September 21, 2010 3:19 PM
Xerox PARC, where technology suddenly turned 'personal'
PARC, as any student of IT will know, is where an extraordinary number of computing innovations were first thought of, in a building famously 3,000 miles from the HQ of then giant parent Xerox Corporation.
These include the personal computer (the forgotten 'Alto'), the laser printer (and a page description language), Ethernet (originally a wireless technology), the graphical user interface (GUI), object-oriented programming, and the mouse.
Most industries do as much in a generation let alone all this coming out of one small building from one set of engineers in a short period of time.
PARC deserves its status as a crucible. PARC was in California, right by Stanford University, of course, the joint birthplace of the semiconductor industry, and then the PC industry that followed, so the location was no accident.
More like a high-flying university department with money than a business spin-off, PARC was an example of what engineers in the right place at the right time do when given an open enough brief. Rather like European physics lab CERN, which ceded the world hyperlinking and the Web years later, PARC is an example of how powerful ideas can be when not tied up in patents by IP lawyers.
PARC is often taken as an example of how a big company, Xerox, blew it, but that's a shareholder-oriented way of looking at the world. The PARC crew saw themselves much more an innovators for a better world through better technology aimed at people, and in this respect they are tinged with the long-gone, unfashionable idealism of the late 1960s.
After 40 years, that is PARC's real contribution: to have turned the industry towards products aimed at people in their personal space. The results of this change, from the iPhone and iPod to social media, are all around us even if PARC itself has been consigned to legend and myth.