Issue #28: Programming As A Hobby,  Library

Michael Hiltzik

Imagine that you are a fourth grader in California, in 1973. You were 6 or 7 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, and there were still astronauts up there just last year. On the radio you can hear Pink Floyd, Elton John or Led Zeppelin. One day your teacher receives an invitation for an experiment involving school kids in a laboratory somewhere in Palo Alto, a location 40 minutes south of San Francisco. Even stranger, the invitation comes from a well-known firm in the photocopier business.

Imagine that you follow your teacher, and a young man greets you at the entrance of the building. A few minutes later you are standing in front of a rather strange contraption sitting on top of a desk. It consists of something looking like a television set standing on its side, a typewriter without paper, and a small corded box with colored buttons on top. Next to the desk, there is something that looks like a huge photocopier. Cables all over the floor connect these pieces of equipment together. There are a few more similar machines in the room, and more cables in between.

The young man turns the machine on, and a series of rectangles, pictures and strange words appear on the screen. He explains that this is a computer, and that what you see on the screen is a language that tells it what to do.

The man was Alan Kay. The computer was the Alto. The photocopier was actually one of the firsts laser printers. The cables were Ethernet ones. The language on the screen was Smalltalk. The laboratory was the Palo Alto Research Center. The company was Xerox. The year was 1973.

Without knowing it, these kids were inside of a time machine, witnessing what their own future was going to look like, merely 20 years later.

This is the world described by Michael Hiltzik in his book, “Dealers of Lightning.” The first modern office, exactly as we have known it for the past 20 years, with networked workstations enabling people to write and print documents in a WYSIWYG editor, create applications using Smalltalk, send and receive e-mail and much more.

As incredible as it may sound, Xerox had the future in its hands, and Hiltzik explains how it let it slip through its fingers. The author conducted interviews with the original characters, but this book is actually a novel. There is suspense and plot twists, and it is written to keep you on the edge of your seat.

“Millions of people will write non-trivial programs, and hundreds of thousands will try to sell them.(…) Almost everyone who uses a pencil will use a computer, and although most people will not do any serious programming, almost everyone will be a potential customer for serious programs of some kind… Such a mass market will require mass distribution.”

Butler Lampson, in 1972, quoted in chapter 15, “On The Lunatic Fringe.”

Michael Hiltzik approached this story as a Pulitzer prize article, using his experience as a journalist for newspapers and magazines in the United States. The book is divided in chapters for each of the “inventors” of the key technologies created in PARC from 1971 to 1984, and how each of those inventors ended up creating their own enterprises (like Adobe) or working for other companies willing to build the next wave of computers (like Apple or Microsoft.)

The most important part of the plot, in my opinion, remains the inner tension in Xerox, between the East and the West coast; between Rochester and Palo Alto. Two very different views of the future of technology ultimately decided the fate of PARC. The management of Xerox, three timezones away, simply could not resign itself to dismiss the photocopier, and this observation led to the dismissal of the Alto as a potential product until too late.

Xerox decided to not enter the personal computer market in 1977, 4 years before the introduction of the IBM PC, 6 years before the introduction of the Apple Lisa, 7 years before the Mac. Xerox decided its fate and changed the course of technology forever. In a way, Xerox was the first company to be disrupted by software, or from within. We are happy to say that every company is a software company these days, but few understand the implications of this assertion. In an era where software companies challenge classic industries like automobile or retail, there are more than a few bits of wisdom to learn from the fate of Xerox.

This book is intended to all audiences, technical or not. The descriptions of the breakthroughs and technical challenges faced by the scientists in the laboratories are not explained in drastic detail; there are, however, interesting analogies with the world of the year 2000, which provide the necessary context for the reader.

Cover photo by the author.

Adrian Kosmaczewski is a software consultant and evangelist. He is a published writer, trainer and speaker. He holds a Master's degree from the University of Liverpool.