How Xerox Invented the Information Age (and Gave it Away)
Imagine that somewhere Ford Motor Corp has a building full of engineers, right now, who have built a flying car that can go 300 miles an hour, runs on water, and has a device that gently massages your groin while you fly it. And Ford doesn't care. Imagine they're just sitting on the future of transportation, while the bulk of the company figures out how to squeeze another decade out of gasoline powered cars. Then, one day, they give a tour to Toyota and GM and happily show them their flying prototype because, why not?
"It is also capable of mixing a perfect Mimosa."
Only, instead of a flying car, the device was a personal computer. The company that let the most world-changing invention since aviation get away wasn't IBM, or Intel, or Texas Instruments. Here's a hint: it's the people who probably made your photocopier at work.
We think we speak for millions of office drones when we say, "Fuck these guys in the neck".
If you get an Apple fanboy and a Windows loyalist in the same room they'll eventually get into a heated debate about who really invented the PC, and who was really responsible for each little innovation that came along to make it the device that most of us would rather lose a testicle than live without. In reality, both of them stole the idea from the company you probably associate with infuriating paper jams, empty toner cartridges and photocopied dongs at the office Christmas party.
It all started with a machine they slapped together almost 40 years ago, called the Xerox Alto.
Portrait-style? What the fuck?
It was the birth of what we know as the personal computer now: It had a screen, a keyboard, a mouse, and a graphical interface -- the very first time all four of these came together in the same machine. Honestly, if the thing had been capable of rendering full color boobs PC evolution could have just stopped right then. And this happened in freaking 1973. Almost a decade before the first Mac would hit store shelves.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Basically everything you're using to read this article, and the devices that most of your lives revolve around, can be credited to a building full of geniuses in Palo Alto, California. It was the Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), which was set up four decades ago to think up ways to make computers actually useful to the average person, rather than being huge, bulky machines that ran on diesel fuel.
Here's a short but fucking startling list of things that PARC invented:
1. Graphical user interfaces, so you could finally look at something other than letters on your computer screen;
2. Laser printers, for printing things that weren't blocky pieces of shit;
3. Computer-generated bitmap images, which eventually led to video animation, the precursor to GIFs of skateboarders crushing their nuts on handrails;
4. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) text editors, which let you see what your text documents actually looked like as you typed them. Before this, you literally could not see what you were typing until you printed it;
5. Object-oriented programming, which meant that you could add features to a program without rewriting the whole thing.
It was the birth of a bold new era in masturbation.
Wait, there's more.
See, all of this leads up to what might be the granddaddy of Xerox's inventions, the one that made Cracked and other vital services possible:
The goddamned Internet.
If you know something about computer history, you probably heard that the modern Internet came from DARPAnet, a Defense Department project experimenting with the ability to transfer files across computers. All of those computers on DARPAnet were Xerox Alto workstations, using Ethernet cables that were one of many technologies invented by Xerox's PARC research division.
They had a similar network at the Xerox offices, which probably transferred a lot more humorous cat pictures, and around there they called it "Inter network routing" or "Internet" for short.
Yep. Xerox invented it all. So why on Earth does Xerox not own the entire planet, sitting on the combined fortunes of Microsoft, Apple, IBM and god knows how many other companies, in a world where everyone owns a Xerox desktop, laptop and an xPad?
Possibly lack of turtlenecks?
Put simply, the Xerox corporate heads just didn't give a shit about computers. According to former PARC researcher Larry Tessler, "the company management at the East Coast of the USA did not the PARC's research results unless they were directly involved with photocopiers." Apparently the potential of effortlessly creating new programs and sharing data with others around the office were nothing next to the ability to easily replicate pieces of paper. We know that hindsight is 20/20, but come the fuck on.
Instead of utilizing their brilliant technology and making computer-related commercial products (besides the ill-fated and $16,000 Xerox Star), they just opened up the doors to anyone who wanted to see what they were up to, figuring that somebody should profit from the millions of dollars that Xerox was pouring into research if Xerox wasn't going to.
In 1979, some guys in the industry took a tour of Xerox's facility, which to a computer geek had to have looked like Willy freaking Wonka's magical chocolate factory. One of them was a young guy named Bill Gates, who rightly decided that Xerox was stupid for letting this go, and took away as many ideas as he could. Another was a guy named Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs described the graphical user interface as "the best thing I'd ever seen in my life", and the next day he brought over much of his senior staff and practically demanded to be given a closer look at the Alto's technologies, as well as demos for every one of his programmers. Researcher Adele Goldberg tried to keep this from happening, saying that Xerox was "about to give away the kitchen sink." Apple responded by literally ordering PARC to give their technology to Apple.
It's been surmised that after dealing with these idiots for so long, many of the PARC scientists actually wanted Apple to take this technology for themselves, just so somebody would finally give them some fucking credit for what they did. Five years later, Apple unleashed the first Macintosh computer, and the rest is history.
This raises the important question of the modern age: What the goddamned hell was Xerox thinking?
Other than, "More cocaine, please."
Scientific American decided to ask former PARC researcher David Biegelsen his opinion on the matter, and he responded with a well thought-out "beats the shit outta me." Part of the problem was the difficulty in creating an inexpensive PC, but he openly admitted that "Xerox inability to realize and profit from the gold mine they were sitting on." One of the smartest men in computers at the time, and he doesn't even know what their major malfunction was.
We may never know why Xerox so willingly threw away the technology that has since revolutionized the entire planet; had they taken the time to properly develop their technologies into successful products, or even learn how to file a fucking patent claim on time, they could be the biggest company on the face of the planet, with some rich bastard owning the combined fortunes of Bill Gates and a pre-iPod Steve Jobs, while getting a cut from every PC and piece of networking equipment sold anywhere. And that's in addition to the billions of dollars worth of copiers they sell every year.
Copiers don't draw in legions of creepy-ass fans.
Eh, the PC thing is probably just a fad anyway.
Jim Avery is a regular contributor to both GamerTVNetwork and NintendoGal.com.