PARC's location on the west coast was chosen to give researchers access to SRI, Stanford University, and other resources in the Palo Alto area. The distance provided a nearly 5,000-kilometer buffer between PARC researchers and Xerox corporate management in Rochester, N.Y., but it also made it difficult for the two sides to get on the same page. What are your thoughts on PARC's location?
Both of those statements are true. PARC's location was a very thoroughly thought out decision by George Pake, [Xerox Chief Scientist] Jack Goldman and other Xerox executives. In the first 10 years or so Xerox did an incredible job of buffering us against the recession that hit the Silicon Valley [in the early 1970s]. While Berkeley Computer Corp. and others were cutting staff, we were bringing people in. George definitely wanted it to be near one of a small set of universities, but being near one on the west coast kept PARC researchers out of the day-to-day operations that took place in the corporate offices and labs back east. We had a much longer-term horizon than was allowed for many people in the labs in Rochester, N.Y.
Still, our communication with the corporate offices was not so much limited by the distance. I think it was really limited on both our ends by our different visions for the future and about how to commercialize the things we developed.
PARC is known for developing a wide variety of technologies, including laser printing, the Ethernet, the GUI, ubiquitous computing, blue lasers, MEMS (microelectromechanical systems ), natural language processing, flexible and printed electronics, and the first PC. What do you see as PARC's greatest contribution to society?
PARC's biggest legacy was the Alto. We weren't just creating a personal computer, we were creating personal computing, even as most companies, like IBM, were moving away from this direction because there didn't seem to be a need for a personal computer. But PARC allowed people to come together and work on the systems that had to be developed around the computer, like Ethernet, the GUI, and all the software personal computers need and can enable. More important than the physical platform was allowing the interpersonal collaborations to occur that led to new tools. This is how evolution works—toolmaking is one of the things that allows humanity to evolve.
PARC has been criticized for not capitalizing on many of its inventions. For example, Apple took the mouse mainstream, and it became standard on all PCs when IBM-compatible computers switched from MS-DOS to Windows. What was Xerox's thinking in not commercializing certain technologies?
I was not directly involved in the computer developments, but [as an organization] it was hard because we wanted Xerox to bring to the world all of these advances that we found so exciting. It's like being a child; you get all antsy to get it out there, and we were frustrated that it wasn't getting out there. But also like a child, it was our own naiveté that brought out a $20,000 very capable computer that nobody really could afford to buy many of. It's easy to overlook that these costs are very hard to drive down. You need suppliers and lots of other infrastructure to help scale the price down. The frustration wasn't just Xerox's inability to realize and profit from the gold mine they were sitting on, there were many other aspects.
What's been the biggest misconception about PARC over the years?
That the primary technology impact to come out of PARC was the personal computer. It's really "personal computing" that's our legacy, the ability to support interpersonal computing and collaboration. PARC is also responsible for many other technologies—obviously laser printing as well as high-power and other types of laser diodes that are the backbone of our telecommunications network; amorphous semiconductors, which became the backplanes for LCD displays; and now printed organic electronics which can enable flexible, lightweight displays and other devices. PARC has also spawned many companies like Adobe, 3Com, Spectra Diode, just to name a few. Many of Microsoft's products like Word got their starts here as well.
What do you foresee in PARC's future?
PARC's future is much like its past—providing our customers and the world with radically new ways of interacting with each other and interacting with our physical surroundings. [Former PARC computer scientist] Alan Kay said the best way to predict the future is to invent it. I would tweak that to say that you have to invent multiple futures because you don't know which one[s] will prevail.