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The truth about Steve Jobs and Xerox PARC

October 6, 2011 |  2:44 pm

Xerox

...or are there many "truths"?

One of the foundation myths of Apple was that Steve Jobs and a team of developers working on Apple's Lisa personal computer cadged a visit to Xerox's legendary Palo Alto Research Center and walked away with a a sackful of secret technologies that it marketed before Xerox did. These included the graphical computer display that the original Macintosh made famous, the granddaddy of the animated, multicolored computer displays of today. I included a reference to this famous visit in my piece Thursday about the Jobs legacy, based on the longer version in my book about PARC, "Dealers of Lightning."

The common thread of the multiple and often conflicting versions told me by the participants was that Apple's team paid very close attention to what they were seeing displayed on PARC's pioneering personal computer, the Alto. PARC scientist Larry Tesler, who was working the Alto's keyboard and mouse, recalled that Apple engineer Bill Atkinson leaned so closely over him while staring at the screen that he could feel Atkinson's breath on the back of his neck.

Steve Jobs: 1955-2011

But Apple had already developed its own version of the graphical display before the PARC visit -- it's just that its engineers kept running into problems that PARC had plainly solved. Atkinson later said that he didn't steal PARC's version, but that seeing there was a solution "empowered" him to invent his own solution, which went into the original Mac.

The Jobs visit may not have inaugurated the exodus of technology from PARC, but it did launch the exodus of brainpower -- starting with Tesler, who jumped to Apple a few months later, deeply impressed that Jobs had been appalled Xerox was keeping its great technology under wraps.

"Why hasn't this company brought this to market?" Jobs had exclaimed during the demo. "I don't get it!" That was a testament to Jobs' ability to detect the promise in a novel technology several steps ahead of anyone else. The same idea wasn't lost on PARC's frustrated innovators. Recalled Tesler: Apple "understood what we had a lot better than Xerox did."

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-- Michael Hiltzik

Photo: Xerox PARC in 1996. Credit: Xerox

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