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Xerox PARC Celebrates 40th Anniversary

Soulskill posted more than 4 years ago | from the success-that's-hard-to-copy dept.

Technology 57

CWmike writes "For 40 years, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center has been a place of technological creativity and bold ideas, writes Todd Weiss. The inventions it has spawned, from Ethernet networking to laser printing and the graphical user interface, have led to myriad technologies that allow us to use computers in ways that we take for granted today. When it opened on July 1, 1970, PARC was set up as a division of Xerox Corp. The idea was to invest in PARC as a springboard for developing new technologies and fresh concepts that would lead to future products. 'Conducting research at PARC four decades ago was like magic,' says Dr. Robert S. Bauer, who worked at PARC from 1970 to 2001. 'In an era of political and social upheaval, we came to work every day with a passion to free technology from the grip of the military-industrial complex and bring computation to the people.' Indeed, the company's 'technology first' culture has sometimes brought it under fire. PARC has often been criticized for its past failures to capitalize on some of its greatest inventions, allowing other companies to cash in on its ideas. (Today, PARC has a team working to protect its intellectual property.) Nevertheless, its reputation as a technology innovator is impeccable."

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"Literally, magic..." (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33641204)

"We were conjouring all sorts of things in those early days. You really think a human invented the mouse? No, that that was Gogalish the Destroyer, or Gog as his friends call him."

Re:"Literally, magic..." (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33641322)

Umm, it says "like magic" not "literally magic", so I guess my question would be, what in god's name are you blathering about?

Re:"Literally, magic..." (3, Informative)

colinrichardday (768814) | more than 4 years ago | (#33642426)

Engelbart used a mouse before 1970.

What? Nobody on /. remembers PARC? (0, Offtopic)

PaulBu (473180) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641274)

Why no comments then? :(

Its kind of funny that... (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33641302)

...a company made successful by copying, created so much original technology.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (4, Insightful)

Bill_the_Engineer (772575) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641336)

Not as funny as the things they created are only relevant because someone else copied it.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (5, Informative)

oracleguy01 (1381327) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641496)

Well that isn't technically true, at least some of the people left PARC to found companies to make products based on their ideas because XEROX management failed to see the value in the technology they owned. Adobe and 3Com are two such examples.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (4, Informative)

TheRaven64 (641858) | more than 4 years ago | (#33642444)

PARC invented the laser printer, and Xerox made enough money from that to cover the entire cost of operating it for as long as it ran. They got Apple shares from showing Steve Jobs around which, by the time they sold them, were worth more than the total cost of operating PARC. They got a bit of money from spin-out companies to commercialise Ethernet and Smalltalk. I'm not sure who thinks that they didn't make money - they were the absolute poster child for R&D return on investment. They might have been able to make more, but it would probably have killed the atmosphere that made PARC so productive.

PARC now is a pale shadow of Xerox PARC in the '70s. The most interesting thing I've seen from it recently was Aspect Oriented Programming, which was proof that you can make people use something as insane as a computed COME FROM statement if you wrap it in enough buzzwords.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (2, Interesting)

RocketRabbit (830691) | more than 4 years ago | (#33644140)

If Xerox had been led by somebody with brains, they'd own the personal and business computing markets now.

Instead they gave it all away for some beads and rum.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33646568)

Perhaps we're better off that they did. At least we got a few decades of rampant development before the corporatocracy gets the manacles back on. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (1)

tehcyder (746570) | more than 4 years ago | (#33646994)

What they needed was a shit-hot team of Intellectual Property lawyers. I know I'm not supposed to say those words here, but it's true.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33647406)

But now that they finally have a good intellectual property team, it's only a matter of time until they are once again the hottest developer of new computer technology around, like they were back in the 1970's. Right?

Re:Its kind of funny that... (5, Informative)

thermopile (571680) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641618)

For a truly *great* read about what PARC was like, I would highly recommend "Dealers of Lightning" by Michael Hiltzik.

The book goes into some detail about the environment, the management style (both local and at "HQ" back in NY state), and all the great inventions that came out of there. And also of PARC's decline in the mid-to-late 1980's. I really wish I could have been a fly on the wall back in those days, and this book gets pretty close.

Less than twelve bucks from Amazon [amazon.com] and well worth it.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (1)

Quizme2000 (323961) | more than 4 years ago | (#33642488)

For a great technical history read "Copies in Seconds", amazing story about the inventor and great information of the complex physics of what is so taken for granted now.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (1)

adam872 (652411) | more than 4 years ago | (#33644504)

Totally agree with this recommendation. I have the book and love it.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33649912)

Another book was "Fumbling The Future".
Xerox was the 1st 10 yr old the billion $ company. PARC was trying to do it again. And they did. It's called Apple.

It talks about the culture conflicts between PARC & HQ.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (1)

Have Brain Will Rent (1031664) | more than 4 years ago | (#33643636)

Yup. One of the things they invented was the Dynabook, circa 1970... basically what you now get in an iPad, now that the hardware has caught up to the vision, 40 years later. And of course the mouse, the gui, OO programming with the introduction of Smalltalk etc. etc. etc. etc.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (1)

grouchomarxist (127479) | more than 4 years ago | (#33646266)

The Dynabook concept was developed by Alan Kay before he joined PARC, but of course the actual product was never developed. The mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart at SRI. He also developed some early GUI concepts.

PARC did invent OO programming.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_graphical_user_interface [wikipedia.org]

Re:Its kind of funny that... (1)

Have Brain Will Rent (1031664) | more than 4 years ago | (#33646412)

I think I was fairly clear that the Dynabook was never realized in hardware. Kay worked on the Dynabook at PARC. PARC developed what most would consider the first modern GUI... Apple certainly seemed to like it and your own reference essentially says the same thing. Engelbart developed a very specific system at SRI, then SRI people went to PARC and the Alto was developed, being [according to your reference] "the first computer to demonstrate the desktop metaphor and graphical user interface(GUI)". That's not to take away from anything Englebart did at SRI but the GUI was clearly developed at PARC as was the Dynabook concept even if it began before PARC - I'd have to dig out some old stuff to check what Kay may have done on the Dynabook before PARC - my recollection is that it was mainly a PARC project and that the Alto was considered a partial realization of the Dynabook, but it's been decades since I've thought about it so I could be misremembering.

Re:Its kind of funny that... (1)

damn_registrars (1103043) | more than 4 years ago | (#33643832)

...a company made successful by copying, created so much original technology.

That's right, their GUI also had pasting!

Why PARC's Fault? (5, Interesting)

captbob2002 (411323) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641390)

"PARC has often been criticized for its past failures to capitalize on some of its greatest inventions" How is that PARC's fault? More likely the short-sighted Xerox management that failed to see what they had?

Re:Why PARC's Fault? (5, Insightful)

Lennie (16154) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641522)

I think it is a great example of what would happen if nothing was patented.

The mouse/wimp and ethernet and so on all came from there, had they patented it like crazy, they would probably never had much succes.

Re:Why PARC's Fault? (1)

hitmark (640295) | more than 4 years ago | (#33642990)

But would still have made them a pretty penny if they made use of the first mover advantage and ran with it.

mouse invented at Stanford Research Institute (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 4 years ago | (#33643318)

That was by Douglas Englebart about four miles away and 8 years before Xerox PARC, but in a similar liberated research department. He also invented the concept of virtual screens (windows) and icons. This was in the era of when computer graphics devices were just souped-up oscilloscopes: vector-drawing only. The software research groups shared ideas more openly then, probably no one imagined you could make money off these expensive toys then. The SRI was established to sequester military R&D funds from the main Stanford campus during the era of anti-war protests.

Re:Why PARC's Fault? (3, Interesting)

Meshach (578918) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641632)

I do not think anyone 40 years ago dreamed that computers would ever be a prevalent in society as they are in the present. Most early computer scientists saw themselves as playing a game not developing the infrastructure that exists now.

Re:Why PARC's Fault? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33642362)

I admit I haven't researched this much, but the fact I can already think of a pretty good counter-example [youtube.com] means you're probably wrong.

Re:Why PARC's Fault? (1)

Mikkeles (698461) | more than 4 years ago | (#33642406)

Actually, many of us did. Many also did not and many did not consider the question.

Re:Why PARC's Fault? (1)

hitmark (640295) | more than 4 years ago | (#33643010)

dunno, the impression i get was that much of SPARC came out of scratching a local itch more then some bold plan to plant computers everywhere. Networking seemed to have come from "would it not be easier if we had a cable that we cold use to transfer data between computers?".

Re: I do not think anyone 40 years ago dreamed... (1)

Fubari (196373) | more than 4 years ago | (#33646130)

Meshach wrote:

I do not think anyone 40 years ago dreamed that computers would ever be a prevalent in society as they are in the present. Most early computer scientists saw themselves as playing a game not developing the infrastructure that exists now.

Prevalent? The visionaries saw where it could go.
42 years ago, people were thinking about prevalent personal computing like laptops & tablets:

Excerpt from wikipedia about Alan Key's "Dynabook" concept: [wikipedia.org]

This concept was created two years before the founding of Xerox PARC. Kay wanted to make "A Personal Computer For Children Of All Ages." The ideas led to the development of the Xerox Alto prototype, which was originally called "the interim Dynabook". It embodied all the elements of a graphical user interface, or GUI, as early as 1972.

...

The hardware on which the programming environment ran was relatively irrelevant.

To say it another way, this was like dreaming up the OLPC in 1968.
*shrug* They had to invent the tech behind today's "prevalent infrastructure" just to make things happen.

Here is Steve Jobs talking about his visit to Xerox Parc - not quite 40 years ago, but close enough:
Excerpt from the documentary "Triumph of the Nerds" [pbs.org]

Steve Jobs had co-founded Apple Computer in 1976. The first popular personal computer, the Apple 2, was a hit - and made Steve Jobs one of the biggest names of a brand-new industry. At the height of Apple's early success in December 1979, Jobs, then all of 24, had a privileged invitation to visit Xerox Parc.

Steve Jobs
And they showed me really three things. But I was so blinded by the first one I didn't even really see the other two. One of the things they showed me was object orienting programming they showed me that but I didn't even see that. The other one they showed me was a networked computer system...they had over a hundred Alto computers all networked using email etc., etc., I didn't even see that. I was so blinded by the first thing they showed me which was the graphical user interface. I thought it was the best thing I'd ever seen in my life. Now remember it was very flawed, what we saw was incomplete, they'd done a bunch of things wrong. But we didn't know that at the time but still though they had the germ of the idea was there and they'd done it very well and within you know ten minutes it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this some day.

It was a turning-point. Jobs decided that this was the way forward for Apple.

(As an aside, I'm reading Anathem again - Computer Science could really benefit from Lorites [wikia.com] .)

Re:Why PARC's Fault? (0, Offtopic)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641722)

"PARC has often been criticized for its past failures to capitalize on some of its greatest inventions"

As opposed to SCO, who tried to capitalize on the greatest inventions of others.

Re:Why PARC's Fault? (1)

dtmos (447842) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641736)

"PARC has often been criticized for its past failures to capitalize on some of its greatest inventions" How is that PARC's fault? More likely the short-sighted Xerox management that failed to see what they had?

My thought exactly. Blaming PARC for Xerox's inability to capitalize on its inventions is like blaming the cows when a milk truck is stolen. With the motor running and the door open.

Re:Why PARC's Fault? (1)

hitmark (640295) | more than 4 years ago | (#33643042)

That's management for you. Pass the blame, keep the fame. Then downsize and collect the bonus.

Re:Why PARC's Fault? (1)

Guy Harris (3803) | more than 4 years ago | (#33642236)

"PARC has often been criticized for its past failures to capitalize on some of its greatest inventions" How is that PARC's fault? More likely the short-sighted Xerox management that failed to see what they had?

..and fumbled the future [douglasksmith.com] ?

Re:Why PARC's Fault? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33645746)

No no, it's never the businessman's responsibility to figure out new things. Just like modern research funding organizations expect the grant proposals to include half a business plan for making use of the proposed new technology. Researching new frontiers for the sake of creating new ideas and opportunities is something you are supposed to do on your free time.

LambdaMOO (4, Funny)

MrEricSir (398214) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641482)

The mouse, ethernet, OOP... who cares? Isn't LambdaMOO enough of a reason to celebrate PARC?

Re:LambdaMOO (1)

syousef (465911) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641862)

The mouse, ethernet, OOP... who cares? Isn't LambdaMOO enough of a reason to celebrate PARC?

I'm lactose intolerant you insensitive clod!

Big Deal (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33641540)

They ripped off Apple, anyway.

Re:Big Deal (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33641900)

Learn your history fanboy. Apple ripped off PARC. Several of the engineers that worked on the original MAC came from PARC where that technology was developed.

Re:Big Deal (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33642286)

Big deal, PARC ripped of Douglas Englebart.

Mother of all demos [youtube.com]

Re:Big Deal (4, Insightful)

TheRaven64 (641858) | more than 4 years ago | (#33642462)

Apple did not rip of PARC. Apple paid Xerox a load of shares for a tour of PARC. They commercialised some ideas from PARC and Xerox got money from the shares (a lot of money, in fact). Possibly Xerox could have made more money doing it themselves, but the Alto is a good indication that they didn't really understand how to sell computers.

"Inventions it has spawned" (3, Interesting)

multipartmixed (163409) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641758)

I guess PARC's research into Hypertext wasn't worth mentioning?

Re:"Inventions it has spawned" (1)

MrEricSir (398214) | more than 4 years ago | (#33642134)

I thought TurboText from Borland was better.

Re:"Inventions it has spawned" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33645954)

No need to, since the great Tim Berners-Lee invented something much better and revolutionized computing.

political and social upheaval? (4, Interesting)

tomhath (637240) | more than 4 years ago | (#33641838)

'In an era of political and social upheaval, we came to work every day with a passion to free technology from the grip of the military-industrial complex and bring computation to the people.'

Much of PARC's success was because the country was in a deep recession in the late 70's and early 80's. All those guys with PhD's who wanted to live quiet lives as university professors were forced to get jobs instead, it allowed PARC to put together quite a brain trust.. But they probably would've done even better if they had stuck to technology instead of trying to solve the world's political and social issues. PARC employees heavily influenced the decline of the Association for Computing Machinery by taking over many of the leadership spots and pushing their social activist agenda.

Re:political and social upheaval? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33642056)

The hardware needed to do interesting work with personal computing had become cheap enough to empower hobbyists and university labs on a shoestring budget, yet were still too expensive for mass market commercial exploitation that would lead to a gold rush into industry. That would come later.

Re:political and social upheaval? (2, Interesting)

timeOday (582209) | more than 4 years ago | (#33642440)

But they probably would've done even better if they had stuck to technology instead of trying to solve the world's political and social issues.

To say that somebody would have been more effective without the very thing that motivated them - after they were in fact highly successful - just strikes me as nonsensical.

If their goal was to 'free technology from the grip of the military-industrial complex and bring computation to the people,' how could it have been any more successful?

You can always say, "well, it probably would have happened anyways," but really, what technologies can surpass WIMP in helping to popularize computing? Hardly any.

Re:political and social upheaval? (1)

JasterBobaMereel (1102861) | more than 4 years ago | (#33646464)

..and that they hired some of the people from the SRI Augmentation Research Center, who invented the mouse, GUI etc... that PARC are often credited with ....

Re:political and social upheaval? (1)

MoriT (1747802) | more than 4 years ago | (#33652188)

And women with PhDs: Dr. Goldberg was one of the founders.

Pay attention (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33641976)

There's a small but vocal bunch of people called "Space Nutters" who honestly believe modern computing and technology exists because of the Space Race. It's the other way around.

MicroSoft & Google are interesting successors (2, Interesting)

peter303 (12292) | more than 4 years ago | (#33642156)

They both have large armadas of computer science projects that are not being successfully commercialized. I suspect these are not as profound developments as Xerox's was. But only time can tell.

Re:MicroSoft & Google are interesting successo (1)

hitmark (640295) | more than 4 years ago | (#33643074)

Especially now that there are rumors that microsoft is working on a more compact version of their surface system. It will still be table sized, but more of the system will be built into the actual table surface rather then needing to be half a meter away.

OMG Ponies! (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 4 years ago | (#33642586)

The screenshot of the Alto shows smiling piggies, flowers, and a rainbow. Perhaps they should add "excessively-cute web-pages" to their list of firsts.
   

Re:OMG Ponies! (1)

gmhowell (26755) | more than 4 years ago | (#33644222)

So they also invented Farmville?

Mark Weiser (1)

formerly human (1699548) | more than 4 years ago | (#33642612)

This is a fit occasion to call attention to the late Mark Weiser (1952-1999), the great popularizer of "ubiquitous computing," who was a key figure at PARC. I think he was also a visionary in the field of e-paper, which continues to slowly evolve but still isn't there yet.

You know what's fun? (1)

blair1q (305137) | more than 4 years ago | (#33644406)

What's fun is, I got to celebrate their birthday by using my mouse to click on this announcement of their birthday.

Free Technology (2, Interesting)

SuperTechnoNerd (964528) | more than 4 years ago | (#33644958)

"a passion to free technology from the grip of the military-industrial complex and bring computation to the people"
And now we have to free technology from the grip of the large corporate-industrial complex and bring computation to the people.
Not much has changed.

mod 0p (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#33645490)

Fact came int2o
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