Xerox Parc innovators

Fri, Aug 26, 2011, 01:00

IN A RECENT research paper, Stanford law professor Mark Lemley points out just how far from reality is the popular perception of the innovation process. Entitled The Myth of the Sole Inventor, the paper debunks the image of the lonely genius toiling in his lab, refining his inventions until they are ready to change the world.

He writes, “The canonical story of the lone genius inventor is largely a myth . . . Surveys of hundreds of significant new technologies show that almost all of them are invented simultaneously or nearly simultaneously by two or more teams working independently of each other. Invention appears in significant part to be a social, not an individual, phenomenon. Inventors build on the work of those who came before, and new ideas are often ‘in the air’.”

Lemley’s point is to challenge the fundamental principle on which the patent system is predicated: in order to encourage innovation, you must incentivise the lone inventor.

The great originator of the myth of the lone inventor is Thomas Edison, who fostered an image of himself as single-handedly solving a vast array of engineering problems and developing a range of new devices. But many other inventors were solving the same problems at the same time, and in any case Edison had a sizeable lab of scientists, engineers and researchers working for him. There was nothing lonely about his working environment, it would seem.

A modern equivalent of Edison’s lab is the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (Parc), another legendary hub of innovation that is often credited with pioneering inventions such as laser printing, fibre-optic cabling, object-oriented programming, wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) document formatting, ethernet networking and, most famously of all, the mouse and the graphical user interface (GUI), the revolutionary concept that dominates personal computing paradigms to this day.

Xerox was founded as the Haloid Company in New York in 1906, and remained a very East Coast kind of business, servicing offices with early photocopying equipment from the 1940s on, but in 1970 it set up a Californian research and development outpost on the evocatively named Coyote Hill Road under the guidance of physicist Dr George Pake.

Nothing illustrates how flawed the myth of the lone inventor actually is quite as readily as Xerox Parc – not only was the place home to a team of researchers working on cutting-edge technologies, but it was also located in the nexus of late 20th-century innovation, Silicon Valley, the suitably sci-fi nickname given to the area around Palo Alto in California.

It was part of the Stanford Research Park, and so was adjacent to computing powerhouses such as Hewlett Packard and Intel; it was able to call on the numerous computer whizz graduates of the nearby Stanford University; and it could tap into the culture of fearless experimentation that characterised the Bay Area entrepreneurial spirit.

In short, in keeping with Lemley’s suggestion that innovation is a social phenomenon, Parc’s proximity to other centres of innovation, as well as its own team ethic, were critical to its success.

Xerox is synonymous with photocopiers, a rather mundane technological device when put alongside the string of groundbreaking achievements developed in Parc. The perennial mystery is how Xerox failed to capitalise on any of these breakthroughs, instead relying on its venerable photocopier business for steady profits. But the legend of Xerox Parc hinges on the intervention of another neighbour, a 24-year-old entrepreneur from down the road called Steve Jobs.

The story goes that Jobs managed to get himself invited to Parc in 1979 and flipped out when he saw the mouse and GUI, realising their transformative potential in a way the photocopying-obsessed executives in Connecticut never could.

In an article in the New Yorkerlast May, Malcolm Gladwell attempted to put that famous visit, and the groundbreaking products that Jobs created as a result, into the context of the evolutionary nature of innovation. Largely insulated from the demands of the marketplace, Xerox Parc’s creations didn’t have to undergo the rigorous process of constraint and compromise that turns potential breakthroughs into real products that people can use.

With Apple, Jobs was able to take concepts and make that leap, introducing the Apple Lisa in 1983 and the Macintosh in 1984, forever altering the course of computing history.

In Gladwell’s telling, this is a perfect illustration of the iterative nature of innovation, but there is another element to the story that he underplays: Parc could develop so many disparate technologies only because it wasn’t under pressure to monetise them. Far from Xerox’s headquarters in Connecticut, the researchers weren’t exposed to corporate pressure to focus and refine, the process required to make commercially successful products. The flip side was that Xerox’s management executives were incapable of appreciating the opportunities their lab was producing – that sort of executive had founded Apple rather than doing something like selling photocopiers.

Perhaps it was the impression that Parc didn’t produce and market many of its greatest innovations that led to its legendary status. Being the magician behind the curtain demands its own form of respect, after all. But, ultimately, there is a hint of noble failure about Parc, as if the scientists and engineers were too preoccupied with the process of invention to engage with the real world outside their lab.

Don’t write it off yet, however. While Parc is assured of its place in the annals of computer history, it is still operating as an RD lab, it’s still based on Coyote Hill Road, and it’s still developing cool stuff in a whole range of areas. It’s a welcoming home for lonely inventors.