Monthly Archives: March 2013

Fumbling the Future

As part of my research for Chapter 12, I’ve recently finished reading the book Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored, the First Personal Computer.  The book was written in 1999 by Douglas K Smith and Robert C Alexander, two Harvard educated management consultants.  It chronicles the establishment of Xerox PARC, a corporate research facility set up by the US photocopier giant in 1970 to support the company’s diversification into computers, and the subsequent creation of a groundbreaking personal computer system by one of the most inventive research groups in the history of the computer.

Fumbling the Future does a good job of explaining why Xerox needed to diversify in the first place and describing the corporate politics which prevented the company from taking full advantage of the amazing computer technology developed at PARC.  Where the book isn’t quite so authoritative, however, is when it comes to the technology itself.

One of the reasons for the commercial failure of the personal interactive computer systems developed at PARC was that Xerox did not recognise the changes taking place elsewhere in the computer industry.  The Xerox Alto and its commercial offspring the Xerox 8010 Star were based on a minicomputer architecture but while they were being developed the industry was moving away from minicomputer-based systems to low-cost microcomputers.  By the time that the Star was introduced in April 1981, the market was already awash with inexpensive microcomputers from companies such as Apple, Commodore and Radio Shack.  The Star was clearly a superior product with a revolutionary graphical user interface which made it much easier to use than other personal computers but it was also much more expensive, costing more than 10 times as much as an Apple II.  When IBM introduced the 5150 PC a few months later in August 1981, the struggling Xerox Star was dead in the water.

Fortunately for Xerox, other technologies developed at PARC were successfully commercialised, such as Ethernet, which became the industry standard for connecting computers over a network, and the laser printer which generated many millions of dollars in product sales and licensing income for the company.  PARC also spawned numerous spin-outs, at least two of which (3Com and Adobe Systems) became household names.  Although Xerox failed to make money from it, PARC’s graphical user interface technology was the inspiration for both the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows, and no modern personal computing device is complete without a user interface that owes its existence to the work of Xerox PARC.

Sample Chapter Added

I’ve now added a sample chapter from the book in PDF format which can be accessed by clicking on the Download button on the ‘Sample Chapter’ page. I chose Chapter 1 (Computer Prehistory – Calculating Machines) as, unlike later chapters, it doesn’t rely on other chapters to set the scene and can be read as a standalone work.

As the title suggests, this chapter covers the earliest efforts to mechanise calculation, from the calculating aids of John Napier through the mechanical calculators of Schickard, Pascal and Leibniz to the incredible engines of Charles Babbage.  To put these into context and provide a more rounded picture, it also covers the advances in engineering technology or ‘building blocks’ which facilitated the development of such machines.

Like many good stories, there are also elements of mystery. These include the discovery of a mysterious object in an ancient shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900, which changed our perception of mechanical technology in the ancient world, and the role of the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, who may or may not have been responsible for the first design for a calculating machine.

Feedback would be much appreciated but please note that the text has not yet benefited from the attention of a professional editor so don’t be too surprised if you spot the occasional typo or grammatical howler.

A New Web Site

I’ve done it. I’ve finally created a web site and blog to tell the world what I’ve been spending all my spare time working on for the past 10 years. My thanks to Dr Scott Sherwood who provided the motivational push to get me started and also recommended using WordPress to create and maintain the site. It’s been a number of years since I was involved in web site development and the technology would appear to have improved immensely! It’s early days but the only problems encountered so far have all been caused by using Internet Explorer 8 rather than one of the newer browsers. These problems were easily fixed by installing the latest version of Mozilla Firefox.

My next task will be to provide a sample chapter of the book which can be freely downloaded from the site.  I’ll also add some appropriate images to make the site look less boring.