Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age Paperback – Apr 5 2000
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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
if you like computers, computing science, history.. an absolute must!Published 13 months ago by Bruno L
This journal clears up some the myths about Xerox ceding the lead in the tech race of the 70s and 80s. It covers the eureka moments and some whimsical moments as well. Read morePublished 13 months ago by Jim Odell
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 morePublished on Jan. 19 2000
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 morePublished on Jan. 17 2000 by Robert A. Navarro
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 morePublished on Dec 29 1999 by Robert Morris
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
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 morePublished on Oct. 19 1999
Anyone who thinks "Dealers of Lightning gives Xerox a pass for its handling of PARC technology must be reading with one eye closed. Read morePublished on Aug. 26 1999
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