Tuesday, March 1, 2011

True stories of a real Mad Man: How Xerox missed eating the apple.

 True stories of a real Mad Man:  How Xerox missed eating the apple. 


Being given a glimpse of the future is heady stuff.  And when it happens to you, you don't forget it.

My turn came in 1982 when, as president of Xerox' ad agency, I was invited to their super secret technology center in Princeton, New Jersey.  This facility was a branch of the now legendary PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), the fount of much of the technology that has made other companies very rich.  

The graphic interface (Apple, Windows), the mouse, the Ethernet cable and data transmission system, the desk top work station (networked PCs), and more, all were funded by Xerox and developed by brilliant scientists in their employ.
That afternoon, we were to be shown something called the "Star workstation."
Remember, at this time the highest technology equipment that was evident on the desks of most offices was an IBM Selectric typewriter with changeable type balls.  The Wang word processor was just beginning to find its way into a few courageous and leading edge companies.  

This not so little marvel allowed secretaries to type their bosses priceless prose on a screen and print out a draft.  Changes could be made on the screen and the new document could then be printed out.  The future of the White-out company was about as secure as the buggy whip manufacturers when Henry Ford caused the disappearance of horse manure from the streets of America.

We were ushered into a brightly lit hanger-like building that was ringed with large tables.  Each table had on it some object mysteriously covered with a tarp.  The resemblance of the place to the county morgue did not escape me. 

Wires and cables snaked from under the tarps and were plugged into some sort of wall sockets I didn't recognize. In the center of the room a man in shirtsleeves sat in front of a machine that looked like a large TV with a typewriter keyboard attached and a small plastic object that looked like a yo yo connected to it by a thin cable.  This device was also plugged into a strange looking outlet in the wall.

We were waved closer.  The man moved the yo-yo and a black arrow moved exactly in the same manner on the screen!  Then he clicked the yo- yo on a picture and a document appeared on the screen.  The arrow moved over the first paragraph and it was covered in light blue.  Then magically, the whole paragraph moved to the bottom of the page and remained there.  I was astonished by what I saw!


But there was more to come.  A business letter popped up on the screen and the man clicked some places with the yo-yo (which he said was a "mouse") and told us to go to one of the tables against the wall.  Lifting a tarp we saw a machine identical to the one in the center of the room.

On the screen was the letter we had just seen on the man's screen!

Returning to the man, he clicked again and I heard a mechanical sound come from an adjacent room.  We were instructed to go to the room, where we saw a large machine that took up half the wall.  It was printing copies of something.  I picked one up and saw it was the letter that had been on the screen moments ago! 

The next thing we saw really blew my mind.  The man clicked on the screen and the letter vanished.  'I sent this to Fred in Palo Alto" he said.  

A few minutes later the letter appeared on the screen, with comments and alterations suggested, along with a note from Fred.  Micro-wave transmitters had whisked this document from the roof of the building to California and back in less time than it took me to type this sentence.

Obviously, with benefit of hindsight, what we were being shown was nothing less that the future of communications.  

This technology was so far ahead of the curve that the average company manager would be scared to risk converting his company to it.  Imagine being offered a flight to Europe shortly after Lindbergh's journey.  Few would readily hop on board. 

That was the challenge.  How could we sell this magical stuff when the bread and butter of Xerox' salesman came from leasing huge copiers and charging customers per copy fees?  I was to discover that these technical wizards looked down their noses at the copier as an antiquated machine, and the copier guys looked at the wizards as a threat to their livelihood.

Top management was apparently unaware of this brewing civil war, or considered it unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Some weeks later at dinner with the executive who had been tapped to run the nascent Office Product Division, the group that was charged with selling the new technology, I asked him how he thought we should introduce the product.  He described a campaign that would dazzle people with the technology and what it could do.  I could understand why he was so enamored of the magical machines.  I certainly was.

Hesitantly I suggested that maybe we should go easy on the "2001" stuff
(this was 1982).  "It might scare people,"  I said uneasily.  "Perhaps we might position it as a new generation word processor.  One that is far ahead of the Wang.  That way people can relate to it.  Then, once they buy it, you can slowly introduce all these other capabilities.  Sort of a Trojan Horse strategy," I offered.

"Word processor?" he said incredulous. "Word processor!  That's like
calling a Porsche a coffee grinder.  That demeans our product!  This is the future."

He was right, of course.  But it was Jobs and Wozniac, inspired by Xerox's innovations, that owned the future.

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