Fumbling the Future Xerox

Fumbling the Future, is a book published in 1988 about “How Xerox invented, then ignored, the first personal computer.” It all starts with three questions: Name the companies responsible for

1. The longest playing series of personal computer commercials?
2. The most creative single commercial?
3. The first personal computer commercial?

The answers, as you find out through the first page and the subtitle, are IBM’s Charlie Chaplin ads, Apple Computers’ 1984 Super Bowl commercial, and Xerox.

As a casual student of computer history, the third answer will come as no surprise. Many may not have known it, and that’s why this book exists.

This book details that failure and the immediate aftermath of that failure. In 1988, the year this book was published, many of the principal players and technicians were still working in their fields, and many of the bureaucrats that made the blunder still worked their way across the C-suites of Fortune 500 companies.

I believe, in all of the reading I’ve done on the history of the internet, computers, or technology, that the Xerox PARC and the Alto – the first personal computer – are very much mythologized, but the story itself is a bit more blurry than you’d think. It wasn’t just poor management on behalf of company executives, or mismanagement of resources and talent by management, or any singular thing. It was both of those plus a whole lot more.

Had the blame been simply on one person or one decision this book probably doesn’t exist, but we know that’s not the case. It was the failure of many, leading to differing opinions on where it all went wrong. However, even in the short period of time that passed from the developments that created the lab at Xerox PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center, to 1988 when the book was published, all are in agreement that it was a mistake not to take the Alto to market.

Xerox PARC in 1977

Personally, I think that this book might be a great example for the bean counters and number crunching executives who don’t look at anything other than the bottom line. As the PC boom was still just in its infancy, Xerox ended up losing a lot more market capital by not marketing the Alto. It lost potential and, as the book shows any astute reader, it lost its direction, too.

This book typifies a successful failure. The idea that Xerox’s PARC facility was created to discover the office of the future was successful. They just didn’t do anything with that discovery. While this book very much blames a risk-averse executive branch, it wasn’t always that way.

Personally, I read this book and came away with it mainly blaming the poor decision making on Ford, GM, and the executives brought in from those and other Fortune 500 companies when Xerox blossomed with unprecedented growth. These executives often came in with only an expertise in decision making by numbers and no real knowledge or even feel for the industry which they found themselves in. They were personally so risk averse, I don’t believe they would even cross the street without a substantial profit increase estimate.

But the fault doesn’t only belong at their feet. There were plenty of bureaucratic and inter-company politics that got in the way of decision making. The politicking itself could make for an intriguing thriller of a loosely based-on-fact movie.

Xerox Alto

The point is, for the history of a printing company that was once as synonymous with copying as Kleenex was with tissues, they could have jumped to personal computing and didn’t. That history is more compelling than you would think and that may very well be why it all went nowhere.

If you are a potential MBA student or a risk averse executive, then you should read this to understand just exactly how spectacularly you can miss when misjudging risk. If you enjoy technological history, it is an interesting look behind the curtain, but it mainly focuses on the corporate blunders more than the scientific discoveries.

If you are a risk embracing entrepreneur, this might be a tough one to enjoy. Every time you might personally take a step forward, Xerox takes a step back. I’m not that much of a risk taker and I got frustrated with the tempo and storyline in this research and development opus. The quote that makes me suggest entrepreneurs skip this one is, “He is an entrepreneur, and you really don’t find an entrepreneur in a big corporation.”

It’s a wonder the workers are striking everywhere, isn’t it? Those at the top often take chances to get there, and then take none to remain there!

Read the Secret File of technical information and quotes from Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented Then Ignore the First Personal Computer.