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A gripping tale about historic computing research.,
By A Customer
This review is from: Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age (Hardcover)If you read only one book about research management, researchers, or computing research this year, this is the one to read.
Dealers of Lightning is the story of the seminal first 13 years of Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center, a period in which PARC developed laser printers, the ethernet, internets, networked personal computers, the client-server model, bitmap displays, icons and graphical user interfaces, the desktop metaphor and overlapping windows, and various other foundations of the computing world as we know it today. But this is not primarily a book about technology -- it is about the people who generated it: How they were brought together, how they interacted, and finally, how they dispersed.
Michael Hiltzik is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and he has clearly done his homework. He seems to have talked to all the major (and many of the minor) figures involved, read everything that has been written on the subject, and understood most of it. There are ample footnotes, source citations, glossary, and acknowledgements. Some of his accounts are as close to definitive as we are ever likely to see. For example, his story of the famous demos for Steve Jobs that had such an influence on the Lisa and the Macintosh (while recognizing that participants recollections conflict) has more information about them than I was able to gather while at PARC.
As an "unindicted co-conspirator," neither interviewed by Hiltzik, nor mentioned by name (although I was close to the epicenter for the last half of the book's time span), I have both inside information and personal biases. I spotted a few small factual errors, and in some cases my interpretation of events is different than Hiltzik's. Nevertheless, he has done an amazingly good job of capturing the gist. This book is more complete, more accurate, and more nuanced than Smith and Alexander's Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored, the First Personal Computer.
Hiltzik is an excellent writer, and the book is a page-turner (even when you know how it ends). The plot is gripping; the cast of characters large and interesting. Parts of the book are too incredible to be published as fiction. I stayed up well past my bedtime three different nights, repeatedly promising myself I'd read "just one more chapter."
My main complaint is that the book is so crowded with people and events that almost all the characters come out one-dimensional, often associated with a single recurring tag phrase. Bob Taylor at least gets a two-dimensional treatment, but it is too often through the eyes of his (numerous) enemies; the admiration and loyalty he inspired in many others is frequently remarked on, but never explained.
The book is littered with insights about research and technology transfer -- both from the characters in the book and from Hiltzik. There are stimulating comments on what worked, and what did not, and why. Of course, I don't agree with all of them, but formulating convincing counter-arguments can be quite challenging and instructive.
I particularly recommend the Epilogue, "Did Xerox Blow It?" Unfortunately, it really needs to be read in the context of the entire book. I first tried reading it out of order, and it didn't have the same force.
Hiltzik discusses fairly even-handedly Steve Jobs's claim that "Xerox could have owned the entire computer industry today. Could have been, you know, a company ten times its size. Could have been IBM--could have been the IBM of the nineties. Could have been the Microsoft of the nineties." After weighing the pros and cons, Hiltzik concludes that it's not clear that Xerox could have ridden the tiger to that kind of success -- even if it had avoided all its known blunders.
Hiltzik also points out that laser printing alone repaid the cost of PARC many times over, and that no company can expect to exploit every worthwhile thing that comes out of a research laboratory.