Linked by Thom Holwerda on Wed 26th Feb 2014 12:31 UTC
Google

John Gruber, on Google's Project Tango:

Google is starting to remind me of Apple in the '90s: announcing more cool R&D prototypes than they release actual cool products. Even the R&D team names are similar - Google's is called "Advanced Technology and Projects"; Apple's was called "Advanced Technology Group".

Funny. Google's 'moonshots' actually remind me more of another R&D-focused company. Interestingly enough, without that company, the computer industry would have been set back decades, and Apple would most likely have been reduced to a footnote in computer history.

I would rather large companies spend their cash on potentially awesome research that may (or may not) advance computer technology and the human race, than have them stash it away in shady overseas bank accounts.

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Set Back Decades
by Brendan on Wed 26th Feb 2014 13:37 UTC
Brendan
Member since:
2005-11-16

Hi,

I'm honestly not convinced that, without the R&D done by Xerox/PARC, the computer industry would have been set back decades.

For example, I'd assume that once hardware capable of handling decent graphics (rather than just monochrome text) became available, someone somewhere would've "joined the dots" within 12 months. It might not have been identical (e.g. it could've been keypad or joystick or touchpad instead of mouse), but it would've still happened and followed a similar evolutionary path, and would've resulted in something extremely similar to what we have now in the same amount of time.

In the same way, I'd expect the same for other technologies (e.g. OOP, ethernet, etc).

Mostly it's like trying to pretend that if Christopher Columbus didn't "discover" America, nobody else would've realised there's a huge chunk of sparsely populated land sitting there waiting to be taken from the natives.

- Brendan

Reply Score: 7

RE: Set Back Decades
by christian on Wed 26th Feb 2014 14:07 in reply to "Set Back Decades"
christian Member since:
2005-07-06

Hi,

I'm honestly not convinced that, without the R&D done by Xerox/PARC, the computer industry would have been set back decades.

For example, I'd assume that once hardware capable of handling decent graphics (rather than just monochrome text) became available, someone somewhere would've "joined the dots" within 12 months. It might not have been identical (e.g. it could've been keypad or joystick or touchpad instead of mouse), but it would've still happened and followed a similar evolutionary path, and would've resulted in something extremely similar to what we have now in the same amount of time.

In the same way, I'd expect the same for other technologies (e.g. OOP, ethernet, etc).

Mostly it's like trying to pretend that if Christopher Columbus didn't "discover" America, nobody else would've realised there's a huge chunk of sparsely populated land sitting there waiting to be taken from the natives.

- Brendan


The problem is that such blue sky thinking often produces answers for questions yet to be asked.

The LASER is a classic example. No practical use when invented, yet indispensable to modern life and science.

More fundamental is the wheel. There are probably human beings alive today, living in dense Amazon jungle, that have no concept of the wheel, yet are no less intelligent than you or I. They have no use for such a device, and necessity being the mother of invention and all that, never will until the colonials come in and destroy their home.

Computer graphics certainly predate PARC, as did computer networks and the mouse as an input device, but PARC put it together into a machine with a window based GUI connected to a shared medium packet based network. Without this work, we might have been stuck with window-less (but still graphical) UIs connected to some god awful token ring network for some time.

What is obvious now was not always so.

Reply Parent Score: 2

RE: Set Back Decades
by JAlexoid on Wed 26th Feb 2014 14:14 in reply to "Set Back Decades"
JAlexoid Member since:
2009-05-19

Well... Here's the thing. Without funding from government/monopoly/businesses without expectations of immediate returns we could have had stagnant computing sector.

I suspect that without PARC*, we would have stayed with the console for a long time. It's maybe not decades on the GUI alone, but it's a few years that would have caused an avalanche that would have resulted in the whole computing industry to not progress as fast as it has. And in compound we very well may have been set back by 10 years.

As an example - today's GPU performance was mainly driven by a need for better graphics and we don't need to wait a second for the newest GPU to be taxed to it's maximum. So saying "build it and they will come" is not universally true. DotCom bubble was the best example where it was built but nobody came.

* - or Bell Labs and other research organisations funded by dominant market players/monopolies.

Reply Parent Score: 6

RE: Set Back Decades
by Alfman on Wed 26th Feb 2014 14:24 in reply to "Set Back Decades"
Alfman Member since:
2011-01-28

Brendan,

I'm honestly not convinced that, without the R&D done by Xerox/PARC, the computer industry would have been set back decades.


I have to agree, there's very little that would not have happened given the natural course of technological evolution (edit: as well as a healthy economy to fund it). As such, most of the industry figureheads ought to be credited more for 'riding the wave' rather than _causing_ it - it could have easily been someone else in their place.

Of course we have no way to tell exactly how differently things might have turned out. It could have been better: the dominant OS in the 80s (MSDOS with exclusive bundling rights) was technologically well behind alternatives. Or it could have been worse had PCs been locked down.

Edited 2014-02-26 14:35 UTC

Reply Parent Score: 3

RE: Set Back Decades
by Jbso on Wed 26th Feb 2014 16:34 in reply to "Set Back Decades"
Jbso Member since:
2013-01-05

I'm honestly not convinced that, without the R&D done by Xerox/PARC, the computer industry would have been set back decades.


You are focusing too narrowly on PARC. The important point is not that Xerox was the only company that could have done it, but rather, Xerox was the company that did do it because they were the ones willing to spend money on it. There are lots of advancements that can't be made without spending a good deal of cash, no matter how smart the researchers are.

Also, the GUI thing probably would have happened not too much later because all the groundwork had been laid. You have to think in the aggregate, if all the building blocks had been delayed, and all their prerequisites had been delayed, and so on recursively forever, we could still be without GUIs.

Reply Parent Score: 3

RE[2]: Set Back Decades
by Alfman on Wed 26th Feb 2014 16:58 in reply to "RE: Set Back Decades"
Alfman Member since:
2011-01-28

Jbso,

You are focusing too narrowly on PARC. The important point is not that Xerox was the only company that could have done it, but rather, Xerox was the company that did do it because they were the ones willing to spend money on it. There are lots of advancements that can't be made without spending a good deal of cash, no matter how smart the researchers are.


There's no debating that they deserve tremendous credit as the earliest pioneers in GUI and in many cases directly influenced the commercially successful computers which would follow. However I think if we view this is terms of moores law, the increasing accessibility of computers/components deserves more credit than any single player in the industry for the highly innovative period which followed.

This timeline gives a glance into all the activity that was going at the time:
http://oldcomputers.net/indexwp.html

This is an excellent source for reviewing the technology / prices of computers from our past.

Reply Parent Score: 4

RE: Set Back Decades
by Lennie on Wed 26th Feb 2014 20:10 in reply to "Set Back Decades"
Lennie Member since:
2007-09-22

Without Amerigo Vespucci I doubt what Christopher Columbus did would have had as much impact it did.

It's always more complicated, it's not just the technology that matters. You need to be noticed by the right people and your timing needs to be right.

Especially in those days.

At least now you can find people that talk about the same things online and talk about your discoveries there and maybe start a kickstarter or something.

Reply Parent Score: 3

RE: Set Back Decades
by Snial on Wed 26th Feb 2014 21:23 in reply to "Set Back Decades"
Snial Member since:
2011-12-30

This is not correct and it's worth considering why by looking into actual computing history.

Firstly, there's no inevitability about hardware development. Prior to the Xerox Alto, computer graphics were predominantly vector graphics rather than raster graphics and graphics libraries were designed around that technology. This could easily have been propagated to the 70s world of personal computers. Without raster graphics GUIs would have been hard to create.

Secondly, the Xerox Alto vision was the driver behind many of the technologies that underpin GUIs. Their vision created the technology we take for granted. Prior to the Xerox Alto no-one was creating GUI systems (NLS notwithstanding, since it wasn't a GUI inasmuch a knowledge-worker demo). But after the Xerox Alto, research machines (e.g. ETH university's Lilith in 1981) and commercial machines such as the ICL PERQ (1980) or the original 1980-1982 SUN Workstation or the Apollo computers from 1980. Technology follows real vision, not the other way around. In the mid-80s several viable GUI systems started to appear, most notably Apple's Lisa and Macintosh computers; Digital Research's GEM interface and the Amiga Workbench.

Thirdly, mainstream GUI computing was in fact set back at least 7 years thanks to the dominance of real-mode MSDOS and the text-oriented IBM PC. Three cases in point are:

(a) all the GUI-based systems in the mid 80s, which already had adequate processing power and superior computing capability compared with 8086-based systems fell in market share (PC sales rose faster).

(b) IBM PCs and Clones were perfectly capable of displaying graphics competitively with commercial GUI-based computers (The 720x348 Hercules Graphics Card had a higher resolution than the Mac and was similar to the Atari ST). This didn't automatically result in GUI computing being adopted.

(c) Microsoft knew what they needed to do, and in fact were pioneers in GUI software development (it's just that they were pioneering Macintosh developers!).

So, despite having all the dots joined for them; having the hardware availability, capability and experience and having a pre-existing market to chase, it still took a decade (1981 to 1991) for Microsoft to create a popular GUI for PCs and clones, not 12 months.

Why was this? Because the inertia of modal, keyboard-driven text-driven computing paradigms was overwhelming. Therefore, without the Xerox Alto project it isn't hard at all to believe GUI computing would have been set back by another 10 years or so.

-cheers Julz

Reply Parent Score: 3

RE[2]: Set Back Decades
by Alfman on Wed 26th Feb 2014 23:41 in reply to "RE: Set Back Decades"
Alfman Member since:
2011-01-28

Snial,

So, despite having all the dots joined for them; having the hardware availability, capability and experience and having a pre-existing market to chase, it still took a decade (1981 to 1991) for Microsoft to create a popular GUI for PCs and clones, not 12 months.


But then Microsoft weren't really the ones pushing technological boundaries. If not for their partnership with IBM, we'd be much less likely to find MS on the map today. One would be hard pressed to find many ways that DOS was superior to alternatives of it's time.

Why was this? Because the inertia of modal, keyboard-driven text-driven computing paradigms was overwhelming. Therefore, without the Xerox Alto project it isn't hard at all to believe GUI computing would have been set back by another 10 years or so.


It's all just speculation though. What if apple and MS did not have the xerox connection? What if Douglas Engelbart had worked for a company more receptive to developing his inventions? What if Atari WorkBench or one of the many others had become the market leader? What if Texas Instruments had gotten Michael Jackson to advertise their home computer instead of Bill Cosby ( http://oldcomputers.net/oldads/80s/ti992-a.jpg ;) )?

How would such events change the technological timelines? It's impossible to say with any degree of certainty.

In the bell-curve of all possible timelines, it's statistically probable that we are close to the middle, not the most optimal, nor the least optimal.

Edited 2014-02-26 23:41 UTC

Reply Parent Score: 3

RE: Set Back Decades
by Vanders on Wed 26th Feb 2014 23:00 in reply to "Set Back Decades"
Vanders Member since:
2005-07-06

For example, I'd assume that once hardware capable of handling decent graphics (rather than just monochrome text) became available

Why would that hardware have become available without a driver to make it viable to develop in the first place?

I'd expect the same for other technologies (e.g. OOP, ethernet, etc).

Possibly, yes: network technologies existed before ethernet (TDM was a known concept, even). Smalltalk was grounded in work done outside of PARC.

However the question is: if Xerox hadn't done these things, who would have? If the answer is simply "Another research group" then your argument is invalid. If the answer is "A commercial company" then the follow on question is simply "To what end?"

Undirected research is necessary.

Edited 2014-02-26 23:00 UTC

Reply Parent Score: 3