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Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer Paperback – 1 May 1999


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Product details

  • Paperback: 276 pages
  • Publisher: iUniverse (1 May 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1583482660
  • ISBN-13: 978-1583482667
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 960,739 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Through an arrangement with a "print on demand" publisher, Fumbling The Future is now available for order through Amazon.Com as well as others. We appreciate your continuing interest in this important chapter in American business history and the history of the Personal Computer!

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 25 Aug 1999
Format: Paperback
I have been a fan of the story of Xerox PARC ever since reading "Fumbling the Future" several years ago. In fact the lessons I learned contributed to my leaving engineering to get a business degree. Recently I read "Dealers of lightning" by Michael Hiltzik and was surprised to read through it and come across the Epilogue. In fact, I was actually disturbed by how easily the author relieved Xerox of its opportunity (and obligation from a shareholders perspective) to capitalize on the creativity and ingenuity of Xerox PARC. Those of us within the high-tech community certainly appreciate the open ended research that Xerox PARC conducted which has lined the pockets of so many that were never in any way associated with Xerox. However, if I was a shareholder of Xerox or any other company, I would be horrified by any management rationale that 'you are not obligated to exploit the technologies created within your labs'. Granted you may not be able to exploit all, but how about most? Xerox is not the government and is not using tax dollars for a collective good. I found the logic flawed and violates the basic motivations for establishing a commercial entity. I would recommend that for a business minded individual that you go read "Fumbling the Future" - which I have since reread. Reading "Dealers of lightning" was like watching a lawyer weave a case for premeditated murder against an accused and then claim temporary insanity as the final defense.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 1 Aug 1999
Format: Paperback
Dated, biased account of what happened at PARC and at Xerox headquarters. Very out of date, especially given PARC's foresight in terms of distributed, connected computers. It seems like the authors decided to bash Xerox even before they began their research. Save your money on this one. A better bet is "Dealers of Lightning" by Michael Hiltzik. That one points out what Xerox did wrong, and, oh, by the way, what they did right. (For example, make a couple of billion dollars out of the Laser Print industry.) The authors of this one just seemed to have it "in" for Xerox. I wonder if they used a windows based PC or Mac to type the original manuscript? Not without PARC, they wouldn't have.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 18 April 2011
Format: Paperback
This book tells the story of the greatest failure of a corporation in our time to create marketable products from truly great research. It starts by telling the story of how PARC was conceived and how it operated.

In 1973, a number of researchers at Xerox PARC demonstrated the "Alto". The Alto was the first "personal computer" designed not only on a human scale for a single individual but supported by a number of improvements that rendered it "instantly responsive to the user's demands", each of them revolutionary in the computer field. They included: a graphics-oriented monitor with "icons" and overlapping "pages" on the screen that was coordinated by the "mouse" input device; a word-processing program "for nonexpert users"; a local area network, the "Ethernet"; and an object-oriented programming language that combined data with certain commands, which hugely simplified computer operations.

These attributes represented nothing less than a paradigm shift for the computer industry, away from the punch cards, unwieldy printouts of results, obscure programming codes, and the awkward time-sharing arrangements that were the hallmarks of mainframe computers. At that moment, Xerox had a full five-year head start over its future rivals. (Amazingly, PCs have changed little. with the exception of incremental improvements, from this fundamental prototype.)

Unfortunately, few at Xerox headquarters understood the importance of these developments. From its beginning, many executives at Xerox headquarters viewed PARC as a kind of uncontrollable island of insolence and arrogance. When Xerox managers visited PARC, they were struck by the rudeness and counter-cultural feel of the place.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 18 reviews
48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
My Life at "Brand X" 4 Nov 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I lived through these years on the 10th Floor at Xerox Corporation Systems Headquarters, El Segundo, California - as a Systems Administrator for New Product Development and Training. The book is accurate, but misses one very, very important point: The "Leadership" at Xerox Corporation at this time did not, repeat not, have the "best intentions". On the contrary, they were "Box People" (copier people) who did not have a clue about how to take advantage of this technology. In 1984 we did an internal survey of middle and upper management regarding use of the applications for the Star/Distributed Net (specifically email and Viewpoint software applications for those of you "in the know"). It found that while 76-percent of first and second level management used these applications on a daily or multiple-weekly basis, less than 10-percent of upper and executive management did so (the figure was under 5-percent on returns from Rochester and Stamford). Is this evidence of knowledge or having the "best intentions"? Those of us who did have the knowledge of the potential benefits were in middle management and could see those benefits to our own organisations at that time. We reported on these benefits, talked about them, begged people to come and see for themselves...for years...nothing happened. Many of us grew so frustrated we left (I was one, in 1989), although we still loved (and love) our exciting times at "Brand X". Some stayed, and watched Xerox "retreat" back to a primarily copier/printer company (and in doing so it crushed many a spirit). Most of us have wonderful, amazing, funny and frustrating stories to tell about those times (how about two trips in a single day to PARC from El Segundo just prior to the release of the 6085PCS?...or when the training Manager for New Produce Development left...only to turn up at Apple the following month...with all his notes and records?...Or producing training films for new releases with comedy sketches on the tail end for raising salespersons morale...). This book is too high level stuff for that...but it does reflect the failure of the top at Xerox...although it doesn't quite come out and say that...The top did not have a hint about these advances because they were from another world (Rochester, Copiers, not PARC/El Segundo and GUI/Ethernet). Read the book, but remember, no matter how hard those in middle management yell...if the top does "not have ears to hear" - it will not hear! ETW, Los Angeles, CA, now a retired TRW Employee
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Something fascinating about train wrecks 30 Dec 2003
By Henry Cate III - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
As most people in the computer industry know Xerox pioneered many of the key breakthroughs in the computer industry, but then they were not able to capitalize on the technology they developed. Many, many other companies have made billions of dollars; however, Xerox just couldn't figure out how to reap the benefits.
The authors of "Fumbling the Future" go into this history in great detail. They first set the stage by describing Xerox's early history, how Xerox invented a copier, and for a number of years they were so successful that they were able to basically print money. Many of the major players in the industry are mentioned, their goals and interests. Xerox was very aggressive, and in some ways they were also a bit lucky, with the copier. Then Xerox decided they needed to also get into the computer industry.
Next the authors talk about how the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was created, how George Pake selected various key people to help staff the research center, and the charter PARC was given. The book goes over who was hired, what they did, and how the groups at PARC worked together, and sometimes didn't work together.
Here is where you can start to see the train wreck. The first President of Xerox, Joe Wilson, seems to have been a very gifted leader. In terms of "Good to Great" by Jim Collins, Joe Wilson was a level five leader. Unfortunately Joe Wilson dies, and the next president of Xerox, Peter McColough, was at best a level four leader. Peter decided to spend almost a billion dollars for a niche science computer company which Peter then tried to force out into the general computer market, going up against IBM. Peter also took Xerox into Medicine and Education. And Peter got involved in Politics and Charities. Peter McColough was not focused on Xerox, and let several problems simmer.
We get some insights into what drove the researchers at PARC to develop the first personal computer, the Alto, and many of the reasons why it was revolutionary. The authors chart the destruction of the potential of the Alto, largely because of various managers at Xerox not catching the vision, or those who caught the vision not being able to work well with upper management.
One thing which would have improved the book was to have some pictures. It would have been nice to have some pictures of the early copiers, the Alto, and some of the major players.
It was a well written book, with a lot of good history, and some important lessons. Even though you know how it will all turn out, this was a hard book to put down.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Real business insight into how and why Xerox blundered 25 Aug 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I have been a fan of the story of Xerox PARC ever since reading "Fumbling the Future" several years ago. In fact the lessons I learned contributed to my leaving engineering to get a business degree. Recently I read "Dealers of lightning" by Michael Hiltzik and was surprised to read through it and come across the Epilogue. In fact, I was actually disturbed by how easily the author relieved Xerox of its opportunity (and obligation from a shareholders perspective) to capitalize on the creativity and ingenuity of Xerox PARC. Those of us within the high-tech community certainly appreciate the open ended research that Xerox PARC conducted which has lined the pockets of so many that were never in any way associated with Xerox. However, if I was a shareholder of Xerox or any other company, I would be horrified by any management rationale that 'you are not obligated to exploit the technologies created within your labs'. Granted you may not be able to exploit all, but how about most? Xerox is not the government and is not using tax dollars for a collective good. I found the logic flawed and violates the basic motivations for establishing a commercial entity. I would recommend that for a business minded individual that you go read "Fumbling the Future" - which I have since reread. Reading "Dealers of lightning" was like watching a lawyer weave a case for premeditated murder against an accused and then claim temporary insanity as the final defense.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
solid book on a gigantic missed opportunity 10 Jan 2007
By Robert J. Crawford - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This book tells the story of the greatest failure of a corporation in our time to create marketable products from truly great research. It starts by telling the story of how PARC was conceived and how it operated.

In 1973, a number of researchers at Xerox PARC demonstrated the "Alto". The Alto was the first "personal computer" designed not only on a human scale for a single individual but supported by a number of improvements that rendered it "instantly responsive to the user's demands", each of them revolutionary in the computer field. They included: a graphics-oriented monitor with "icons" and overlapping "pages" on the screen that was coordinated by the "mouse" input device; a word-processing program "for nonexpert users"; a local area network, the "Ethernet"; and an object-oriented programming language that combined data with certain commands, which hugely simplified computer operations.

These attributes represented nothing less than a paradigm shift for the computer industry, away from the punch cards, unwieldy printouts of results, obscure programming codes, and the awkward time-sharing arrangements that were the hallmarks of mainframe computers. At that moment, Xerox had a full five-year head start over its future rivals. (Amazingly, PCs have changed little. with the exception of incremental improvements, from this fundamental prototype.)

Unfortunately, few at Xerox headquarters understood the importance of these developments. From its beginning, many executives at Xerox headquarters viewed PARC as a kind of uncontrollable island of insolence and arrogance. When Xerox managers visited PARC, they were struck by the rudeness and counter-cultural feel of the place. For their part, PARC researchers viewed headquarters with open disdain at the leadership's inability to understand not only what PARC was doing, but the jargon they were forging.

The mutual distrust between headquarters and its Palo Alto lab neither encouraged Xerox executives to learn about how PARC's inventions might fit into the modern office nor allowed PARC's managers to sell their inventions to the company's manufacturing units. Even worse, PARC had no one in Xerox's top leadership to champion their product ideas or even to get things done - at the moment when PARC's technological innovations were ready for commercial development, the Xerox Corporation was entering a prolonged period of crisis, the "lost decade" of the 1970s.

To the shock of many Xerox leaders, Japanese manufacturers came up with a number of basic innovations in design, greatly enhancing the reliability and performance of their copiers while reducing their cost. With this stunningly executed strategy, the Japanese manufacturers succeeded in turning Xerox's supposed comparative advantages (of a huge sales force and repair facilities and patented technolgies that were being squeezed of every last drop of their value) into unsustainable liabilities.

It was in this context - a crisis of rapidly diminishing market share, with financiers and accountants ascendant within the Xerox bureaucracy - that PARC managers were attempting to sell their revolutionary inventions. Unfortuately, the top leadership at Xerox had turned its attention to investigating the methods of Japanese companies, in particular the techniques of total quality management, which would occupy the attention of David Kearns, the new Xerox CEO, into the 1980s.

Beyond the numbers, PARC was pitting itself against the corporation's incentive system: because the Xerox manufacturing divisions had quarterly targets it had to meet, adding an entirely new line of products threatened to disrupt the flow of revenues, which meant they wouldn't get their bonuses.

Moreover, as an embryonic business that could only promise growth somewhere in the future, the Alto III attracted little attention at headquarters - Xerox managers had long grown accustomed to massive returns rung up at the click of a button on a leased machine, in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In light of this expectation, the Alto III appeared too small to bother with.

In December 1979, Steve Jobs had visited PARC and was working to incorporate the software capabilities he had observed into the first mass-market personal computers. In addition, Jobs, Bill Gates, and others had begun to hire researchers away from PARC: disgusted by the obtuseness of Xerox headquarters regarding their work, many of them were yearning to move to more entrepreneurial environments. They felt that they had accomplished virtually all that they could at PARC.

Nonetheless, with approval from headquarters, a number of PARC's best engineers had begun to develop the Star workstation. Unveiled at a computer trade show in April 1981, the Star generated great excitement. Packed with many of PARC's best features, such an as-it-would-print document screen and electronic mail, the Star was unlike anything that had ever been sold in the industry. However, once on the market, the Star quickly revealed a number of drawbacks. First, with so many features that required processing power, it was extremely slow. Second, it was also too bulky for many offices. Third, it retailed at over US$16,000, pushing it out of reach of all but the richest of corporations. Fourth, the Star lacked a spread sheet, which many office executives wanted, and its "closed" software system would not run those offered by other companies.

While criticized as a typical engineering product with an over-abundance of esoteric features, the Star was far more a reflection of Xerox headquarters: recalling the runaway success of the 914 monopoly, they had assumed that the Star would set the de facto standard for an entirely new industry, which Xerox would again dominate - regardless of the price. Even worse, they had failed to appreciate that this time, the company faced some extremely nimble and hungry competitors.

Xerox had also failed to train its copier salesmen regarding the vision behind, and unique features of, the Star: it was supposed to be the first step in Xerox's re-making of the office environment. Unfortunately, accustomed to selling copiers to lower-level managers, Xerox salesmen understood little of this and many had no idea who to approach within corporations with this revolutionary new product. From their experience with the blockbuster early copier 914, they - along with the leaders in their company - were accustomed to marketing hardware, whereas the Star's principal advantages came from its software. Talk about implementation failure!!

In August 1981, IBM introduced the personal computer (PC). While far more primitive and less user-friendly than the Star - with no mouse, no Ethernet capability, no icons, no multi-tasking windows - it was priced at less than US$5,000. Quickly surpassing the Star in sales, the IBM PC set the standard for the emerging market of affordable personal computers. For all intents and purposes, Xerox would view the PC revolution, which it had virtually created, from the sidelines - it had squandered a lead of over 5 years!!!

Following the failure of the Star workstation, morale at PARC plummeted. To make things worse, in 1981 Xerox appointed a new director at PARC, Bill Spencer, who failed to grasp the unique chemistry of the computer lab. Spencer immediately locked horns with Bob Taylor, who resigned and took most of his top staff with him to DEC. This marked ended Xerox's effort to fundamentally reinvent the modern office.

Nonetheless, PARC could boast a few commercial successes. Most prominent of these was Gary Starkweather's laser printer, which he had moved to PARC to develop in 1971. After a few years of work perfecting the device and a long and difficult period of promoting it from within Xerox, Starkweather was able to convince the company to manufacture a version of his machine in 1977. Though Xerox had barely beaten IBM to the market with the product in spite of a three-year technological lead, its laser printer became one of the best selling Xerox products of all time, eventually becoming a US$2 billion business per year. Its acceptance within the company was made easier by the fact that it was largely a hardware product, with technology familiar to Xerox.

This is meaty stuff, and the authors cover it well and the book is very very well written. It is best when telling the story of the disconnect between PARC and Xerox HQ in an effort to explain the failure, though the technical aspects of how PARC operated are summarized well (and never in excessive detail). This is at heart an organizational behavior book, not a how-to (or how to not) innovate book.

Recommended.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating Business Case Study 27 May 2003
By Allan Heydon - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This book tells the fascinating story of the invention of the first distributed personal computer systems at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), and how a copier company that had grown to over $1 billion in revenue in less than 10 years based on a single new technology (photocopying) was unable to capitalize on a new technology again, despite the best intentions of its leaders.
The really innovative work at PARC was done under the direction of Bob Taylor. When Taylor was forced out, he started DEC's Systems Research Center (SRC) (later acquired by Compaq, and then HP), and he brought much of the top talent along with him.
I read this book on Bob Taylor's recommendation when I first joined DEC SRC as a researcher. But I decided to read it again recently before attending a talk by George Pake, the founding director of PARC. Pake's history of PARC agreed with the book, but he drew very different conclusions about the overall benefit of PARC's inventions to Xerox. In particular, Pake gave far more credit to PARC for contributing to Xerox, but all the examples he gave related to how computer technology has come to be used in photocopiers, which entirely misses the point. As the book's subtitle suggests, most of PARC's astounding computer innovations were largely squandered by Xerox (and "borrowed" by Steve Jobs to create the Apple Macintosh).
The first time I read the book, I was fresh out of school and didn't have much experience in the business world, so the parts of the book dealing with business issues were mostly a mystery to me. This time, it made much more sense, and I actually found the business aspects of the story more intriguing than the technical ones. Even so, the story of the first bit-mapped display, laser printer, ethernet, personal computer, and WYSIWYG editing software -- innovations we take largely for granted today -- is quite interesting!
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