am 23. April 2000
I read this book because it was mentioned in The New New Thing - a book about Jim Clark. What I found was a very well written story of PARC (Xerox's research centre in Palo Alto).
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.
It is amazing what PARC produced using a bunch of the best people around, and it is the characterisation of these very talented people which made me enjoy the book so much. Hiltizk masterfully adds an epilogue that goes some way to trash the view that Xerox must have been just plain stupid to let all this technology go. A very thoughtful and broadminded ending to a superb book.
am 6. Mai 2000
I, like another reviewer, came across this book because it was mentioned in the New New Thing. I picked up and read the book because I've long been interested in Xerox PARC, and how it came to be. I was rewarded with an interesting, and seemingly thorough story about the people, motivations, and resources that came together at PARC.
I enjoyed the detail presented in the background material about the people and circumstances that came together to found PARC. There's a lot of good stuff about so many of the seminal minds and ideas that made much of the computing environment that we use today possible. I believe that most of the major breakthrough inventions that came out of PARC are written about, including the background, people, and stories surrounding them. If you are interested in the history of computing and invention, this is wonderful, fascinating stuff.
I expected more material about how and why Xerox missed so many opportunities to capitalize on the inventions created in this extroadinary place. To be fair, however, the story may be as simple as presented. The author also debunks the myth that Xerox didn't reap any reward from inventions that came out of PARC. But woven throughout the text and stories in this book is a case study about innovation within large companies, and how it is actively killed.
Again, I very much enjoyed this book. The stories that I knew little about before reading it are now much more clear. I found the stories fairly presented and free of jargon.
am 18. Januar 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 technology. All of the computer interfaces that we take for granted today were developed at PARC. Hiltzik weaves a tale of the evolution of the group of geniuses and the obstacles that they encountered in dealing with the hierarchy at Xerox headquarters. In many ways, the top management at Xerox was the forerunner of the "Dilbert Boss Syndrome"--a total lack of appreciation and knowledge of what was being developed by these research magicians. It is a story of a very unique period in the history of technology and is very similar to what took place during the Manhattan Project of the 1940's. I for one am glad that Mr. Hiltzik did not spend very much of the book in explaining the technology that was developed for that would have distracted from the account. He did describe the essence of what was being developed in a brief, very excellent and informational manner--enough to let the reader know its importance. The book represents a milestone in relating the events that have brought us to our present state in the computing industry. Kudos to Mr. Hiltzik for a fine job of writing!
am 27. November 1999
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 today disappointed. Hiltzik spent too little time on the ideas and technologies, and too much time on the personalities and the intra-Xerox bureaucratic infighting. That might have been OK if his discussions of just why Xerox never brought so much PARC research to market were accurate, or coherent. But it seems to me that his discussions of Xerox bureaucracy and PARC personalities deconstruct themselves: the evidence he presents simply doesn't justify the conclusions that he reaches.
For example, as his book heads for a conclusion--at the top of page 391--he attacks the idea that by failing to develop into products even a quarter of the technologies produced by PARC Xerox "fumbled the future." He says that "technology foils its tamers" and that conclusions that Xerox failed "rest... on several very questionable assumptions."
But the story that Hiltzik tells is not one in which Xerox makes defensible but wrong decisions, but one in which Xerox does not even try to market what became the key technologies of Apple, Adobe, 3Com, Microsoft and others--and markets the PARC-invented laser printer only after great internal corporate resistance, and only after unnecessary multi-year delays. To squander a five- to ten-year lead because your internal bureaucratic processes cannot recognize an opportunity is, indeed, to "fumble the future."
Along his way Hiltzik makes what seem to me to be simple mistakes of fact and grave errors of logic that cast doubt on his overall reliability. Why claim that when Xerox introduced the Star computer at the beginning of the 1980s that "...no independent software industry existed at the time. (It would not emerge until the mid-1980s.)" What were Microsoft and VisiCorp and Digital Research selling then? Chopped liver? Why was IBM simultaneously developing an open-architecture PC to try to take advantage of the independent hardware and software industry? If there was no independent software industry, then why did IBM go outside its organization--to an independent software manufacturer--for both the operating system and an application suite for its first PC?
Hiltzil claims that "critics of [Xerox's] handling of PARC" "rarely acknowledge" an important burden imposed on Xerox: "the merciless business environment," and that this merciless business environment was a key factor keping Xerox from commercializing the technologies invented at PARC. He writes that:
..Japanese competitors [making copiers] appeared in force in 1975, Xerox did not introduce a low-cost machine to rival theirs until four years later.... [Xerox executives] Peter McColough and David Kearns, embroiled in the fight of their lives simply to protect the copier franchise, had scarcely any patience for... solutions... for the tough problem of technology transfer at PARC (p. 394).
This makes me scratch my head. Hiltzil writes that Xerox's organization was incompetent at product development in their core business--photocopiers: they can't respond to a competitive threat in less than four years. And Hiltzil claims that because Xerox was incompetent in its core business its managers should not be criticized for incompetence at managing the technologies developed by PARC. Can he possibly be serious?
And on the very next page there seems to be a serious, serious misconstrual of a quotation from Adobe Systems founder Chuck Geschke. Geschke says that:
Our attitude at PARC was sort of that it was a higher calling to do pure research. But here at Adobe our advanced technology group does not just stay in advanced technology. If they put together the germ of an idea and start to get it close to prototyping and even decide to turn it into a product, we encourage them to follow it all the way through to first customer shipment. The only way I know to transfer technology is with people.
Hiltzik uses this as a springboard to say that fomer PARC researchers "who have gone on to chair their own corporations... would not dare to grant their employees the same latitude" that Xerox granted them (p. 396). What he doesn't say in his concluding chapter is that Geschke and his partner John Warnock tried to follow their ideas "through to first customer shipment." They spent two years of their lives trying to get Xerox to turn their ideas--incorporated in the page description language Interpress--into a product. And after two years Warnock and Geschke had a conversation, which Warnock recounts as:
...we've spent two years of our life trying to sell this thing and [Xerox is] going to put it under a black shroud for another five." You were seeing PCs get announced, and Apples, and you kept asking yourself "When is all this great stuff going to see the light of day?" And you'd think about the Xerox infrastructure and the process it would have to go through to get into products, and it became sort of depressing (p. 374).
Does Hiltzik think that by the time we reach page 396 we will have forgotten what Hiltzik quoted on page 374? That we will fail to realize that what Geschke is offering his employees--the ability to ship products--is what Geschke desperately wanted to see happen at PARC? That Geschke would have eagerly traded some of his "latitude" at PARC for a Xerox that would actually use Interpress in some products?
If the history of corporate and research bureaucracy in this book didn't ring false, I would be saying that this is a very good book. If the history of technology in the book were better, I would say that this is a very good book--even with a history of bureaucracy that rings false.
As I said, your mileage may vary.
But my mileage was low.
am 23. August 1999
I have been a fan of the story of Xerox PARC ever since reading "Fumbling the Future" by Douglas Smith and Robert Alexander. In fact the lessons I learned contributed to my leaving engineering to get a business degree. I was surprised to read through "Dealers of lightning" and come across the Epilogue. In fact, I was actually disturbed by how easily the author relieved Xerox of its opportunity (and obligation from a shareholders perspective) to capitalize on the creativity and ingenuity of Xerox PARC. Those of us within the high-tech community certainly appreciate the open ended research that Xerox PARC conducted which has lined the pockets of so many that were never in any way associated with Xerox. However, if I was a shareholder of Xerox or any other company, I would be horrified by any management rationale that 'you are not obligated to exploit the technologies created within your labs'. Granted you may not be able to exploit all, but how about most? Xerox is not the government and is not using tax dollars for a collective good. I found the logic flawed and violates the basic motivations for establishing a commercial entity. I would recommend that for a business minded individual that you go read "Fumbling the Future." Reading "Dealers of lightning" was like watching a lawyer weave a case for premeditated murder against an accused and then claim temporary insanity as the final defense.
am 30. Juni 1999
You have to get past the first 70 pages or so where the author tediously describes how the PARC people were hired, in order to get to the good stuff. Then the author never quite leaves alone the personality clashes and company politics. Not that that stuff's not interesting; it is! And the PARC story seems to indicate that such interpersonal dynamics make or break some companies. But it was tiresome. I had a very hard time starting this book because of the people crap, and then I thought the technology stuff was weak and thinly covered. There were glimmers of interesting comments about software and hardware, such as Smalltalk's role and the birth of the laser printer. But the book could have lost 100 pages and been a better read. I think the author had a point to prove about how people often can't work together. Surprise, surprise! I've known this for years. To make this more palatable, the author should have included some photos. I had to look in "Nerds 2.0.1" for good photos of Bob Taylor. Somehow, just seeing his face made the whole drama a bit more real and a bit more human... I don't know why. Maybe it was because I had this really weird (and totally untrue) image of who and what he was from Hiltzik's description. After seeing his picture, I felt more sympathetic. On another matter, I thought Hiltzik's depiction of the Steve Job's "raid" on PARC was fascinating and I applaud his scrupulous efforts to finding out the real truth, but in the end saying most of this seems to be lost in myth.
am 29. April 1999
This is a gripping history about key software innovations that underlie much current US economic success. These software technologies are now deeply embedded in everyday business practices and they formed a launching pad for today's computer-based communications and the Internet. As traditional US manufacturing declines in competitiveness, it is hard to imagine that the US would be enjoying its current prosperity if basic innovations like those developed by PARC and by early ARPA research had not occurred when they did.
As a technical participant in the Xerox Star commercialization effort, I worked with many of the PARC researchers described here. Hiltzik tells a very balanced and nuanced story that certainly captures the concepts, dynamics, and conflicts of that time. One can quibble with whether the participants' recollections are always fair, but Hiltzik's story about these exciting times is basically accurate with respect to the personalities and events that I knew, and he fills in a wealth of background and details that I didn't know.
This book corrects a lot of misinformation about PARC research and Xerox commercialization efforts. It is a good read for anybody interested in the history of technology. It should be required reading for everybody in research management--for many examples of what to do and what not to do. This history should also be read by anyone who believes another big leap in software technology can be achieved while research funding is cut back, universities are drained of their talent, and almost everyone competitively focuses on six month commercialization goals.
am 28. April 1999
Hiltzik has done a wonderful service in trying to piece together and explain what took place at Xerox PARC. It is very difficult to accurately reconstruct history but there is much that we learn from it if it has been reconstructed appropriately. This book is full of real-life lessons. The undertones of "Dealers of Lightning" speak of the value of research and of the limitations companies so often run into. From the successes and failures of Xerox, we can see how much more businesses have to gain by breaking through bureaucracy, improving communication, striving to understand one another, following well developed visions, breaking through political lines, and the potential of open research. It is so easy to see the potential that Xerox PARC had unearthed, from hindsight, and be critical toward Xerox's lack of exploiting it.
Hopefully, from reading this book, we will be more conscious of what may be lying dormant in our own companies. It is very comforting that Xerox PARC paid for itself and brought a handsome return through the few technologies that were exploited. This should be an encouragement to us all in supporting good research. We could use more PARC's to improve our lives through visionary research. It is a credit to Hiltzik that he tempered his criticism in "Did Xerox Blow It?" and recognized the difficulty of bringing new technologies to market.
Though I rate this book very highly and have recommend it to others to read, I found at times that it was difficult to keep up with the number of characters that were introduced, especially during the early beginnings at PARC. I also found the flow disrupted with unnecessary details from time to time. However, considering the difficulty of "striking the perfect balance" and the differences in reader's tastes, I consider this a minor consideration.
In summary, I was glad to learn that a Ph.D. appeared to be useful to someone. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did!
am 15. April 1999
I'm pleased to say that this is one of the worst books that I've actually enjoyed. The author, Michael Hiltzik, has an engaging and genial style and seems to be someone one would like to know. His command of technology however is dim at best and his explanations of computer technology are often absurd or hilariously confused. This is especially true with respect to software and programming, where he is really in at the deep end of the pool.
One example: He apparently believed some of Xerox's promotional literature about the nature of the Xerox Star. It is described as not for secretaries and typist but rather their bosses and professionals. In actuality is was a very sophisticated publications system, clearly designed for publishing personnel. It couldn't do much else since it came with only token software for other common applications. (I had one.)
Further, the Star is compared and contrasted with the IBM PC as if they competed head to head, where in reality they did not complete at all. (The Star is a multi-workstation system supporting up to five users, albeit slowly.)
More serious, however is his historiographic method or lack of it. He breaks the cardinal rule by accepting the hearsay of participants in the events he's relating, so that he writes a story instead of history. But worse, he is unwise or gullible enough to accept as his two principal informants men who were notorious for their ambition, egoism, and willingness to generously apportion praise where it belonged, at their own feet.
As a result, the really bright shining lights, especially if of a modest nature, get short shrift or no shrift at all. Take for example Adele Goldberg who is characterized as "Kay's learning expert" with Kay as the "creator" of Smalltalk. The author notes at least twice that she was pregnant at some point or nursing her baby at work at some other time. What an insane role to assign to a woman whose professional and scientific credentials stand with the best in the world and whose insight into the nature of programming languages was profound.
There are quite a few things that should have been said about the effect that Goldberg and others had on the graphical user interface developed at Parc ("PARC" was not much used in-house). This is likely the case because the conceptual contributors were not hardware engineers, for whom the author has great reverence. After all it's the "things" they make that count, no?
Steven Jobs, the ultimate connosieur of talent, never made the mistake of not knowing who the player were. When he raided Parc with his technological stormtroopers, he twisted arms to have Adele Goldberg as his tour guide over the protests of at least one of the author's main informants. (Arm twisting was Steve's second great forte.) The author says the picture is very confused since accounts vary so much, but it's all on a (well-researched) PBS video so how confusing can it be?
The book seems good concerning the internal Xerox wars, though I have no personal knowledge of such except for the relationship between SDS/XDS and Xerox, which the author gets about right. All that said, I'll pass the book on to a friend who has no cause to be finicky and can enjoy the well-told (if largely incorrect) story.
am 12. April 1999
My vantage point on this book is as a consultant to Xerox during many of the years covered. As a result, I have a fair knowledge of the Xerox executives mentioned. Our firm also had one of the first five Star-based ethernet installations (along with the White House, Library of Congress, and the Pentagon). We were also hired in 1978 to forecast the future of the personal computer for a major corporation. From my perspective, Mr. Hiltzik has done a real service in dispelling some of the mythology that has started to surround PARC and what it all means. Any future work on PARC will be built, at least in part, on this excellent, thorough history. For those young people who think that Bill Gates is the inventor of the entire modern personal computer industry, this book will be a revelation. A good book to read along with this one is ORGANIZING GENIUS, because the PARC case seems to parallel those examples fairly closely in the key elements. Along with the other reviewers, I commend the Epilogue "Did Xerox Blow It?" to those who are thinking about advancing research and development in their own organizations. At another level, the book is filled with examples of the stalls that delay all human progress: Poor communications (Xerox executives often did not understand what PARC was doing); Misconception (many project directives were based on misunderstandings about the industry and Xerox technology); Disbelief (failing to appreciate the future implications of technology trends, such as the rapidly falling cost of memory); Bureaucracy (too many people involved, for no particularly good reason); Procrastination (delays in turning breakthrough technologies into products); and Ugly Ducklings (not taking the time to understand the implications of what PARC was doing). At the end, we should all feel fortunate that this wonderful work was done by PARC with Xerox's sponsorship, and that we are all benefiting from it today. I hope that someone will read this book, and build an improved model based on PARC for some other application and industry so that both humankind and the sponsor will both reap even greater rewards the next time such a remarkable effort comes together. You would be making a big mistake if you did not read this book, and learn from it. Getting better at innovating and deriving benefits from innovation are important for us all.