Xerox PARC's inventions

Continuing the discussion from Well-Known Apple Developers Support Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking:

Xerox PARC invented just about everything that we consider modern computing. But they were foolish enough to allow others to make products from these technologies instead of leveraging them to sell new products and license patents to others. Xerox management believed that their future was only in copiers and printers and had little-to-no interest in anything else. Often over the explicit warnings and objections from their own engineering teams.

Some examples:

  • GUI concepts. As we all know, Apple and Microsoft ran with these, defining what today is considered the only way to work. The Apple/Microsoft GUI is pretty different from what Xerox developed, but very few people today have even seen the Xerox GUI in action, and even fewer actually used it.
  • Object-oriented programming. The Smalltalk language was developed to promote these concepts, and it was used extensively for software development on the Alto. Smalltalk never became very popular, but the concepts inspired many other programming languages, including C++, Java, Objective-C, Swift, Python and over 100 others.
  • Ethernet networking. Bob Metcalfe, who helped invent it, left Xerox in 1979 (6 years later) and founded 3Com, in order to sell Ethernet to the world. (3Com was acquired by HP in 2009).
  • Laser printers. Xerox did develop and sell plenty of laser printers. But they never dominated the market. HP (with their LaserJet products), and Canon (making the hardware engines used by HP, Apple and many others) were the really big winners here.
  • PostScript. Xerox didn’t invent PostScript, but they did invent Press, a page description language for their first laser printers (used by the Xerox Star comptuers). Press evolved to Interpress, which Xerox used for later printers and Star systems. Interpress never succeeded as a product, but two of its creators left Xerox, founded Adobe, and used their knowledge to create PostScript, which was and still is extremely successful.
  • Desktop publishing. Xerox’s Star (in 1981) was sold as a specialized dedicated document processing system, incorporating GUI, WYSIWYG, networking, e-mail, file servers and laser printers - everything that a modern office system takes for granted. But if you weren’t one of the few to have actually used a Star (or its successor, the Daybreak / ViewPoint), you probably never knew it existed.

I think one could make a very solid argument that had Xerox management been more forward-thinking, they could have dominated every aspect of modern computing. But they weren’t, so they ended up as a lot of fascinating footnotes to other companies that did end up dominating the industry.


Excellent examples! I’d like to add one: cloud computing. This time Xerox partnered with Oracle to pioneer cloud services, and they continue to be a very innovative and reliable partnership that keeps developing innovative IT services, like these:

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I have not read it for many years but I recommend Fumbling the Future.


I just reserved a copy from my local library.