Tag Archive: PARC

The birth of personal computing

As one of the original members of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), I have always been proud of the contributions we made to the field of personal computing in the 1970’s, driven, in part, by earlier ideas developed by Alan Kay and others.  Kay’s “Dynabook” was a vision of a mobile computing device (much like today’s tablets) but it required technology that was unavailable at the time.  Our device, the Alto, was split between two boxes – one for the computer hardware, and another for the display.  It is safe to say that much of the look and feel of computing follows a straight line path from our lab to the present.

But, was PARC the real home of personal computing?  Perhaps in its implementation (that was part of our charter), but in fact others had been thinking about the idea before PARC was created.  As described in an article in ComputerWorld (http://bit.ly/LeCmj) a group of thinkers (and doers) in San Antonio, Texas may have been the first to think seriously about the design of a computer that would belong to individuals, not sitting in a corporate “computer room” somewhere.  Their company, CTC (later changed to Datapoint) was in the computer terminal business building what we used to call “glass teletypes”.  These desktop boxes had a display and keyboard and were designed as input/output devices for centralized computers.  Many of us using these devices, referred to them as “dumb terminals,” because they seemingly lacked the power to do any computing on their own.

What we didn’t see at the time was that these devices were designed to be Trojan horses.  The were programmable at some level, and could easily have been morphed into true personal computers.  The design of the Intel x86 class of microprocessors grew out of the thinking behind the Datapoint terminal, and the founders of the company were keenly interested in building a computer, but lacked the financial support to bring a separate terminal to market.

So why didn’t this device take off?

Well, the “computing” aspect of their device was not part of the original business plan.  The seeds were there, and had even been planted at Intel (where they bloomed into a huge business.)  As for Datapoint itself, it fell on hard times and faded from the scene.

Faded, but not forgotten.  Yes, we at PARC may have invented modern personal computing as you know it, but we need to acknowledge the contributions of others – especially the CTC team who just may have been the first to think that you and I deserved our very own computers.

The death of research

A month or so ago, Google shuttered GoogleLabs – an activity that actively looked at the creation of new tools that expanded our capacity to do interesting things with computers.

This made me think about my own history. In 1971 I was the 25th hire at the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) – a playground where we were chartered with inventing the future in ways that would (hopefully) allow Xerox to grow into new markets. At that time Xerox was a pure copier company, and they wanted to see how they might branch out. Our goal was to invent technologies that might become commercial in the following decade – to take the long view. We were sheltered from corporate pressure that would have pushed us to improve current technologies, rather than create new ones. We were given tremendous latitude. Our location on Stanford University land let us create a research center that looked more like a University than like a development team inside a corporation. Some of us even taught part time at Stanford, with the blessing of our management.

As for success, consider the following technologies:

  • Ethernet
  • Laser Printer
  • Desktop user interface with icons
  • Touch sensitive graphics tablet (like the one you use when you sign for a credit card purchase)
  • the Personal Computer

All these development were generated at PARC by 1975. (The mouse does not show on this list because it was invented at SRI, another true research laboratory in the area.)

The fact that 250 of us invented the computational world as we still know it today in the 1970’s speaks volumes for the power of this kind of corporate lab. Royalties from just the laser printer alone probably paid for the complete lab during its first ten years.

Fast forward to today, and the picture changes. Corporate labs engaged in pure research are harder to find anywhere in the world. In fact, in the media domain, it falls to the MIT MediaLab or CESAR (in Brazil) to assemble the kinds of interdisciplinary teams needed to create truly new ideas. And this is why I was saddened to see Google shut down GoogleLabs. Yes, one of the great projects there (AppInventor) was moved to MIT with Google support, but I wonder what other good things were lost?

In these tough times, how do we expect to recover our economy without a solid base of new ideas on which we can build the future? You can’t cross a chasm in two jumps – we need places where bright people are free to explore radical ideas today so they become mainstream tomorrow.