PARC life

PARC lifeThe Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre is geared up to developing key PC technologies, and where in the past it failed to capitalise on them that is no longer the case. Tom Foremski reports The Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) has earned its place in computer history. It is the birthplace of key technologies and products such as the personal computer, laser printer, Ethernet local area networking, object-oriented software and it helped develop the graphical user interface and the computer mouse. Located in a sprawling campus in the heart of Silicon Valley, PARC enjoys a relaxed, university feel compared with the frenetic atmosphere of the rest of Silicon Valley. Populated with about 250 researchers in diverse fields such as anthropology, linguistics and social psychology, the goal of Xerox PARC is to provide an open environment where cross-fertilisation of ideas can bring forth new discoveries. It was during a visit to PARC in the late 1970s that Apple founder Steve Jobs saw an example of the world’s first true personal computer, the Star system, running a graphical user interface and using a computer mouse. Although Douglas Engelbart rightly claims responsibility for much of this work from research in the early 1960s for the US Navy, he points out that, “quite a number of my colleagues went on to work at Xerox Parc and took the ideas of the graphical user interface and the mouse with them, the rest is history”, says Engelbart. Jobs was inspired by what he saw. In later interviews Jobs said of his visit, “When I went to Xerox PARC in 1979, I saw a very rudimentary graphical user interface. It wasn’t complete. It wasn’t quite right. But within 10 minutes, it was obvious that every computer in the world would work this way someday.” Apple further refined the graphical user interface and computer mouse, turning it first into the Lisa computer, which failed due to its high price, and then later hitting paydirt with the Macintosh, which in turn was emulated by Microsoft in its Windows operating systems. Other PARC innovations such as the laser printer, Ethernet, object-oriented programming, also became important, fundamental computer technologies, and in virtually all cases, Xerox failed to capitalise on those innovations. In the book Fumbling the Future authors Douglas Smith and Robert Alexander chronicle how Xerox threw away major business opportunities. Xerox has learnt from its past mistakes, and now the innovations at PARC are much more carefully evaluated and managed. Like other US research centres, Xerox profits from PARC in three ways. By spinning off new companies and investing in them – as in high resolution display technology firm Dpix. A second way is to form strategic partnerships to exploit PARC technologies. And the third way is through direct commercialisation of the technology such as its Advanced Office Document Systems Division. PARC is headed by John Seely-Brown, described as “one of the best technology visionaries around”, by Paul Saffo, a research fellow at California-based technology think tank, Institute for the Future. Seely-Brown’s goal is to focus the work at PARC loosely around parent company Xerox’s motto as “the document company”. For example, related innovations include glyphs, a form of ‘smart paper’ on which tiny diagonal marks represent computer code. A recent start-up, TV Interactive, is proposing using smart paper to allow someone looking through a printed catalogue, for example, to directly assess a specific web page on their PC by touching a picture with an infra-red reader. PARC continues to work in developing more effective computer user interfaces, and with the rise of the Internet, its researchers have proposed novel ways of managing web based data and its visualisation through 3D metaphors. It has licensed some of its user interface technology to start-up firm to help companies manage large, complex computer networks. PARC researcher Ralph Merkle is one of the leading lights in the field of nanotechnology which has the potential to revolutionise entire industries, including electronics, with concepts such as chips built in three dimensions through the individual manipulation of atoms. Merkle claims it will one day be possible to build a sugar cube sized processing unit that will have the computer power of all the world’s current computers. The ideas of ubiquitous computing are also prominent at PARC, that computing will be so pervasive, that it will be embedded in everyday objects such as desks, and clothing, so that we will interact with hundreds if not thousands of computers on a daily basis. In this same vein, PARC researchers have proposed ‘smart dust’ which are tiny computers with sensor abilities that could be scattered over large areas to collect video and other data. But managing such smart dust systems in turn requires the development of special distributed computing techniques, sometimes referred to as Aspect Oriented Programming, which could also be used to manage the fast growing Internet. And late last year, PARC researchers announced a breakthrough in the development of a blue laser diode based on gallium nitride – although the Japanese still lead this field – that could be used for very high density data storage, high speed laser printers and high resolution displays. Recently, PARC formed the Xerox New Enterprises (XNE) division, to improve on its efforts to better commercialise PARC developments. XNE’s goal is to accelerate the spin-off of companies and produce a better rate of return on Xerox’s investments in PARC. XNE works on incubating start-ups, using the management expertise already within Xerox, and its capital, to help them grow and eventually go public. Xerox says that this is a good way to retain talent, a key resource in Silicon Valley where researchers are tempted to leave and create their own start-ups.
So when PARC researchers develop the next set of key PC technologies, this time, Xerox will share in the profits.

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