jnazario writes "In Dealers of Lightning, Michael Hiltzik illustrates a remarkable setting where research was leading to commercial products. Not all of it, though -- he is telling the story of Xerox PARC and discusses both technologies that made it to commercial shelves and too many that didn't. This is the central story of the book, told with great joy and creativity as well as skill. I got this book originally because I wanted a good read on the origin of network-based worms. What I got was one of the better books on the subject of the history of the computer industry I have yet found." Read on for more on Dealers of Lightning.
PARC, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, was created after Xerox bought the research heavy SDS, (Scientific Data Systems), in the late 1960s. Almost immediately the seeds are being planted for a research arm of Xerox. Great minds are obtained in the process and in the same year the ARPANET becomes functional. The timing couldn't have been better.
What quickly emerges is the story of a large group of people, led by great minds and personalities like Bob Taylor and Charles Thacker. Strong of mind and personality, these are bright, visionary people who know what they want to do and how they will have to go about it. No hesitation, the bigger problems are things like How do you bring the right people together? And once there, what do they need?
Taylor brought together the best and brightest he could find, which is to say he got some of the best minds on the planet.
At every stage of the story, Hiltzik captures the mood, the emotion and the environment. In the early stages, he describes how this wondrous world was hatched out of determination and willpower. Xerox looked on during this early stage, perhaps a bit apprehensively, but also expectantly.
With a lot of freedom to tinker, a strong group of physicists and computer scientists were assembled and began building some of the greatest stuff in the world. By the time the 70s are over, Hiltzik's story is thick with the tension of researchers who design without products in mind and with management which attempts to see the value proposition in everything coming out of PARC.
Hiltzik's tour includes stories of how Ethernet was built, how the first personal computers were created and networked, how WYSIWYG applications emerged, and how so much else was created. He spends a lot of time discussing the invention of the laser printer, originally a dream of an idea by outcast physicist Gary Starkweather. Fighting sneers and doubt all along the way, he persisted and created the laser printer. But management only saw a threat to their core business of toner transfer copiers and the outrageous price of the device. However, they did patent the technology and that one invention alone paid for the entire PARC venture.
Several inventions seem so basic that you have to wonder how a company as apparently adept and bright as Xerox failed to capitalize on. Desktop publishing, which seems like a natural outgrowth of a document-processing company like Xerox, was born at PARC but discarded. Color printing as well was dismantled by Xerox. Other ventures, such as the personal computer and the Smalltalk language, seem obvious as unnatural fits for Xerox.
This is the crux of the book, and why it is such a valuable read for both engineers and management alike. For engineers, it is important to get a feel for how management operates, how they best appreciate ideas as marketable products. The same goes for managers, who often don't appreciate the value of research ideas; in this history, Hiltzik shows how that even when things were on the brink of falling apart for Xerox, management was able to continue its course, hoping the rest of the world would be content to buy only a handful of large-scale copiers.
Ultimately the book's epilogue gets it right, more or less. Xerox didn't fumble their future, though they did fail to understand the value of several of PARC's achievements. This is a hotly debated topic for many who feel that Xerox could have easily demanded hefty sums from Apple, IBM, and Microsoft or simply gone to market first with a mass-market personal computer.
The geek in me loves this book for so many reasons. Hiltzik's book is in the same spirit as The Soul of a New Machine and Fire in the Valley -- it's presented in a really thrilling way. The historian in me loves the modern history of the computer science community, and loves to see how the spirit of PARC has migrated to Apple, SGI, Microsoft, and beyond.
All in all I am very glad I read this book. It's inspirational, interesting, and of course relevant to what I do. A highly recommended book.
You can purchase Dealers of Lightning from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.