DAVID BIEGELSEN: Biegelsen, a charter member of Xerox PARC and now a Research Fellow, has done pioneering work in the fields of acousto-optic interactions, electron spin resonance and fundamental aspects of disordered semiconductors, laser-induced thin-film crystallization and scanning tunneling microscopy, among others. Image: Courtesy of PARC
The days before every workstation came equipped with a PC, Internet connection and e-mail can seem quaint to us now—a simpler time when the clacking of typewriters filled the air in office buildings, an instant message was walking over to someone's desk and talking to them, and file clerks were entrusted to organize and protect top secret information vaulted inside steel cabinets. Nevertheless, to a large extent, today's sprawling array of software apps, wireless gadgets and social networks owe their existence to a team of researchers that was assembled 40 years ago in California's fledgling Silicon Valley to envision and create "the office of the future".
Xerox established its Palo Alto Research Center (better known as Xerox PARC) in June 1970 as a West Coast extension of its research and development laboratories. PARC researchers proved wildly successful in pioneering many contemporary business technologies—the PC (the first was called the "Alto"), graphical user interface (GUI), Ethernet local area computer network (LAN) and laser printing, to name just a few. Xerox, however, was considerably less successful (and less interested) in commercializing much of PARC's technology itself, leaving the door open for Apple, IBM, Microsoft and others to capitalize on PARC's innovations.
PARC may have missed out on becoming a household name, but few could deny that the organization has demonstrated an uncanny ability envision technology way ahead of its time. Researchers there continue to work in dozens of areas, including water treatment, renewable energy generation, organic and printed electronics, and artificial intelligence. Earlier this month the National Science Foundation chose a team that includes PARC as one of four project teams to participate in the Future Internet Architecture program. PARC, which was incorporated in 2002 as a wholly owned independent subsidiary of Xerox, is part of a project (with nine universities) worth about $8 million to develop an architecture called "Named-Data-Networking," which seeks to create a more flexible and secure network by identifying data through names (rather than numbers alone) and routing it based on those names.
We caught up with David Biegelsen, a charter member of Xerox PARC and currently a research fellow, to talk about PARC's early days, its bittersweet successes and its future. PARC is holding a formal celebration of its 40th anniversary on September 23.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How did you come to join Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1970? What were your expectations at that time?
I was at Washington University in Saint Louis doing work on low-temperature physics when I met George Pake. He had offered to sponsor me for a junior fellowship at Harvard, but I said no thanks, much to my young wife's chagrin. I wanted to go to an industrial lab. Later on George told me that he was going to start an industrial lab in Palo Alto and asked if I wanted to join. That was the extent of my interview with PARC.
What was PARC's original mission, and how has it changed over the ensuing four decades?
The charge given to George was, I believe, rather vague, and it took us at least a couple of years to figure out what was meant by "the office of the future" and what research we could do that would have a serious impact on Xerox's business. The hope when I came to PARC was that we would have a five- to seven-year honeymoon during which we could do something really radical. [Joseph Carl Robnett] Licklider and Bob Taylor [who became the head of PARC's computer sciences lab] had a notion of computers being able to talk to one another, a notion that gave rise to the ARPANET. But their vision wasn't just having networks between computers. They wanted people to be able to interact with other people in a transparent way. Doug Engelbart [inventor of the computer mouse] had a similar vision at SRI [originally known as the Stanford Research Institute]. PARC's Alto provided an incredible gravitational center for this work and pulled people together around a common goal of building the office of the future. That's still our goal, although we're an independent [wholly owned] subsidiary of Xerox now. We, and now many, many groups around the world, are still working on the implications of the technology we first demonstrated back then.
The first truly modern PC was the Alto, which featured a GUI and a mouse, and was developed 11 years before the Apple Macintosh in 1984. What are your recollections of the Alto? Did you use one either at work or home?
We probably built a couple hundred of them at first, and every one of us had our own. The Altos had Bravo [a word processor program], an Ethernet connection, and servers for extended memory as well as printing. The Alto replicated various office tools, but pretty soon those other tools were left so far in the dust that comparing them with the personal computer seemed pretty lame.
PARC's secretaries were given Altos as soon as possible so we could get real feedback [early industrial ethnography] on how they were used. The Alto maybe cost $20,000 in the early 1970s, but we knew that the costs would come down rapidly. Because we could spend money to build systems that would perform the way less expensive computers of the future would, we could use these stand-ins as platforms to develop all the software tools and interactivity that would be enabled. We thus had a real leg up on future competition. Unfortunately, it was very hard for some people to understand the implications of this. At the time, it was believed that with executives being males they would never learn how to type, and that it would be too expensive to give to secretaries. So who was going to buy one? You could already have access to a shared mainframe if you needed a computer and knew how to use one.
Mostly, the Alto was used for document processing—writing documents, modifying documents [using the new cut-and-paste features]. But what surprised everyone the most was their e-mail capability and how efficient it was. First, it was set up on the local area network and then it was expanded to a broader network within Xerox. I don't remember exactly, but I probably sent and received four or five e-mails a day at that time.