Volume 29 - Number 15 - Thursday, April 24, 1997

Xerox, Macintosh paid price for playing it safe

by Sylvain Comeau
Computer developer Alan Kay


What is the nature of creativity? For computer pioneer Alan Kay, true creativity means blazing a trail so radically new that others are afraid to follow. In a lecture at McGill earlier this month, the former member of Xerox's legendary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) offered some startling examples from his own experience.

Kay, now head of research and development at Walt Disney Imagineering, opened his lecture by noting that, while most people with new ideas experience them as powerful epiphanies and are therefore convinced that they must be true, "most new ideas are bad."

Added Kay, "This took people hundreds of thousands of years to figure out, and science was one of the organizational structures set up to deal with the problem of people having seemingly great ideas. Science says: maybe you should check out that idea in a dozen different ways, and have other people check it out."

So Kay agrees that scepticism is normal and necessary to screen out the vast majority of bad ideas, but what happens when the genuinely good ones encounter resistance? Momentous twists and turns in the history of the computer industry, for one thing.

Kay offered one example after another of computer "innovations"--interactive computer graphics, portable computers and pen-based computers capable of recognizing handwriting--which were brought to market during the 1980s but were originally developed in the 1960s and '70s, on comparatively primitive hardware.

The lion's share of these early innovations came from PARC. In four years and with a staff of 25, including Kay, the centre almost inadvertently paved the way for many of the computer products to emerge in the remainder of this century.

"PARC started in 1971, and by 1975 we had 500 workstations which used an overlapping window interface, we had both what became Microsoft Word and the first desktop publishing tools, the first laser printer, which printed a page a second at 500 pixels to the inch, and the Ethernet (the first local area network, still being used today)."

Kay points out that the team benefited from some luck, as new technology becoming available to them "created a multiplier effect" to enhance their results. But they were unlucky in that Xerox management failed to respond to their stunning burst of creativity.

"We had given them a 10-year head start, but the most relevant part of the story for today is that one year after, Xerox decided not to take any of these (inventions) out to product."

Quoting Arthur Koestler's book The Act of Creation, Kay refers to accepted, standard ideas as "pink ideas," and new ones which arise from the pink as "blue ideas."

"There are maybe 15 reasons, some of them funny, for why ideas get turned down, but the simplest one is that it is really hard for other people to get into the 'blue' context. You almost have to recapitulate the same processes and epiphanies that you went through in order to get this idea in the first place. That's something we didn't do at Xerox."

Kay wryly noted that you can get a hearing if you have accomplished something, but you won't necessarily be listened to.

"I've discovered that you can get into any meeting if you've done a few successful things in your life--but (your accomplishments) give you no more credibility with the decision makers than anything else.

"The reason is that, when push comes to shove, it's their decision whether to stay in the pink context or whether to go into dangerous, unexplored territory. Almost always, they go for what they call a 'gut feeling,' which is the pink context."

Kay closed with some simple advice for the blue thinkers in the audience. "When you have a great idea, develop it like mad, but don't forget to prepare the people you're going to try to sell it to."

During a question and answer period Kay was asked whether he thinks that many companies have stolen PARC's groundbreaking ideas. He responded by espousing the Internet-age philosophy that ideas should be shared.

"I'm a scientist. I happen to believe that science is all about sharing as much information as you can, and just giving credit. What you should be able to make money on is efficiency. Xerox had a 10-year lead; they should have been able to make an unlimited amount of money, and also given technology away.

"What you really want is to create a new pink group (as the new ideas become accepted ideas). People feel confident in context; they like to travel in packs, so, as with Netscape, you give the stuff away and create a community of users."

A former Apple Fellow, he provided an insight into the reasons for Apple's declining fortunes--and Microsoft's software dominance--and another good reason why he should have been listened to at meetings. He led a group at Apple trying to change the company's direction.

"In late 1985 and early 1986, we tried to get the board of Apple to put the Macintosh operating system on the PC. In the end, Apple decided that they were a hardware company, despite the number of people we brought in front of them to say 'You are in the software business. You're selling what is in the Macintosh ROM, not the Macintosh itself.'

"They never got it, and they haven't gotten it to this day. That was a big loss, and you can imagine that it might have been a more interesting tug-of-war if the Mac operating system had been put on PCs when the only alternative was MS-DOS."

Kay's lecture was presented by the McGill School of Computer Science, as part of its 25th anniversary celebration.

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