There is an old joke which I have trotted out before that the man who invented the first wheel was an idiot whereas the man who invented the next three was a genius. It seems that this canard may hold true in the corporate world if the experience of the Xerox Corporation, the latest inductees into our illustrious Hall of Fame, is anything to go by.
The name Xerox is synonymous with photocopying and the corporation has made a tidy business out of what they do but it could have been oh so much more as this cautionary tale demonstrates. Xerox had a research department in California called the Palo Alto Research Company where eggheads were given licence to experiment and develop new devices. Butler Lampson was inspired by the work of another of our inductees, Douglas Engelbart, and in particular his development of the oN-Line System. In a memo written in 1972 he proposed the development of a personal computer, later to be known as the Xerox Alto, which would incorporate all the then developments in computing. Chuck Thacker picked up the ball and was responsible for the design work.
By the following year the work was completed. The Alto boasted an impressive collection of hardware and software features. It had a 606 by 808 monochrome bit-mapped display, a 3 button mouse, large 2.5 megabyte removable disks, a 16 bit microcode programmable CPU and a total address space of 64k 16-bit words including the graphics bitmap. On the software front it had the first WYSIWYG document preparation systems, an e-mail tool, a graphics editor and an early paint program. It even came with one of the first network-based multi-person video games, Gene Ball’s Alto Trek. It was truly the world’s first PC.
Initially 30 units were manufactured and piloted successfully. A further 2,000 were made and donated to various institutions. But the corporation had no interest in developing the Alto as a commercial proposition. There were probably two reasons for this. Firstly, they were minting money with their 914 copier, the first successful commercial plain paper copier. You couldn’t buy them; you had to rent them and pay for every copy you made. Until the patents ran out it was a gold mine and so there was no commercial imperative to look beyond the copying industry. The second reason was more defensive. Some saw a machine that created electronic documents and that was able to transmit them electronically was a threat to their existing paper based business.
But perhaps more surprisingly, they allowed visitors to look around their PARC laboratories. One interested visitor was a certain Steve Jobs – heard of him? – who was given access to everything PARC was up to. He took copious notes and within months had hired some of PARC’s brightest sparks and started on development work which produced Lisa, the forerunner of the Mac.
Xerox did develop a PC, the Xerox 820, which incorporated the design outlined in Lampson’s memo and included most of the Alto’s features. But it was more expensive and for Xerox it was too little too late. The Apple and Sun machines, based on much of Xerox’s pioneering work, had cornered the market.
Xerox Corporation , for developing the first personal computer and not realising what you had got, you are worthy inductees into our Hall of Fame.
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