Dickens or Balzac. Bennis and Biederman devote one chapter in Organizing Genius to the PARC operations. For those who desire a complete account of those memorable years, here it is...well-told.
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 today disappointed. Hiltzik spent too little time on the ideas and technologies, and too much time on the personalities and the intra-Xerox bureaucratic infighting. That might have been OK if his discussions of just why Xerox never brought so much PARC research to market were accurate, or coherent. But it seems to me that his discussions of Xerox bureaucracy and PARC personalities deconstruct themselves: the evidence he presents simply doesn't justify the conclusions that he reaches.
For example, as his book heads for a conclusion--at the top of page 391--he attacks the idea that by failing to develop into products even a quarter of the technologies produced by PARC Xerox "fumbled the future." He says that "technology foils its tamers" and that conclusions that Xerox failed "rest... on several very questionable assumptions."
But the story that Hiltzik tells is not one in which Xerox makes defensible but wrong decisions, but one in which Xerox does not even try to market what became the key technologies of Apple, Adobe, 3Com, Microsoft and others--and markets the PARC-invented laser printer only after great internal corporate resistance, and only after unnecessary multi-year delays. To squander a five- to ten-year lead because your internal bureaucratic processes cannot recognize an opportunity is, indeed, to "fumble the future."
Along his way Hiltzik makes what seem to me to be simple mistakes of fact and grave errors of logic that cast doubt on his overall reliability. Why claim that when Xerox introduced the Star computer at the beginning of the 1980s that "...no independent software industry existed at the time. (It would not emerge until the mid-1980s.)" What were Microsoft and VisiCorp and Digital Research selling then? Chopped liver? Why was IBM simultaneously developing an open-architecture PC to try to take advantage of the independent hardware and software industry? If there was no independent software industry, then why did IBM go outside its organization--to an independent software manufacturer--for both the operating system and an application suite for its first PC?
Hiltzil claims that "critics of [Xerox's] handling of PARC" "rarely acknowledge" an important burden imposed on Xerox: "the merciless business environment," and that this merciless business environment was a key factor keping Xerox from commercializing the technologies invented at PARC. He writes that:
..Japanese competitors [making copiers] appeared in force in 1975, Xerox did not introduce a low-cost machine to rival theirs until four years later.... [Xerox executives] Peter McColough and David Kearns, embroiled in the fight of their lives simply to protect the copier franchise, had scarcely any patience for... solutions... for the tough problem of technology transfer at PARC (p. 394).
This makes me scratch my head. Hiltzil writes that Xerox's organization was incompetent at product development in their core business--photocopiers: they can't respond to a competitive threat in less than four years. And Hiltzil claims that because Xerox was incompetent in its core business its managers should not be criticized for incompetence at managing the technologies developed by PARC. Can he possibly be serious?
And on the very next page there seems to be a serious, serious misconstrual of a quotation from Adobe Systems founder Chuck Geschke. Geschke says that:
Our attitude at PARC was sort of that it was a higher calling to do pure research. But here at Adobe our advanced technology group does not just stay in advanced technology. If they put together the germ of an idea and start to get it close to prototyping and even decide to turn it into a product, we encourage them to follow it all the way through to first customer shipment. The only way I know to transfer technology is with people.
Hiltzik uses this as a springboard to say that fomer PARC researchers "who have gone on to chair their own corporations... would not dare to grant their employees the same latitude" that Xerox granted them (p. 396). What he doesn't say in his concluding chapter is that Geschke and his partner John Warnock tried to follow their ideas "through to first customer shipment." They spent two years of their lives trying to get Xerox to turn their ideas--incorporated in the page description language Interpress--into a product. And after two years Warnock and Geschke had a conversation, which Warnock recounts as:
...we've spent two years of our life trying to sell this thing and [Xerox is] going to put it under a black shroud for another five." You were seeing PCs get announced, and Apples, and you kept asking yourself "When is all this great stuff going to see the light of day?" And you'd think about the Xerox infrastructure and the process it would have to go through to get into products, and it became sort of depressing (p. 374).
Does Hiltzik think that by the time we reach page 396 we will have forgotten what Hiltzik quoted on page 374? That we will fail to realize that what Geschke is offering his employees--the ability to ship products--is what Geschke desperately wanted to see happen at PARC? That Geschke would have eagerly traded some of his "latitude" at PARC for a Xerox that would actually use Interpress in some products?
If the history of corporate and research bureaucracy in this book didn't ring false, I would be saying that this is a very good book. If the history of technology in the book were better, I would say that this is a very good book--even with a history of bureaucracy that rings false.
As I said, your mileage may vary.
But my mileage was low.
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent on names and places, deficient on dates.,
By A Customer
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 events occurred, let alone the month. History, personalities, backgound details are excellent. Hard to believe so many people with the best minds and ideas came together in one place to create so much, only to see their many accomplishments stifled by indifferent corporate management, only to be brought to market later by others outside Xerox.
5.0 out of 5 stars Who says Xerox gets off easy?,
By A Customer
Anyone who thinks "Dealers of Lightning gives Xerox a pass for its handling of PARC technology must be reading with one eye closed. This is one of the most telling condemnations of corporate malfeasance I've ever read. Xerox's failures come across in almost every chapter, and the epilogue wraps it all up in detail. Hiltzik doesn't believe Xerox could have made a success of PARC even if it tried, but that doesn't mean (it seems to me) that he excuses its corporate culture from responsibility. To my mind, this comes across much clearer than anything in "Fumbling the Future," because "Dealers of Lightning" is a great read that really makes PARC's people into real personalities, and "Fumbling..." is one of the dullest books I've ever read.
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Dealers Of Lightning by Michael A Hiltzik (Paperback - March 23 2000)
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