Lord Fisher, Xerox, and modern computing

Laser printing, Ethernet, GUI, the mouse, WYSIWYG word processors, multi-user domains, object-oriented programming, personal computer, TCP/IP, laptop – or, all the things that made modern computing what it is today. These were all things that Xerox PARC either created or refined. Dominance in anyone of these fields would have made any company richer than Croesus. Xerox once dominated in ALL of these things, yet it let it lie and stuck with photocopying. (Actually, they are doing information management, but most of its business still comes from the sale, leasing, and service of photocopiers and printers. I cannot find mention of data management services in their last 10-K.)

I remember reading Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the coming of the Great War by Robert K. Massie. One of the great criticisms against Lord Fisher, the Admiral of the Fleet prior to WWI, was his introduction of the Dreadnought class ships. Lord Fisher was a great innovator; he oversaw the conversion of the British Navy from coal to oil. He scrapped obsolete ships to lower costs and devoted British industries to build the fastest and most powerful ships then in existence.

The problem that everybody had with Fisher was that his Dreadnoughts and Battlecruisers made every ship in the world obsolete – including the whole British Navy. British naval supremacy was threatened, because now, every Great Power can just start making Dreadnoughts and ignore all of Britain’s pre-Dreadnought hardware. And many Great Powers, Germany, US, Russia did try. In essence, Lord Fisher also innovated the first, modern technological arms race.

Xerox critics often points to the managements failure to market all the products that their dream-team of research created. Management were often more concern with how the new technology will interfere with their existing business model. Maybe the management-types were right. Maybe Lord Fisher was right. Who knows?


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