- Hardcover: 480 pages
- Publisher: HarperBusiness; 1st edition (March 3, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0887308910
- ISBN-13: 978-0887308918
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 82 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,085,587 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age Hardcover – Abridged, March 3, 1999
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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
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.
Top customer reviews
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This book is as much about the people as the technology and it does a great job of balancing the ideas, politics and excitement of the times. There is also a lot if insight into how large corporations operated at the time (and likely still do) and how infuriating bureaucracy can be, especially to technical and creative people such as engineers.
I spent a long time after completing the book researching various technologies, people and things that were brought up and covered.
The only downside with books like this is that they make me wish I was just a little older and was there in the early days of computing to share the passion and excitement.
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. Nevertheless, he has done an amazingly good job of capturing the gist. This book is more complete, more accurate, and more nuanced than Smith and Alexander's Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored, the First Personal Computer.
Hiltzik is an excellent writer, and the book is a page-turner (even when you know how it ends). The plot is gripping; the cast of characters large and interesting. Parts of the book are too incredible to be published as fiction. I stayed up well past my bedtime three different nights, repeatedly promising myself I'd read "just one more chapter."
My main complaint is that the book is so crowded with people and events that almost all the characters come out one-dimensional, often associated with a single recurring tag phrase. Bob Taylor at least gets a two-dimensional treatment, but it is too often through the eyes of his (numerous) enemies; the admiration and loyalty he inspired in many others is frequently remarked on, but never explained.
The book is littered with insights about research and technology transfer -- both from the characters in the book and from Hiltzik. There are stimulating comments on what worked, and what did not, and why. Of course, I don't agree with all of them, but formulating convincing counter-arguments can be quite challenging and instructive.
I particularly recommend the Epilogue, "Did Xerox Blow It?" Unfortunately, it really needs to be read in the context of the entire book. I first tried reading it out of order, and it didn't have the same force.
Hiltzik discusses fairly even-handedly Steve Jobs's claim that "Xerox could have owned the entire computer industry today. Could have been, you know, a company ten times its size. Could have been IBM--could have been the IBM of the nineties. Could have been the Microsoft of the nineties." After weighing the pros and cons, Hiltzik concludes that it's not clear that Xerox could have ridden the tiger to that kind of success -- even if it had avoided all its known blunders.
Hiltzik also points out that laser printing alone repaid the cost of PARC many times over, and that no company can expect to exploit every worthwhile thing that comes out of a research laboratory.
I might have considered five stars, but the editing is appalling, actually. Also, I did find that the names and timelines started to get confusing and blurred quite a bit. A table or two would have been helpful. It may be that the problem is just that these are not included in the Kindle version, I don't know.
I enjoyed the detail presented in the background material about the people and circumstances that came together to found PARC. There's a lot of good stuff about so many of the seminal minds and ideas that made much of the computing environment that we use today possible. I believe that most of the major breakthrough inventions that came out of PARC are written about, including the background, people, and stories surrounding them. If you are interested in the history of computing and invention, this is wonderful, fascinating stuff.
I expected more material about how and why Xerox missed so many opportunities to capitalize on the inventions created in this extroadinary place. To be fair, however, the story may be as simple as presented. The author also debunks the myth that Xerox didn't reap any reward from inventions that came out of PARC. But woven throughout the text and stories in this book is a case study about innovation within large companies, and how it is actively killed.
Again, I very much enjoyed this book. The stories that I knew little about before reading it are now much more clear. I found the stories fairly presented and free of jargon.