The Ones That Got Away


Question: What company developed the personal computer (as we know it), graphic user interface, mouse, word processing, and many other digital elements now commonplace in the contemporary world? Apple? Microsoft? Adobe? Nope. These came relatively late to the game. As detailed in the book Dealers in Lightning by Michael A. Hiltzik, the originator of these everyday mainstays was Xerox. That’s right. The little ol’ copying machine company.

Along with the above-mentioned advances, Xerox also developed or laid the groundwork for technologies such as computer animation, compact discs and DVD’s (remember those?), digital downloads, and the laser printer. Basically, everything the world uses. And here’s the kicker – the only product Xerox capitalized on was the printer. The rest of their gold mine was abandoned and later adopted by some of today’s leading tech companies. Admittedly, Xerox made a tidy sum on its innovative printer. But the company could have had it all. The likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates might have remained ordinary programmers, unknown to the world.

An Extremely Concise History

It all began in the 1970’s with a consensus of opinion at Xerox – the paperless office was fast approaching. Not a good prospect for a company that relied on relentless paper usage. The solution was obvious. Be the first to harness emerging digital technologies and develop devices ideally suited to the coming paperless environment.

To get the ball rolling, Xerox partnered with Stanford University and developed the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), located near the school. The country’s leading computer programmers were sought out, brought to the facility, and assigned to lead the envisioned digital transformation. One half of the team did the concepting, while the other half converted the daring ideas into practical hardware and software. Restrictions were few – the wizards were to let their imaginations run wild. And they did. The result was the groundbreaking collection of products and tools previously highlighted.

So what happened? Exactly what you wouldn’t expect. Instead of embracing the mind-boggling innovations, the resident sales team and established order cringed. Not a sliver of value did they see in the innovations – except for the laser printer, which, of course, used paper. Word processing and graphic user interfaces would go nowhere, so they thought.

Frustrated, many of the creators jumped ship – and with them went the bundle of ideas they had pioneered. The defectors eventually formed their own companies (such as Adobe) or partnered and shared concepts with future superstars such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who did see value in wacky advances such as graphic user interfaces and word processing software. One of Pixar’s co=founders also came from PARC. So did many other leading figures.

The rest, as they say, is history. Which leads to this humble recommendation for corporate decision makers everywhere – the next time a group of bona fide computer wizards hand you world-transforming inventions on a silver platter, listen. Your company’s stock could be worth a whole lot more if you do.

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