FUMBLING THE FUTURE: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored the First Personal Computer by Douglas K. & Robert C. Alexander Smith

FUMBLING THE FUTURE: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored the First Personal Computer

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Xerox had the prescience to realize that the copying market it dominated throughout the 1960's would not be a private preserve forever. Accordingly, management funded and staffed the Palo Alto Research Center to develop products for the so-called office of the future. How the parent organization failed to capitalize on the California facility's most promising project--a personal computer--is the subject of this fascinating, cautionary, and well-told tale. By the mid-1970's, report consultants Smith and Alexander, PARC had created a commercially viable PC called the Alto. Despite having stolen a march on prospective competitors like Apple, IBM, and Tandy, top corporate executives declined to allocate the resources required to introduce a machine. In their damningly documented narrative, the authors attribute the play-it-safe decision to a number of factors. For one thing, Xerox had blown upwards of $1 billion acquiring Scientific Data Systems in an abortive effort to vie with Big Blue in business-oriented mainframes. For another, the FTC and frustrated rivals were attacking the company's de facto copier monopoly on antitrust grounds. In the meantime, an in-house establishment was doing its level best to limit diversification programs. In consequence, a risk-averse regime paid mainly lip service to advancing the state of the EDP art, and Alto remained in the lab until far too late in the game. While paying appropriate tribute to the technological talents of PARC personnel, Smith and Alexander don't make heroes of these willful renegades. Indeed, they recount, many Xerox scientists and engineers working in Palo Alto during the 1970's nursed us-against-them grudges that did precious little to promote their causes with the profit-minded and procedure-conscious bean-counters at corporate headquarters. As a practical matter, then, the PC was but one of several casualties of such antagonisms and failures to communicate. A lively log of a lost opportunity whose cost, while indeterminate at this remove, was clearly significant.

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 1988
Publisher: Morrow