Xerox PARC turns 40: Marking four decades of tech innovations

On its 40th anniversary, PARC researchers provide a behind-the-scenes peek into the company's culture and projects, past and present.

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Mark Bernstein
Mark Bernstein

Mark Bernstein

Bernstein, the CEO of PARC, has worked at the organization since 1979, serving in various roles before taking the top job in 2001.

I arrived in 1979 with a five-year plan, and I'm still here for a variety of reasons. The people here are a critical part of what makes PARC special. PARC is most well known for developing distributed computing as a consequence of fulfilling the vision it was handed -- to develop the office of the future.

Doug Englebart, who was at Stanford Research Institute when he came up with the idea for the first computer mouse, came to PARC later to work with us on graphical user interfaces. He envisioned people collaborating with computers at a time when people were still loading FORTRAN on computers. That was PARC's founding vision, a really important legacy.

Ubiquitous computing is something we're in the middle of today. In the mid '80s, long before Apple's iPad, we had the PARCPad, a tablet-like computer, and the PARCTab, a handheld device that was a precursor to the PDA. We also had the LiveBoard, which was a large-screen, interactive, networked projection display.

The notion here was that you would have all these different kinds of devices and you could collaborate. The invention of shared workspaces was one of the applications that we developed.

I think a lot of that vision has come through over the last 25 years, and you're starting to see some of the work done then become visible now. The idea that people wouldn't have to pay so much attention to actual computers -- that part of the vision hasn't come true yet. That theme is one that PARC is still working on.

George Pake, the founding father of PARC, was charged to come out and build this institution to help build the office of the future. His belief was that rather than having individual disciplines in their own departments, all focusing on their own research without collaborating, that they be brought together. Then, he believed, you'd end up getting results that you wouldn't get in any other way.

If you look at that model, that's how we're structured today. We have an incredible breadth of disciplines. They're focused on problems from the bottom up. We have a great cafeteria and people have lunch together and have unintended conversations that lead to new innovations.

Dynabook prototype

A 1970s mockup prototype of PARC researcher Alan Kay's Dynabook mobile computer concept. Many ideas from the Dynabook showed up in other PARC projects, such as the Xerox Alto personal computer. Click to view larger image.

Each lab has an internal lab meeting each week. People come in from other groups. Outside speakers come in. There's a PARC forum every Thursday at 4 p.m. and anyone is invited. It is a special culture.

The whole thing at PARC is to find the big ideas and work on them together. When April's Gulf of Mexico oil spill occurred, someone thought to get together for lunch and they thought about ways to better capture the oil. There's a natural conversation that happens between researchers that is either purposeful or shooting the breeze or throwing ideas out for discussion. All those things come into play here.

We don't go into something thinking we know the answers. We go in with our awareness piqued and we try to learn as much as we can all the time. We do those same things for our business clients to help them with research for their own products and services. We focus on understanding what kind of systemic problems they're facing in their industries and how we can help them.

Now you now see why my five-year plan went out the window and why I'm still here.

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