The quiet and benevolent legacy of Xerox PARC

Today I was reading about the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).  Over the last 40 years, this quiet former division of Xerox Corporation has been responsible for the development of 35 groundbreaking inventions for the modern computer, information technology, medical, and scientific industries.

Founded in 1970 as the western research division of Xerox Corporation, PARC was intentionally located in Palo Alto, California because of its close proximity to Stanford University and its generous supply of bright graduate students hired to conduct research.  The location was also close to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) where other ground breaking research was being conducted.

PARC remained a division of Xerox until 2002 when it became a wholly owned subsidiary of Xerox with the mission of: “Developing and maturing advances in science and business concepts with the support of commercial partners and clients”.  Xerox continues to remain the largest customer of PARC.   Today, PARC focuses primarily on clean technology, interface design, context aware systems, intelligent systems, and ubiquitous computing.  In addition to corporate business interests, PARC also partners with government agencies on special projects.

Most people using computers and the internet today are completely unaware that many modern user conveniences, peripheral devices, and gadgets were first envisioned and developed at PARC in the 1970s.  While PARC deserves recognition for these achievements, its parent, Xerox, never properly commercialized or exploited most of these ideas for profit.  As a result of these missed market opportunities, other opportunistic companies capitalized and profited handsomely from PARC’s research offerings, including: Apple, Palm, Microsoft, and many others.

Out of the 35 inventions PARC has developed, here are six notable ones that have revolutionized the computing industry:

Laser Printing

First introduced in 1971, it comes as no surprise that this was one of the only inventions PARC developed that became a huge commercial success for Xerox Corporation.  Laser printing technology was later refined and capitalized by other companies most notably Hewlett-Packard and Epson.

The Ethernet

First introduced in 1973, the ethernet is probably the most groundbreaking of all PARC inventions.  This technology enabled computers to connect to each other, peripheral devices, and eventually the internet.  This development also launched a new connectivity protocol called the Local Area Network (LAN).

Graphical User Interface (GUI)

First introduced in 1975, the Graphical User Interface (GUI) became another groundbreaking technology that changed the way people interact with a computer.  The GUI system involved a graphical display of icons, pop-up menus, and overlapping windows that were manipulated by a point and click system controlled by a mouse device.  This software simplified computer use tremendously and made computers more palatable to a much wider audience.  The GUI was refined and commercialized most famously by both Apple and Microsoft.

Ubiquitous Computing

First introduced in 1988, ubiquitous computing was viewed as a concept where people would use portable computing devices to seamlessly access information.  Today’s smartphones and tablet devices are manifestations of this concept.

Unistrokes

First introduced in 1995, the unistroke system was a series of shorthand symbols that translated into individual letters of the alphabet.  This concept was seen as a faster way of entering text into a handheld device rather than pecking characters on a small screen keyboard.  This idea was commercialized by Palm Computing and re-packaged as an application called Graffiti on its Palm Pilot series of products.

The Personal Workstation

First introduced in 1973, the personal workstation was the first standalone computer system based on a client-server architecture (a departure from centralized mainframe systems).  It contained a GUI system, bit-mapped display, mouse pointing device, and Local Area Network (LAN) file storage.  Xerox was the first company to introduce this product calling it the Alto Personal Workstation.

More information on PARC can be found here.

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