PARC Fires Back at New Yorker, Claiming Old Apple Legend Misses Point of How Innovation Works Today

Three staff members at PARC, aka Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, have published a feisty response to Malcolm Gladwell’s May 16 New Yorker article, “Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple, and the Truth about Innovation.” In short, the post acknowledges that the legend of Xerox PARC—the oft, oft, oft-repeated story (repeated once again by Gladwell) that Xerox “flubbed the future” by giving away its best idea ever, the personal computer, to a young Steve Jobs—is basically true. But the essay points out that it took some circumstances unique to PARC to generate the idea in the first place, and that the story wouldn’t play out the same way if were happening today.

The Gladwell article is subscription-only, but I can boil it down for you pretty quickly. It tells how 24-year-old Jobs visited PARC in late 1979; got a demonstration of the Xerox Alto personal computer from PARC engineers Larry Tesler and Bill Atkinson; took the concept of the Alto’s $300, three-button computer mouse to an industrial designer named Dean Hovey, who redesigned it as single-button mouse that could be built for $15; had Apple’s software team soup up the Alto’s graphical user interface with menus and direct manipulation features; and eventually ended up with the Macintosh.

Then the piece goes into a highly Gladwellian digression about innovation in the Russian, U.S., and Israeli militaries, arguing that it takes a combination of Soviet-style systematic analysis, U.S.-style high technology, and Israeli-style improvisation under constraints to run a successful war or create a successful product. PARC, he argues, had only the technological abundance, not the analysis or the constraints. He drives home the point by telling the story of the Xerox scientist Gary Starkweather, who was so annoyingly prolific that managers nearly killed off his laser printer idea—which, of course, later grew into the lab’s greatest legacy and “paid for every other single project at Xerox PARC, many times over.”

In very polite language, the PARC post today, written by online strategist Sonal Chokshi, business development director Lawrence Lee, and research fellow Pete Pirolli, argues that Gladwell’s article presents a slightly oversimplified picture of the relationship between invention (creating a new idea) and innovation (applying the idea in the marketplace). In particular, the authors argue that you can’t have innovation without lots of invention, and that PARC—having worked out a better way to collaborate with outside partners—is now pretty good at both. “In contrast to [Gladwell’s] thesis that there’s a clean split between invention and innovation, and that companies are structurally limited in their innovation opportunities—we believe that there is now a framework that allows companies to innovate beyond their comfort zones and existing infrastructures. It’s called open innovation,” the post says.

Open innovation is the idea, worked out by Berkeley business professor Hank Chesbrough and others, that companies should have permeable boundaries when it comes to intellectual property—licensing in technology from outside when it’s key to building new business lines, and licensing it out from inside when it’s not being properly exploited. After going through a semi-spinoff that transformed it from an R&D wing of Xerox into a contract research organization, PARC is now largely in the business of open innovation, helping its clients capitalize on their own technologies and seasoning them with concepts homegrown at PARC.

Chokshi, Lee, and Pirolli point out the PARC of today takes a “portfolio” approach to innovation, encouraging some risky projects while at the same time investing in others that are more likely to pan out (a theme Lee covered in an earlier Xconomy guest post). They say you have to invent lots of things (like the Alto) before you find a profitable one (like the laser printer); “the number of successful ideas that emerge is a function of the volume of failed ones,” they write.

They also argue that PARC is a good partner today because it has internalized many of the concepts that Gladwell wrote about, such as the need to impose limits to turn ideas into innovations: “As Gladwell observes, Apple wanted to build a popular vs. a personal computer. So Steve Jobs pushed his designer by adding constraints to the mouse such as low price and high reliability. We’ve found that you don’t have to ‘turn the &*^%$;# tap’ of creativity off—but you can focus the tap by imposing constraints (in our case, these often come from our clients reflecting their product or service strategy).”

If Jobs visited PARC today, the PARC authors conclude, the result would probably be an open collaboration rather than simple leakage of PARC’s ideas. “There would be a much better understanding of his goals, our goals, and what we would want to accomplish—together—through open innovation,” they write. The bottom line: PARC sees itself as a very different place today from the one depicted in the Apple legend, and it’s taking advantage of its moment in the New Yorker’s spotlight to make sure the outside world understands the difference too.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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13 responses to “PARC Fires Back at New Yorker, Claiming Old Apple Legend Misses Point of How Innovation Works Today”

  1. Wade — this is great stuff! Having lived in Palo Alto from 1967-1979,
    I had a good seat from which to watch Nolan Bushnell bring Pong, Gary Kildall fight it out for Intel and IBM’s love with C/PM, and to be there for the genesis of Apple and its tryst with Xerox/PARC. Thanks for bringing light — aka facts — into the open. The mist is getting thicker, not thinner around the Apple II, Mac, Lisa and progeny and this helps — great memories rekindled — but, watch out for those tipping points!

  2. Gil Press says:

    I never understood the “oft-repeated story” about how Xerox “fumbled the future,” a story that has been supported by Xerox employees, then and now. It so happened that I watched last night episode 3 of the documentary Triumph of the Nerds, titled “Great artists steal.” Steve Jobs says in it that he was so taken away by the Alto’s GUI, that he simply ignored two other important inventions that were demonstrated to him at PARC: Object-oriented programming and Ethernet (PARC had a network of 100 Altos). So, did Jobs also “fumble the future” by missing the LAN market, which by the way, was based on “open innovation,” a collaboration of Xerox, DEC and Intel, on which 3com capitalized? And what exactly did Xerox miss? Not becoming Apple? In the greater scheme of things, the Macintosh was a commercial failure, saved (only for a few years) by a Xerox invention, the laser printer. Didn’t the “suits” at Xerox make the right decision to successfully commercialize only this invention, which was a modification of their core technology, and not follow the failed paths of so many other companies who lost their focus?

  3. Glenn Miller says:

    Sounds like Gladwell went straight to “Little Bets” by Peter Sims for his material. I’m going to have to go pick up a copy of the NYer to find out, I suppose.

  4. Gweedo says:

    Gladwell is a con artist and it is time to stop listening to him.

    Apple didn’t make off with the goods from Xerox, Apple sold a large chunk of Apple in exchange for the rights to use the inventions of Xerox.

    Further, Xerox did not invent the GUI. Apple did. It’s not like Xerox had a Macintosh OS in their labs. They had some ideas, and rudimentary technology, but they hadn’t figured it all out. Apple took the ideas and turned them into a product.

    As to the other commenter who says the mac was a failure, your understanding of history is as lacking as Gladwells. The Mac OS has %100 of the personal computer market. The GUI, which is the essence of Mac OS, currently exist in OS X, Windows and Linux.

    Windows and Linux simply stole the GUI Illegally, but got away with it because the US court system is corrupt or incompetent. Meanwhile, OS X, which is Mac OS on modern infrastructure, is growing sales in the double digits while the overall PC industry declines. So, not only did Mac OS win, but the genuine article is continuing to win, even to this day.

    Part of the reason so many americans are so ignorant is that the only news they get is written by dishonest people with an agenda, like Gladwell.

  5. Powers says:

    Gweedo – yes, Xerox did have a GUI, in fact, a better one than the Mac. The Xerox Star still has one of the best models ever, objects on the screen were the actual objects. For example you could email the icon of the local printer, your friend could then take the icon out of email onto their desktop and voila, they could print to that printer.

    I worked at Xerox (Rochester and PARC as an asst) from 1986-1993. The reason why Xerox did not build up many new businesses around around ethernet and desktop computers is a simple one. Xerox leased copiers and made >90% of its revenue from paper and toner sales. These inventions came with the promise of the “paperless office” so how do you think the business is going to react? In the end it turned out that these inventions resulted is more paper and toner being used but they didnt know that then. Look at any business that fails to expand into major new arenas that are invented internally and I bet you find the cash cow is the hindrance.

  6. Salarywoman says:

    I certainly wouldn’t characterize PARC’s response to Gladwell as feisty. It agrees with most of what he says. I’d say it is more of a follow-on, adding another piece to the puzzle. Both articles are very interesting and thought provoking. Well worth reading.

  7. If Chokshi’s main point is that Xerox PARC “is now pretty good at both”, I don’t see that that contradicts, or even bears on, Gladwell’s article, since he makes no claims about the Xerox PARC of the present.

    I agree with Gil Press, who is making the same argument as Gladwell’s main point. I don’t see Gladwell’s article is smacking down PARC. If anything, he is defending PARC against the “Fumbling The Future” argument.

    As for Gweedo, it’s strange that you diss Gladwell and then say much the same things that Gladwell says.

    Except that it’s misleading to say “A invented X, and therefore B did not invent Y”. Innovation always (always!) proceeds in steps. Creative ideas always come from earlier ideas. I think it’s clear that there was a progression from SRI to PARC to Apple to Microsoft, and picking out Apple as being the one and only inventor isn’t the best analysis.