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Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc & the Dawn of the Computer Age


von Michael A. Hiltzik

ISBN: 0887308910

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My Mileage Was Low...
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.

The Whole Story is Here
Hiltzik has done a superb job of bringing the story of Xerox PARC to life and placing it in the context of everything else that was going on at the time and the history that brought technology to that point. As someone who lived through that period, I found the book a much more objective and honest look at PARC and Xerox's role than Fumbling the Future or any other treatment. He doesn't let Xerox off easy by any means--in fact his treatment of Xerox's role has much more credibility than anything else I've seen, because it is so three-dimensional. Anyone who wants to understand today's technology, not to mention the role of Doug Engelbart and his lab, should read this terrific book!

A definitive history of how we got here
"Dealers of Lightning." is a very good book.

Hiltzik really succeeds at telling good stories. He gives a wonderful sense of the characters involved. This is not "you are there" journalism; it's clearly removed from the characters, but he gives you enough detail to give the stories life.

I've seen various treatments of PARC folklore over the years, and Hiltzak has done the best job I've seen yet.

I very much enjoyed his story how MAXC came to be built. Typical of his approach, Hiltzak talks less about the technical details of the project about more about the politics of why building a knock-off PDP-10 clone was such an affront to some in Xerox at the time. Hiltzak clearly spent lots of time talking to not only PARC scientists, but players from all over Xerox.

Hiltzik seems to have taken particular care with the oft-retold tale of the Steve Jobs visit to PARC. Hiltzik notes that none of the accounts fully agrees with each other, but Hiltzik has done his best to come up with the definitive story, and it is an enlightening tale.

Hiltzik's last chapter asks "Did Xerox blow it?" His answer is measured; he notes the important distinction between mistakes that could have been foreseen or prevented at the time (Xerox's delay in moving the laser pprinter to market) from events that were unforeseeable (how quickly lower-cost PCs would take over and leave the Star on the sidelines.)

Hiltzik's book surprised me. It was better than I had expected; *much* better than I remember "Fumbling the Future" to be. If you have any interest in the history of where personal computing came from, check out this book.
> Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc & the Dawn of the Computer Age

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