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Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation
One of the people at Xerox PARC when Steve Jobs visited was an optical engineer named Gary Starkweather. He is a solid and irrepressibly cheerful man, with large, practical hands and the engineer’s gift of pretending that what is impossibly difficult is actually pretty easy, once you shave off a bit here, and remember some of your high-school calculus, and realise that the thing that you thought should go in left to right should actually go in right to left. Once, before the palatial Coyote Hill Road building was constructed, a group that Starkweather had to be connected to was moved to another building, across the Foothill Expressway, half a mile away. There was no way to run a cable under the highway. So Starkweather fired a laser through the air between the two buildings, an improvised communications system that meant that, if you were driving down the Foothill Expressway on a foggy night and happened to look up, you might see a mysterious red beam streaking across the sky. When a motorist drove into the median ditch, “we had to turn it down,” Starkweather recalled, with a mischievous smile.Lasers were Starkweather’s specialty. He started at Xerox’s East Coast research facility in Webster, New York, outside Rochester. Xerox built machines that scanned a printed page of type using a photographic lens, and then printed a duplicate. Starkweather’s idea was to skip the first step-to run a document from a computer directly into a photocopier, by means of a laser, and turn the Xerox machine into a printer. It was a radical idea.The printer, since Gutenberg, had been limited to the function of re-creation: if you wanted to print a specific image or letter, you had to have a physical character or mark corresponding to that image or letter. What Starkweather wanted to do was take the array of bits and bytes, ones and zeros that constitute digital images, and transfer them straight into the guts of a copier. That meant, at least in theory, that he could print anything.“One morning, I woke up and I thought, Why don’t we just print something out directly?” Starkweather said. “But when I flew that past my boss, he thought it was the most brain-dead idea he had ever heard. He basically told me to find something else to do. The feeling was that lasers were too expensive. They didn’t work that well. “Nobody wants to do this, computers aren’t powerful enough. And I guess, in my naïveté, I kept thinking, He’s just not right—there’s something about this I really like. It got to be a frustrating situation. He and I came to loggerheads over the thing, about late 1969, early 1970.
I was running my experiments in the back room behind a black curtain. I played with them when I could. He threatened to lay off my people if I didn’t stop. I was having to make a decision: do I abandon this, or do I try and go up the ladder with it?”Then Starkweather heard that Xerox was opening a research center in Palo Alto, 3,000 miles away from its New York headquarters. He went to a senior vice-president of Xerox, threatening to leave for IBM if he didn’t get a transfer. In January of 1971, his wish was granted, and, within ten months, he had a prototype up and running.Starkweather is retired now, and lives in a gated community just north of Orlando, Florida. When we spoke, he was sitting at a picnic table, inside a screened-in porch in his backyard. Behind him, golfers whirred by in carts. He was wearing white chinos and a shiny black short-sleeved shirt, decorated with fluorescent images of vintage hot rods. He had brought out two large plastic bins filled with the artifacts of his research, and he spread the contents on the table: a metal octagonal disk, sketches on lab paper, a black plastic laser housing that served as the innards for one of his printers.“There was still a tremendous amount of opposition from the Webster group, who saw no future in computer printing,” he went on. “They said, ‘IBM is doing that. Why do we need to do that?’ and so forth. Also, there were two or three competing projects, which I guess I have the luxury of calling ridiculous. One group had 50 people and another had 20y. I had two.” Starkweather picked up a picture of one of his in-house competitors, something called an “optical carriage printer.” It was the size of one of those modular Italian kitchen units that you see advertised in fancy design magazines. “It was an unbelievable device,” he said, with a rueful chuckle. “It had a ten-inch drum, which turned at five thousand RPM, like a super washing machine. It had characters printed on its surface. I think they only ever sold ten of them. The problem was that it was spinning so fast that the drum would blow out and the characters would fly off. And there was only this one lady in Troy, New York, who knew how to put the characters on so that they would stay.“So we finally decided to have what I called a fly-off. There was a full page of text—where some of them were non-serif characters, Helvetica, stuff like that—and then a page of graph paper with grid lines, and pages with pictures and some other complex stuff—and everybody had to print all six pages. Well, once we decided on those six pages, I knew I’d won, because I knew there wasn’t anything I couldn’t print. Are you kidding? If you can translate it into bits, I can print it. Some of these other machines had to go through hoops just to print a curve. A week after the fly-off, they folded those other projects. I was the only game in town.”The project turned into the Xerox 9700, the first high-speed, cut-paper laser printer in the world.In one sense, the Starkweather story is of a piece with the Steve Jobs visit. It is an example of the imaginative poverty of Xerox management. Starkweather had to hide his laser behind a curtain. He had to fight for his transfer to PARC. He had to endure the indignity of the fly-off, and even then Xerox management remained skeptical. The founder of PARC, Jack Goldman, had to bring in a team from Rochester for a personal demonstration. After that, Starkweather and Goldman had an idea for getting the laser printer to market quickly: graft a laser onto a Xerox copier called the 7000. The 7000 was an older model, and Xerox had lots of 7000s sitting around that had just come off lease. Goldman even had a customer ready: the Lawrence Livermore laboratory was prepared to buy a whole slate of the machines.
Xerox said no. Then Starkweather wanted to make what he called a photo-typesetter, which produced camera-ready copy right on your desk. Xerox said no. “I wanted to work on higher-performance scanners,” Starkweather continued. “In other words, what if we print something other than documents? For example, I made a high-resolution scanner and you could print on glass plates.”He rummaged in one of the boxes on the picnic table and came out with a sheet of glass, roughly six inches square, on which a photograph of a child’s face appeared. The same idea, he said, could have been used to make “masks” for the semiconductor industry—the densely patterned screens used to etch the designs on computer chips. “No one would ever follow through, be¬cause Xerox said, ‘Now you’re in Intel’s market, what are you doing that for?’ They just could not seem to see that they were in the information business. This”—he lifted up the plate with the little girl’s face on it—“is a copy. It’s just not a copy of an office document.” But he got nowhere. “Xerox had been infested by a bunch of spreadsheet experts who thought you could decide every product based on metrics. Unfortunately, creativity wasn’t on a metric.”Malcolm Gladwell will be the keynote speaker at the Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business’ Distinguished Leadership and Innovation Conference (DLIC) 2012 on March 29. To find out more, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or call us at: 645-6700, ext 329
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