Another one out of the PARC

One of the highlights of the Toronto theatre season this fall was the Canadian premiere of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Angile. The story involves a fictional meeting between the French painter Pablo Picasso and the physicist Albert Einstein.

As if this kind of encounter weren’t fanciful enough, they are joined halfway through the play by a third genius — Schmindimen. Clad in bright-yellow knickers, Schmindimen swaggers around with an overbearing confidence that exceeds either Picasso’s or Einstein’s. Though he claims to have invented a revolutionary building material, the joke is that no one in the future will remember him. This must be how John Seely Brown and the other scientists at PARC have felt for decades.

PARC — the Palo Alto Research Center — is the home of Xerox’s legendary development laboratory. It is reportedly staffed by the innovative minds that first designed the personal computer, the mouse and the first graphical user interface. It is a source of considerable pride within Xerox, but on Wednesday the company said it was turning PARC into a solo act, forming a subsidiary by January with the help of outside investors.

The inventors at PARC are almost certainly breathing a sigh of relief. Though many of the technologies developed at PARC have gone on to become key components of the hardware and software industry, Xerox has almost never seen any benefit. Computing Canada has visited PARC a few times, and Brown, the chief scientist, admitted the company “threw away the option to pursue the PC,” among other opportunities.

In a sense, PARC’s ideas have often been bigger productions than Xerox could stage. This is the Document Company, after all. Xerox has the kind of focus on copying and printing that David Packard believes HP will lose by merging with Compaq, and many of PARC’s discoveries don’t suit its agenda.

“Those reseachers, by mandate, are designed to push the envelope, to be on the cutting edge of anything, not necessarily corporate business product focus,” said Bill McKee, a Xerox spokesman I called on Wednesday.

There is no guarantee that PARC will do any better on its own than as part of Xerox, of course. It has famously walked down some of IT’s blind alleys, like coming up with Web servers for fax machines (long after most people stopped using them), and a knowledge sharing system called Eureka that has never really found a home outside the lab. Sometimes the beauty of an R&D lab is that it gives innovators a chance to play without worrying about production costs or marketability. They need this kind of freedom to come up with that one great notion that will turn into a best-selling product. But PARC obviously lacks sound business management, and Xerox’s spin-off indicates it is being given the additional freedom to spread its wings.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the creation of an independent PARC means Xerox is giving up its R&D resources. Xerox Research also consists of five centres around the world, including a Canadian one in Mississauga. This facility, along with centres in Cambridge, U.K., Grenoble, France and Webster New York, will remain with Xerox. That’s unfortunate, because the local Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC) has begun to look like it has the market focus PARC lacks. Earlier this year, for example, the XRCC was showing off emulsion aggregation (EA) technology which grow toner particles from molecules rather than breaking down particles into smaller groups. This promises to create a more environmentally-friendly way of printing and demonstrates a real contribution to Xerox’s business.

McKee said centres like the XRCC will continue to collaborate with PARC, but there is a real sense that Brown and co. are leaving the nest. With its core competencies firmly entrenched, Xerox is staying the course. It’s fun to play in the PARC, but this company can no longer support a field of dreams.

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