Fumbling the Future - How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, The First Personal Computer

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Ask consumers and users what names they associate with the multibillion dollar personal computer market, and they will answer IBM, Apple, Tandy, or Lotus. The more knowledgable of them will add the likes of Microsoft, Ashton-Tate, Compaq, and Borl...
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Ask consumers and users what names they associate with the multibillion dollar personal computer market, and they will answer IBM, Apple, Tandy, or Lotus. The more knowledgable of them will add the likes of Microsoft, Ashton-Tate, Compaq, and Borland. But no one will say Xerox. Fifteen years after it invented personal computing, Xerox still means "copy." Fumbling the Future tells how one of America's leading corporations invented the technology for one of the fastest-growing products of recent times, then miscalculated and mishandled the opportunity to fully exploit it. It is a classic story of how innovation can fare within large corporate structures, the real-life odyssey of what can happen to an idea as it travels from inspiration to implementation. More than anything, Fumbling the Future is a tale of human beings whose talents, hopes, fears, habits, and prejudices determine the fate of our largest organizations and of our best ideas. In an era in which technological creativity and economic change are so critical to the competitiveness of the American economy, Fumbling the Future is a parable for our times.

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45 of 47 people found the following review helpfulBy A Customer on November 4, 2003
Format: Paperback
I lived through these years on the 10th Floor at Xerox Corporation Systems Headquarters, El Segundo, California - as a Systems Administrator for New Product Development and Training. The book is accurate, but misses one very, very important point: The "Leadership" at Xerox Corporation at this time did not, repeat not, have the "best intentions". On the contrary, they were "Box People" (copier people) who did not have a clue about how to take advantage of this technology. In 1984 we did an internal survey of middle and upper management regarding use of the applications for the Star/Distributed Net (specifically email and Viewpoint software applications for those of you "in the know"). It found that while 76-percent of first and second level management used these applications on a daily or multiple-weekly basis, less than 10-percent of upper and executive management did so (the figure was under 5-percent on returns from Rochester and Stamford). Is this evidence of knowledge or having the "best intentions"? Those of us who did have the knowledge of the potential benefits were in middle management and could see those benefits to our own organisations at that time. We reported on these benefits, talked about them, begged people to come and see for themselves...for years...nothing happened. Many of us grew so frustrated we left (I was one, in 1989), although we still loved (and love) our exciting times at "Brand X". Some stayed, and watched Xerox "retreat" back to a primarily copier/printer company (and in doing so it crushed many a spirit). Most of us have wonderful, amazing, funny and frustrating stories to tell about those times (how about two trips in a single day to PARC from El Segundo just prior to the release of the 6085PCS?...or when the training Manager for New Produce Development left...only to turn up at Apple the following month...with all his notes and records?...Or producing training films for new releases with comedy sketches on the tail end for raising salespersons morale...). This book is too high level stuff for that...but it does reflect the failure of the top at Xerox...although it doesn't quite come out and say that...The top did not have a hint about these advances because they were from another world (Rochester, Copiers, not PARC/El Segundo and GUI/Ethernet). Read the book, but remember, no matter how hard those in middle management yell...if the top does "not have ears to hear" - it will not hear! ETW, Los Angeles, CA, now a retired TRW Employee
23 of 24 people found the following review helpfulBy Henry Cate III on December 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
As most people in the computer industry know Xerox pioneered many of the key breakthroughs in the computer industry, but then they were not able to capitalize on the technology they developed. Many, many other companies have made billions of dollars; however, Xerox just couldn't figure out how to reap the benefits.
The authors of "Fumbling the Future" go into this history in great detail. They first set the stage by describing Xerox's early history, how Xerox invented a copier, and for a number of years they were so successful that they were able to basically print money. Many of the major players in the industry are mentioned, their goals and interests. Xerox was very aggressive, and in some ways they were also a bit lucky, with the copier. Then Xerox decided they needed to also get into the computer industry.
Next the authors talk about how the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was created, how George Pake selected various key people to help staff the research center, and the charter PARC was given. The book goes over who was hired, what they did, and how the groups at PARC worked together, and sometimes didn't work together.
Here is where you can start to see the train wreck. The first President of Xerox, Joe Wilson, seems to have been a very gifted leader. In terms of "Good to Great" by Jim Collins, Joe Wilson was a level five leader. Unfortunately Joe Wilson dies, and the next president of Xerox, Peter McColough, was at best a level four leader. Peter decided to spend almost a billion dollars for a niche science computer company which Peter then tried to force out into the general computer market, going up against IBM. Peter also took Xerox into Medicine and Education. And Peter got involved in Politics and Charities. Peter McColough was not focused on Xerox, and let several problems simmer.
We get some insights into what drove the researchers at PARC to develop the first personal computer, the Alto, and many of the reasons why it was revolutionary. The authors chart the destruction of the potential of the Alto, largely because of various managers at Xerox not catching the vision, or those who caught the vision not being able to work well with upper management.
One thing which would have improved the book was to have some pictures. It would have been nice to have some pictures of the early copiers, the Alto, and some of the major players.
It was a well written book, with a lot of good history, and some important lessons. Even though you know how it will all turn out, this was a hard book to put down.


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- Link: http://www.amazon.com/Fumbling-Future-Invented-Personal-Computer/dp/1583482660
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