Xerox is donating its legendary PARC research laboratory to the non-profit research institution SRI International. The branch’s pioneering research in the 1970s helped usher in the era of the personal computer. Xerox says the move will allow it to focus on its core business.
The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was founded in 1970 by then-Xerox chief scientist, Jack Goldman, to carry out forward-thinking research in computer science, physics, and materials science. Researchers in the lab invented many of the foundational technologies that fueled the transition from mainframes to personal computers, including the graphical user interface (GUI), Ethernet networking technology, object-oriented programming, and laser printing.
In 1973, these innovations combined to create the revolutionary Xerox Alto, the first computer with a desktop that used windows and folders and could be controlled by keyboard and mouse. The Alto could also connect with other machines and printers on a local area network and would become the blueprint for future personal computers.
Xerox is known to have failed to capitalize on this early lead in personal computing, but PARC’s work directly influenced the design of Apple’s first devices. Over the years, the lab has also made significant contributions to circuit design, optical storage, fiber optics, and ubiquitous computing. But Xerox CEO Steve Bandrowczak says the company has decided to let go of the unit so it can focus on what it does best.
As Xerox strategically focuses on workplace technologies and business solutions, it was important to us that the work underway at PARC continue, he says. This donation enables the organization to reach its full potential with SRI resources and in-depth technology expertise that can focus solely on developing pioneering new technologies.
The move will see approximately 150 PARC employees join SRI, which itself has a storied history. Originally called the Stanford Research Institute, SRI was founded by the trustees of Stanford University in 1946 to help support the research needs of various industries. Its researchers helped build the ARPANET (the precursor to the Internet), pioneered telerobotic surgery, and invented the technology behind the Siri voice assistant found in iPhones.
The computer mouse, which was so integral to PARC’s work on personal computers, was also invented at SRI. And SRI chief executive David Parekh says the two organizations have a long history of exchanging ideas and people, with many of PARC’s early employees having come from SRI’s nearby Augmentation Research Center. We are moving in parallel, says Parekh. We are now bringing the two together, and so the legacy we both built will continue.
The donation will provide SRI with new expertise in areas such as sustainability and precision medicine, and will also help bolster the organization’s existing capabilities in areas such as computational design, computer vision, and AI-human machine collaboration. Parekh says he is particularly excited about how the merger will enhance the work of SRI’s AI teams on security and trust in cyber-physical systems. It will allow us to move faster and do more, because it’s all controlled by a great talent, he adds.
And SRI wants to integrate them quickly, Parekh says, thanks to lessons learned from his ownership of the research firm Sarnoff Corporation, which General Electric donated to SRI in 1986. Sarnoff remained a separate entity until it was absorbed by SRI in 2011, which he says should have happened sooner and led to missed opportunities for collaboration. Technology is moving too fast, so it’s really important for us to get our best people together now, he adds.
Given the interconnected histories of these iconic West Coast institutions, this merger represents an interesting full circle, says Alan Kay, who spearheaded PARC’s pioneering work on GUI and object-oriented programming in the 1970s. Poetically, you could hardly beat him, he says.
But Kay adds that today’s PARC is very different from the one where he worked. The explosion of creativity seen in the 1970s was due to a confluence of factors, including the rich pockets of Xerox at the time, an exodus of talent from the State Government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) States and the visionary leadership of Bob Taylor, who ran PARC’s Computer Lab.
Most significantly, says Kay, Taylor was able to secure an agreement with Xerox headquarters that the company would not interfere with lab research for at least five years and that researchers would be protected by more cost-conscious. After repeated fights, however, Taylor eventually walked out along with many of her team, which Kay says marked the end of the first productive era that earned PARC her reputation.
What I consider PARC was a peculiar process, and that process, for all intents and purposes, ended in the early 1980s, Kay says. The rest is a brand. And not necessarily for something bad, but just for something qualitatively different.
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