Every December for the last few years, NY Times OpEd columnist David Brooks picks the best magazine essays of the year. He describes his choices in two of his columns, with links to the essays in their online version. I generally really like his selections. One of his choices this year is a New Yorker article by bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell - Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation.
Gladwell is a great storyteller. He uses Steve Jobs’ legendary 1979 visit to Xerox PARC as the springboard for his reflections on the nature of revolutionary innovations. While describing his version of the legend, he also gives us his version of the truth about innovation, including the evolution of an innovation concept from original idea, to lab experimentation, and on to marketplace success; the role that environment plays in the eventual fate of an innovation concept; and the messy, probabilistic, hit-and-miss nature of disruptive innovations.
Xerox founded its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1970, which brought together some of the world's best computer engineers and programmers. In the 1970s, PARC was the mecca for innovation in computing. In 1979, Steve Jobs asked Xerox to let him tour PARC, and in return he would allow Xerox to buy a hundred thousand shares of Apple for a million dollars. After much discussion, Xerox agreed.
Among other notable achievements, the PARC team had developed a prototype of their experimental Alto workstation. The Alto embodied a number of the most advanced ideas in computing, including graphical user interfaces, the mouse, bitmap displays, windows, icons, and local area networks. Legend has it that when Jobs was shown the working Alto prototype with all its innovative capabilities, “he was very excited . . . and started jumping around the room, shouting, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything with this? This is the greatest thing. This is revolutionary!’ ”
Jobs raced back to Apple and told his engineers to change the course of the personal computers under development and copy the Alto’s advanced capabilities he had just been shown at PARC. The result was the Lisa introduced by Apple in 1980.
Xerox announced the Star workstation, the successor to the Alto, in 1981. It was expensive, slow and underpowered. It was marketed not as a stand-alone personal computer, but as part of an integrated office system which included file and print servers. It was not a commercial success, and eventually Xerox withdrew altogether from the workstation market.
Meanwhile, Apple followed the Lisa with the Macintosh in 1984. The Mac became one of the most successful and influential products in the history of IT. Apple beat Xerox in the marketplace because while it took Steve Jobs only a minute to see the huge potential of the Alto capabilities to revolutionize personal computing, the Xerox team did not appreciate the enormous value of what they had created.
“This is the legend of Xerox PARC,” writes Gladwell. Jobs is the Biblical Jacob and Xerox is Esau, squandering his birthright for a pittance. In the past thirty years, the legend has been vindicated by history. Xerox, once the darling of the American high-technology community, slipped from its former dominance. Apple is now ascendant, and the demonstration in that room in Palo Alto has come to symbolize the vision and ruthlessness that separate true innovators from also-rans. As with all legends, however, the truth is a bit more complicated.”
No one will disagree that Jobs and the Apple engineers were influenced by the work at PARC. But, did they actually steal the design for the Lisa and the Macintosh from Xerox, the legend implies? A number of books and articles have pointed out that Apple was already working on graphical user interfaces and related concepts prior to Jobs’ visit to PARC. But, how about the idea for the mouse? Did Jobs take that from Xerox?
The mouse was actually invented in the 1960s by Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute, located about fifteen minutes from PARC. Engelbart was a prolific inventor and a pioneer in the field of human-computer interaction. He came up with many of the user interface innovations that the PARC and Apple teams later built on, including the mouse.
According to Gladwell, Engelbart’s 1960s mouse “was a bulky, rectangular affair, with what looked like steel roller-skate wheels.” Gladwell interviewed Dean Hovey, one of the original designers of Apple’s mouse. Hovey got his marching orders directly from Jobs a couple of days after the PARC visit. “You’ve got to do a mouse,” Jobs told him. The Xerox mouse “cost three hundred dollars to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans.”
“If you lined up Engelbart’s mouse, Xerox’s mouse, and Apple’s mouse, you would not see the serial reproduction of an object. You would see the evolution of a concept,” was Gladwell’s conclusion. This evolution - which is typical in many disruptive innovation concepts, - was composed of three distinct major phases, each having different objectives and requiring different skills.
Englebart was the visionary inventor, who came up with the idea of the mouse before anyone else did. His objective was the search for knowledge, not the development of a product. The team at Xerox PARC were the lab-based engineers that proved the feasibility of Englebart’s invention by building a working prototype, and integrating the mouse with all the other capabilities of the Alto workstation. It was relatively expensive and not all that easy to use, but it definitely worked and was quite adequate for expert users in a lab environment. Apple then took the concept to the next level by significantly lowering the price of the mouse, improving its quality and making it much easier to use. They popularized the mouse and made it a commercial success in the marketplace.
In his article, Gladwell discusses a related PARC innovation - the laser printer. The laser printer was invented in the late 1960s in Xerox’s Webster research center outside Rochester, New York, by optical engineer Gary Starkweather. Starkweather told Gladwell that his boss at Xerox thought that laser printers were the most brain-dead idea he had ever heard because lasers were too expensive. Starkweather was told to find something else to work on, a request that he ignored as he continued to refine his invention, now hidden in a back room behind a black curtain. When he learned that Xerox was opening a research center in Palo Alto, three thousand miles away from its New York headquarters, he demanded a transfer or else he would quit. His wish was granted and he transferred to PARC in 1971.
The PARC team really liked Starkweather’s laser printer because they needed a way to print , - on a regular sheet of paper, - the graphical images on the screens of their bitmap displays. This is precisely what laser printers did uniquely well. It was a marriage made in heaven. The strong support he received in the highly creative atmosphere of PARC enabled Starkweather to get a prototype up and running within ten months of his arrival. He was thus able to finally prove the superior value of his invention. Xerox eventually embraced laser printing as the foundation of their successful computer printer business.
“The reason Xerox invented the laser printer, in other words, is that it invented the personal computer,” writes Gladwell. “Without the big idea, it would never have seen the value of the small idea. If you consider innovation to be efficient and ideas precious, that is a tragedy: you give the crown jewels away to Steve Jobs, and all you’re left with is a printer. But in the real, messy world of creativity, giving away the thing you don’t really understand for the thing that you do is an inevitable tradeoff.” Xerox did not come out all that badly in this tradeoff. “Gary Starkweather’s laser printer made billions for Xerox. It paid for every other single project at Xerox PARC, many times over.”
To achieve marketplace success, disruptive innovations need to be nurtured in the proper environment. Xerox was eventually able to embrace laser printers and make them a success in the marketplace because they nicely fit into a business they understood well, - copiers, printing and document management. But, in the late 1970s Xerox was no longer in the computer business, having exited that market in 1975. This made it very difficult for the company to appreciate the business potential of the Alto and related computer technologies being developed at PARC.
Apple, on the other hand, was the leading personal computer company in the late 1970s. They had pretty much invented the personal computer market and understood the business better than just about anyone else. They were working hard on future versions of their products. So, it was natural that Jobs and his team were able to immediately appreciate the market potential of the Alto, while Xerox did not because they were no longer in that business.
It's not enough for an innovation to be great in order to be successful. It also has to be in the right place and at the right time, which is why so many innovations originally invented by one company end up being successfully commercialized by another.
What can you do to improve the odds of coming up with successful innovations? For the answers to this question, Gladwell turns to UC Davis professor of psychology, Dean Simonton, who succinctly wrote: “Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.” In other words, “The more successes there are, the more failures there are as well.” Really creative people have lots and lots and lots of ideas. They are “wild geysers of creative energy. . . There is nothing neat and efficient about creativity . . .The person who had far more ideas than the rest of us will have far more bad ideas than the rest of us, too.”
“This is why managing the creative process is so difficult,” concludes Malcolm Gladwell in his excellent New Yorker article. “The innovator says go. The company says stop - and maybe the only lesson of the legend of Xerox PARC is that what happened there happens, in one way or another, everywhere.”