Thursday, July 01, 2010

Dealers of Lightning, by Michael A. Hiltzik

Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, by Michael A. Hiltzik

Several years ago I read Fumbling the Future about the failure of Xerox to capitalize on the creation of GUI-driven networked personal computers years before their competition. Dealers of Lightning is another look at the same PARC Labs organization, but concentrates more on the inventors than the inventions themselves. While equally compelling, Dealers of Lightning draws a different conclusion from Fumbling the Future: Xerox didn’t squander a golden opportunity, but instead the idea that a single company can remain in control of such a fast moving and constantly changing industry as computing is capricious and Xerox shouldn’t be blamed. While I agree the hardware/software trade is extremely fluid, the fact that Xerox—other than laser printers—has never been an important market player in this world still points to a serious lack of capitalizing on their intellectual property.

I hold a fairly low opinion of the predictive ability of most marketers and analysts (Gartner Group and Forrester Research especially). To me, these groups make broad forecasts and then reward companies with good reviews and placement in the appropriate magic quadrant that either pay them or develop product that make their predictions appear to be accurate. My cynicism aside, Dealers of Lightning provides a good overview of the perils of blindly following the path blazed by such divination. In 1981 Xerox conducted a series of market surveys that concluded “the Star was so good and latent demand so strong that customers would clamor for the technology regardless of price.” Of course, the Star sold for over $16,000 each and was a closed-system, competing with the open ~$5,000 IBM PC. Is it fair to hold analysts accountable for failing to predict that IBM would create a cheap machine that revolutionized the market? Maybe not, although Moore’s Law that foresaw exactly this was not only widely accepted in the industry but one of the founding principles of Xerox’s own PARC Labs.

While not a major aspect of the story, one line literally made me laugh out loud: “COBOL was the tedious programming language used for repetitive and uncomplicated business programs such as payrolls and budgets.” I currently work for Micro Focus, one of the leading maker of COBOL products in the world. There aren’t very many people in my company that would appreciate the language described as tedious and uncomplicated!

First Sentence:
The photograph shows a handsome man in a checked sport shirt, his boyish face half-obscured by a cloud of pipe smoke.

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