Dealing Lightning

Michael Hiltzik’s “Dealers of Lightning” is a look at the first decade or so of the legendary Xerox PARC, where many of the concepts and technologies of current computing were developed. Off the top of my head: Ethernet and the PUP protocol that was influential on TCP/IP, WYSIWYG text editing, multi-lingual interfaces, the desktop metaphor, object-oriented programming, the laser printer, and video graphics manipulation through use of a framebuffer.

Hiltzik points out the factors that influenced Xerox’s handling (and mishandling) of the numerous innovations that developed at PARC; corporate culture and bureacratic infighting, the weak U.S. economy of the mid to late 70s, strong competition in their core copier business, a bad reading of the computer industry, and being blindsided by IBM.

Xerox planned to sell their integrated 8010 Information System to corporate customers: workstations, file and print servers, and laser printers all networked via Ethernet. Xerox’s Star workstations provided a graphical user interface to word processing and e-mail, but a single workstation cost $16,595 (in 1981). The stand-alone IBM PC released four months later ran DOS, but cost under $5,000. I think you know how that battle ended.

Based on the book, Larry Tesler (left Apple, founded Stagecast, now at Amazon) and Charles Simonyi (left Microsoft, now at Intentional Software) were the earliest PARCers to recognize the importance of the hobbyist computer market populated by the Altair, PET, and the Apple 1 among others. Many at PARC looked down their noses (somewhat understandably, given how far ahead they were in so many areas) at the primitive computers, failing to appreciate the openness and low cost of the hobbyist architectures.

The original PARC staff included many brilliant engineers, but I got the impression that Alan Kay was the visionary, looking 20 years ahead while others thought about the next year or two. Geek note: Alan Kay’s wife Bonnie MacBird wrote the screenplay for Tron! She supposedly based one of the characters on Kay’s personality. I haven’t seen the movie in ages and I don’t know Alan Kay, so I won’t venture a guess as to which.

The book and this post take their title from an Alan Kay quote in Stewart Brand’s “Spacewar” Rolling Stone piece.

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