Book Review: Dealers of Lightning

Michael Hiltzik wrote his account of Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) years ago, but Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age never seemed to get as much attention as it should have, and it’s worth reminding folks of every so often. Hiltzik not only describes the technological accomplishments of PARC, but also narrates the business history of how Xerox had the vision to found PARC, but lacked the ability to take advantage of all the brilliant innovations its engineers created.

Consider some of the technical achievements to come out of  Xerox PARC:

  • First personal computer, the Alto; famously shown to Steve Jobs (along with other innovations).
  • Graphical windowing system, the forerunner of Mac and Windows.
  • Laser printer; maybe the only invention that Xerox capitalized on.
  • Ethernet; one of its creators, Bob Metcalfe, later founded 3Com.
  • Wysiwyg word processor; one of its creators, Charles Simonyi, left for Microsoft and started MS Word.
  • Smalltalk programming language.
  • Superpaint, one of the first computer programs; one of its creators, Alvy Ray Smith, went on to help found Lucasfilm’s computer division, then co-founded Pixar.
  • Advances in integrated circuit design, which Jim Clark later used in founding Silicon Graphics.
  • A page description language to handle wysiwyg printing, which John Warnock and Chuck Geschke later used as the basis for Postscript when they started their company, Adobe.

Even this many years later, it must hurt to be Xerox. But the book doesn’t settle for mocking Xerox. It gives many great entertaining details about how a traditional, monolithic, slow-moving company simply could not deal with the revolutionary stuff coming out of its own research center.

PARC, after all, helped define programmer culture as individualistic, fun-loving, profane, and yes, even cool, getting mainstream exposure through a famous Rolling Stone article. The article enraged Xerox executives. The article presented PARC’s Alan Kay as the archetypical rebellious hacker. Later, the Jeff Bridges character in Tron would be based on him (Kay’s wife, Bonnie MacBird, co-wrote the screenplay).

PARC even had beanbag chairs in its office, which for Xerox and for most businesses, was downright radical. One Dallas exec visited PARC and grumbled, “I went out there and I sat in their beanbags, but I just couldn’t get anything out of them. They were only interested in their own thing.” That exec later helped shoot down the idea of bringing the Alto to market (three years before IBM’s PC) and instead threw his weight behind another electronic word processor as Xerox’s flagship product.

It’s easy to ridicule Xerox, but Dealers of Lightning avoids simplistic explanations and shows the tremendous cultural and business difficulties they faced. How many companies even today are capable of totally remaking themselves? Xerox was used to getting paid by the copy. By the copy! How hard was it for them to conceive of a business model for technology that let customers look at a page on a screen then fax it without ever printing a thing? Hiltzik presents Xerox’s failings in excrutiating detail but refuses to indulge in easy hindsight second-guessing.

The common thread running through most of PARC’s accomplishments is the vision of interactive computing. The most renowned manager at PARC, Bob Taylor, gathered together like-minded computer scientists who were interested in a new model of computing different from the time-sharing on mainframes standard of the day. Taylor is credited with fostering, at both ARPA and PARC, many of the ideas behind the internet and personal computing. He wasn’t even a computer scientist. His only advanced degree was in experimental psychology and he never programmed himself. Some of the most interesting stories in Dealers of Lightning are about Taylor and his management ability. And his inability to be managed. While passionately supported by the engineers he managed, Taylor was himself a colossal headache to his managers.

Just one more story from the book…in Alan Kay’s job interview, he was asked what his greatest achievement at PARC would be. He answered, “It’ll be the personal computer.” “What’s that?” his future boss asked. Kay sketched out the design of a small, hinged, clamshell-shaped computer with a keyboard on the bottom half and a screen on the top, what we recognize now as a laptop.This is 1970, kids! Computers in 1970 filled entire rooms.

When the Mac first came out, Kay commented that it was the first computer worth criticizing. When the iPhone was unveiled, Jobs asked Kay if the iPhone was worth criticizing. He replied, “Make the screen five inches by eight inches, and you’ll rule the world.” That last bit is later than what appears in Dealers of Lightning, but if you want to understand today’s technology, reading the book is a good place to start.

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3 Responses to Book Review: Dealers of Lightning

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Dealers of Lightning

  2. Graeme Cook says:

    Thanks for a very entertaining and informative review, Tom; a colleague of mine, who is currently reading Hiltzik’s book, referred me here. Aside from its contribution to the history of computing, it sounds like a compelling read for anybody who is interested in organisational psychology.

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