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Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age Paperback – April 5, 2000


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: HarperBusiness (April 5, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0887309895
  • ISBN-13: 978-0887309892
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #155,916 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 Times correspondent 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 should at least give credit where credit is due. Recommended. --Rob McDonald --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Anyone who uses a personal computer is familiar with technologies pioneered by Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which started operation in 1970. The received wisdom is that Xerox muffed the chance to dominate the personal computer era by allowing revolutionary technologies developed at PARC to be snatched up by strangers and rivals (most famously, Apple, which took the mouse and the graphical user interface from PARC). L.A. Times reporter Hiltzik argues that the received wisdom is wrong. He expertly situates the story of which products actually made it to market for Xerox (e.g., the laser printer) and which technologies Xerox leaked away (WYSIWYG word processing, hypertext, Ethernet and TCP/IP, to name a few) in a broader analysis of the role of basic science research in business. He praises Xerox execs for understanding the difference between basic research and product development and for exempting PARC from the stultifying effect of having to do the latter. Among the many facts of life on the cutting edge that Hiltzik makes abundantly clear is that very bad decisions are often made for very good business reasons. While granting that Xerox could certainly have better exploited the new technologies issuing from PARC, he emphasizes that the company brought together "a group of superlatively creative minds at the very moment when they could exert maximal influence on a burgeoning technology, and financed their work with unexampled generosity." This is a top-notch business page-turner. Unburdened by any gee-whiz jaw-dropping, yet fully appreciative of the power of creative minds, it is informed by a sure understanding of the complex relationship between business and technology. Major ad/promo.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Bennis and Biederman devote one chapter in Organizing Genius to the PARC operations.
Robert Morris
This book gives a more in-depth look at the personalities and motivations of people I've read so much about.
tdwpgh
What I found was a very well written story of PARC (Xerox's research centre in Palo Alto).
Amazon Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 29, 1999
Format: Hardcover
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 is a riveting account of collaborative genius. It has the colorful characters and multiple of plots (and sub-plots) one encounters in a novel written by Dickens or Balzac. Bennis and Biederman devote one chapter in Organizing Genius to the PARC operations. For those who desire a complete account of those memorable years, here it is...well-told.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Charles Ashbacher HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 28, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is a gripping history about key software innovations that underlie much current US economic success. These software technologies are now deeply embedded in everyday business practices and they formed a launching pad for today's computer-based communications and the Internet. As traditional US manufacturing declines in competitiveness, it is hard to imagine that the US would be enjoying its current prosperity if basic innovations like those developed by PARC and by early ARPA research had not occurred when they did.
As a technical participant in the Xerox Star commercialization effort, I worked with many of the PARC researchers described here. Hiltzik tells a very balanced and nuanced story that certainly captures the concepts, dynamics, and conflicts of that time. One can quibble with whether the participants' recollections are always fair, but Hiltzik's story about these exciting times is basically accurate with respect to the personalities and events that I knew, and he fills in a wealth of background and details that I didn't know.
This book corrects a lot of misinformation about PARC research and Xerox commercialization efforts. It is a good read for anybody interested in the history of technology. It should be required reading for everybody in research management--for many examples of what to do and what not to do. This history should also be read by anyone who believes another big leap in software technology can be achieved while research funding is cut back, universities are drained of their talent, and almost everyone competitively focuses on six month commercialization goals.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By James J. Horning on March 26, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you read only one book about research management, researchers, or computing research this year, this is the one to read.
Dealers of Lightning is the story of the seminal first 13 years of Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center, a period in which PARC developed laser printers, the ethernet, internets, networked personal computers, the client-server model, bitmap displays, icons and graphical user interfaces, the desktop metaphor and overlapping windows, and various other foundations of the computing world as we know it today. But this is not primarily a book about technology -- it is about the people who generated it: How they were brought together, how they interacted, and finally, how they dispersed.
Michael Hiltzik is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and he has clearly done his homework. He seems to have talked to all the major (and many of the minor) figures involved, read everything that has been written on the subject, and understood most of it. There are ample footnotes, source citations, glossary, and acknowledgements. Some of his accounts are as close to definitive as we are ever likely to see. For example, his story of the famous demos for Steve Jobs that had such an influence on the Lisa and the Macintosh (while recognizing that participants recollections conflict) has more information about them than I was able to gather while at PARC.
As an "unindicted co-conspirator," neither interviewed by Hiltzik, nor mentioned by name (although I was close to the epicenter for the last half of the book's time span), I have both inside information and personal biases. I spotted a few small factual errors, and in some cases my interpretation of events is different than Hiltzik's.
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