Xerox PARC: A Brief Nod to the Minds Behind Laser Printing, Ethernet, the GUI and More
Launched as a development arm of Xerox Corporation in 1970, PARC has played an instrumental role in the engineering of laser printing and many of the technologies that compose the PC you're reading this on. The team included many of the world's top computer scientists, not least of which were former employees of the Stanford Research Institute.
Despite its vast industry contributions, the group has been criticized for failing to capitalize on its many innovations. While some of our older readers might be familiar with the prolific Palo Alto Research Center, we think its accomplishments have largely escaped the younger tech crowd. We'd like to take a few minutes to give credit where credit's due.
HP's 71lb LaserJet hit the mainstream market in 1984 and printed at a whopping 300dpi/8ppm (worse than today's $100 units). It was quickly followed by competing devices from Brother, IBM, Apple and others, but even the early "consumer" implementations were incredibly expensive by modern standards. The LaserJet sold for $3,500 -- equal to roughly $7,600 today. Laser printing grew into a multibillion-dollar business for Xerox, easily funding all of its other projects.
Bill English, who assisted Engelbart with his original concept, later built the "Alto" ball mouse we're more familiar with while working for Xerox PARC in 1972. Its rectangular shape, button placement and top-protruding wire set the standard we still follow today. The device was created for PARC's early "Alto" machine, which was arguably the first modern personal computer with a mouse-driven GUI, but it never hit the retail market. PARC's Richard Lyon went on to build the first optical mouse in 1981.
Among those new applications was Bravo, the first WYSIWYG word processor (laid the foundation for MS Word). PARC also developed the first WYSIWYG integrated circuit editor, the Sil vector graphics editor, the Markup bitmap editor (a paint program), as well as programming languages like Interlisp, InterPress and Smalltalk -- the latter of which influenced C++, Objective C, CLOS, Java and more. By the late 70s, PARC invented linguistic technologies for spell-checking and created one of the first networked multiplayer games, Alto Trek.
Early Ethernet used coaxial cables, but they were eventually ditched in favor of twisted pair and fiber optic cables. Countless other networking-related advancements unfolded during the creation and improvement of Ethernet, including the PARC Universal Packet (PUP), an internetworking protocol suite that influenced the early work of TCP/IP and served as the cornerstone of Xerox's later XNS protocols. Moreover, PUP was a core component of PARC's prophetic "office of the future" concept (check out this early ad).
The Star itself sold for $16,000 but Xerox's full office setup cost more than $50,000. Not only was it expensive, but it was an entirely closed system, which meant all the hardware and software had to be built by Xerox. Only about 25,000 units were sold and many consider the Xerox Star a commercial failure. Others argue that it was simply ahead of its time. A few years later, Apple launched the Macintosh, which borrowed many concepts from PARC and is considered the first commercially successful GUI/mouse-equipped PC.
The PARCPad prototype was built in 1991 and measured 9x11x1 inches, weighed five pounds, had a Motorola processor, 4MB of RAM, a pen interface, a keyboard and an integrated mic. It also had near-field communication tech, which is only just rolling out on smartphones now. A similar device, called the PARCTab, was a palm-sized computer that allowed researchers to access the Internet, read their email, check the weather and many other basic handset functions. Further back, PARC's Alan Kay described the "Dynabook" in 1972.
- Non-erasable, magneto-optical storage technologies (commercialized via Optimem).
- The computer worm (created while experimenting with distributed computations).
- Amorphous silicon (used across various technologies, including LCD backplanes).
- A 16-bit coding system that lead to the ISO/IEC 10646 and the Unicode standard.
- LambdaMOO, one of the oldest standing real-time multi-user Web environments.
- High-power laser tech that is the backbone of our telecommunications network.
- The IPv6 and HTTP-NG protocols that govern and define how the Internet works.
PARC continues to tinker with bleeding edge technology, with much of it focused on "clean tech." This includes designing water treatment processes, improving the energy efficiency of data centers and cooling solutions, as well as researching renewable and storable energy. It's also studying sensemaking along with other human behaviors and working on "context-aware, content-centric" networking to improve the way data shifts around the Internet. You can read more about the company's current focus areas on its website.
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