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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age » User review

The history of PARC without the myth and bias

  • Mar 21, 2003
Rating:
+3
Although the history of the ubiquitous computer is a short one, it has a mythology so extensive, it could have been developed over centuries. Some of the most unusual, imaginative, intelligent and powerful personalities in the history of the human race have been a part of its' development. One of the most pervasive myths is that Xerox could have become the most dominant company in the history of the world as a consequence of the leadership it could have had in computing. There is no doubt that the ideas that were developed in the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) were some of the most original and now most widely used. There will probably never again be such a concentration of the leading talent of a particular field in one place. Without question, they were also a strong-willed group, that led to natural personality conflicts, which no doubt would have led to dissolution of the group after a few years no matter what. Hiltzik is very pragmatic about this, understanding and explaining that this is typical of leading people in the computing field.
While it is true that Xerox could have dominated the computer field had they been able to exploit all the ideas, the reality is that it was most likely impossible for any company to absorb all that was produced there. It is ironic that the problem was that the researchers were too productive for their parent company to handle. Once again, the author understands this very well, unlike others whose focus seems to be trying to make Xerox a laughingstock. Furthermore, these were the early days of computing and there were few that could truly see where the computing field was going. Nevertheless, the management of Xerox was hardly blameless, their level of cluelessness has to rank among the highest.
What I liked best about the book were the last sections about the supposed conversion that Steve Jobs underwent when he was shown the technology being developed at PARC. The myth is that the basic ideas of the Macintosh were "stolen" from PARC when they were shown to Jobs and his engineering team during a tour. While it is true that Jobs was convinced, saying that the technology was taken from PARC does an enormous disservice to the engineering staff at Apple, who did their own research and development. The most that can be said is that what they saw at PARC convinced them that it could be done, but did little to show them how to do it.
This is a fascinating book about a set of incredible people. If you were to make a list of all of the major ideas of computing, you would have to take some time before you could separate out those that did not undergo a large amount of their development at PARC. Bereft of the myth and biases, from this book you can learn what actually happened in that incredible place and at that unique time.

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More Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PA... reviews
review by . December 29, 1999
What I really appreciate about Dealers of Lightning is that, for the first time in a single volume, there is a comprehensive analysis of the legendary Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). Its brilliant young inventors produced a number of breakthroughs in office technology. Hiltzik examines each of the key scientists, led by Bob Taylor, as well as Steve Jobs and others who visited to observe and to learn... and departed with information without which they probably could not have succeeded. This …
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Charles Ashbacher ()
Ranked #78
Charlie Ashbacher is a compulsive reader and writer about many subjects. His prime areas of expertise are in mathematics and computers where he has taught every course in the mathematics and computer … more
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Throughout the '70s and '80s, Xerox Corporation provided unlimited funding to a renegade think tank called the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Occupying a ramshackle building adjacent to Stanford University, PARC's occupants would prove to be the greatest gathering of computer talent ever assembled: it conceptualized the very notion of the desktop computer, long before IBM launched its PC, and it laid the foundation for Microsoft Windows with a prototype graphical user interface of icons and layered screens. Even the technology that makes it possible for these words to appear on the screen can trace its roots to Xerox's eccentric band of innovators. But despite PARC's many industry-altering breakthroughs, Xerox failed ever to grasp the financial potential of such achievements. And while Xerox's inability to capitalize upon some of the world's most important technological advancements makes for an interesting enough story,Los Angeles Timescorrespondent Michael Hiltzik focuses instead on the inventions and the inventors themselves. We meet fiery ringleader Bob Taylor, a preacher's son from Texas known as much for his ego as for his uncanny leadership; we trace the term "personal computer" back to Alan Kay, a visionary who dreamed of a machine small enough to tuck under the arm; and we learn how PARC's farsighted principles led to collaborative brilliance. Hiltzik's consummate account of this burgeoning era won't improve Xerox's stake in the computer industry by much, but it ...
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ISBN-10: 0887308910
ISBN-13: 978-0887308918
Author: Michael A. Hiltzik
Genre: Computers & Internet
Publisher: HarperBusiness
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