The iPhone 5 was released this week and it is slimmer, with a larger screen – but that’s not why I’m writing this post. Instead, with Apple in the news again, it prompted me to think about the interesting history of the company.
Apple has really been in it for the long game. They were not always the behemoth they are today. Everyone has heard the apocryphal stories of Apple’s modest beginnings, but some of us may have forgotten the hard times that Apple has gone through. For example, in 1997 Microsoft invested $150 million when the failing computer company was on the verge of bankruptcy, in part because of the ill-fated Newton project.
But what Apple has had from its inception is an incredibly talented staff. And many of those staff were right in Silicon Valley, their light being hidden under a bushel at the Xerox Parc Research Center. Xerox Parc was the black sheep of Xerox—a heady research environment, developing inventions and innovations that didn’t fit the Xerox product line. The researchers at the Palo Alto based Xerox Parc produced some of our most important computing technologies, including the mouse, the first graphics program—Superpaint, graphical user interfaces, and Ethernet networking. Xerox found it difficult to capitalize on these new technologies, and marginalized the elite research institute within the company, creating discontent. Many of these unsatisfied computer engineers left Xerox Parc for the fledgling Apple Inc.
Xerox PARC has been one of the most influential organizations in computing and while Xerox wasn’t able to capitalize on their developments, with the leadership of Jack Goldman, they created an environment that supported the inventions and innovations of many of the luminaries of the computing revolution. And that reputation still holds true. PARC is currently working on flexible, printed, organic electronics.
Apple keeps their corporate history pretty close to the vest, but hiring Alan Kay, Gary Starkweather and Larry Tesler has to put you ahead of the curve. Kay is one of the founders of Object Oriented Programming—a dominant programming methodology. He created the Dynabook, the inspiration for laptops and tablets. His personal computing philosophy drove the modern information revolution. Gary Starkweather created the first laser printing technology at Xerox PARC and he later developed Apple’s color sync technology. Tesler, another Xerox PARC graduate who left for Apple, created the first use of “copy and paste” and later became the VP of the shopping experience for Amazon.
Apple has been playing the long game. The company has focused on innovation since their inception. They have lured many great computer scientists and engineers away from other organizations. Now, that focus is paying off in spades.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Apple/Xerox Parc story read Malcom Gadwell’s article in the May 2011 issue of the New Yorker. Or, for a longer look, Michael A. Hiltzik’s 1999 book, Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age.