Fumbling the Future

May 24 22

Fumbling the Future

Paul Weinstein

Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal ComputerFumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer by Douglas K. Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nowadays, just about every businessperson has heard the cautionary tale of Xerox. In the 1970s, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) invented the modern office. Computing firsts at PARC included the personal computer, the graphical user interface with the desktop paradigm and “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) word processing, the laser printer, local area networking (Ethernet) and object-oriented programming. Yet, by the 1980s Xerox had failed to successfully bring most of these inventions to market.

PARC’s vision of the future was so complete that in a 1995 interview Steve Jobs said of his legendary visit, “they showed me really three things, but I was so blinded by the first … which was the graphical user interface” that he didn’t even recognize the importance of everything else.

But how exactly did Xerox become the company to so toughly invent the office of the future only to lose sight of that vision and watch other companies; Apple and Microsoft to name just two, deliver it instead?

That’s the story of Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored the First Personal Computer. Based on initial research done by co-author Robert C. Alexander, the book is a business management examination of Xerox that includes:

  • How the Haloid Company (Xerox) became the first to market xerography, which along with a robust sales & pricing strategy made Xerox very profitable
  • That Xerox leadership recognized the correct business strategy to diversify beyond xerography
  • That the culture and executive leadership focus on a transformative diversification strategy was lacking, resulting in several key errors:
    • Mismanagement of Scientific Data Systems (SDS), Xerox’s initial computer acquisition
    • Early success in xerography resulted in ‘can’t lose’ & ‘not invented here’ attitudes among different Xerox divisions
    • The void of a united corporate culture resulted in a mismatch of cultures between Xerox senior leadership, PARC and other divisions, such as SDS
    • Misreading of market trends and onerous product development processes for digital and xerography product lines resulted in expensive product miscues

While the book places the technical innovations in context, it is not a dive deep into the strengths and weaknesses of the technical work done by the Xerox PARC team. In other words, the assumption that is central to this book (and to the tale at large, that Xerox management blundered so toughly) is that Xerox’s initial implementation of this new technology could stand on its own in the marketplace. This conceit assumes that Apple, Microsoft and others simply xeroxed PARC’s work wholesale. However, the failure of Apple’s Lisa in 19831 and later success with the Macintosh along with Microsoft’s lack of traction with Windows until Windows v3.1 in 1992 suggests that additional development, refinement and market evolution was still necessary for Xerox’s office of the future to finally take hold.

1 On the other hand, the influx of Xerox ideas and personnel to Apple, the failure of the Lisa and the death knell of Apple post Steve Jobs’ ousting in 1985 suggests perhaps Apple copied too much of Xerox.