Leonardo’s Presentation: Could Dr. Who Have Saved Xerox?

Posted by Michael Pinto on Feb 20, 2009 in Tech |

I came across this commercial for the Xerox Publishing System from 1986 and it got me to thinking: It’s commonly accepted wisdom that Xerox did too little too late with the innovations that were generated at their PARC research facility (user interface, ethernet and laser printing) which is why Apple was able to have their breakthrough. Looking back on it that’s true, but I think the missing lesson is price point as much as speed to market.

The Xerox Star

If anything Xerox beat Apple (and everyone else) to market with the Star Workstation in 1981 — that’s 3 years before the first Mac. The catch really was that a basic system went for $75,000 while the first Mac would set you back $2,500 — and even if you went crazy and purchased a laser printer and every bit of software you could find you’d be lucky to hit $10,000. In fact even the Apple Lisa which came out in 1983 only cost about $10,000 which was dirt cheap when put next to Xerox.

I also think that the other factor is time: Xerox came from a world of office machines not computers, so the idea that the world changed every year wasn’t part of their reality. If you look at Xerox machines from 1975 to 1980 you can bet that they weren’t much different — on the other hand if you look at the evolution of the PC marketplace during the same era you see the industry go from hobby kits to a real workhorse. If you’re a $75k setup in 1981 you’d get the feeling that time was on your side, but if you were hanging out in the PC industry you’d see companies come and go each year in a quickly changing industry.

The Xerox Star interface

Above: The WYSIWYG interface for the Xerox Star.

So in retrospect it’s easy to say that the management of Xerox was dumb and didn’t get it, but looking back at it that’s sort of like expecting a train line to think of entering the automobile industry in the early 20th Century. In fact when you have a company like IBM that made the shift from mainframes to the PC (and later to exiting the hardware industry) that’s a rare exception and hardly a rule. At the end of the day the only way one might have saved Xerox would be if the management had access to a Dr. Who consultant who could show them the future…

Above: A 1984 instructional video from the Xerox Star.

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