Xerox is donating its legendary research lab PARC to the nonprofit research institute SRI International. The subsidiary’s pioneering research in the 1970s helped give birth to the era of personal computing. Xerox says the move will allow it to focus on its core business.
The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was founded in 1970 by Xerox’s chief scientist at the time, Jack Goldman, to carry out forward-looking research into computing, physics, and materials science. The lab’s researchers invented many of the foundational technologies that powered the transition from mainframes to personal computers, including the graphical user interface (GUI), Ethernet networking technology, object-oriented programming, and laser printing.
In 1973, these innovations were combined to create the revolutionary Xerox Alto, the first computer to feature a desktop utilizing windows and folders and that could be controlled using a keyboard and mouse. The Alto could also connect with other machines and printers over a local area network, and it would become the template for future personal computers.
Xerox famously failed to capitalize on this early lead in personal computing, but PARC’s work directly influenced the design of early Apple devices. The lab has also made significant contributions to circuit design, optical storage, fiber optics, and ubiquitous computing over the years. But Xerox CEO Steve Bandrowczak says the company had decided to let the unit go so that it could focus on what it does best.
“As Xerox focuses strategically on workplace technologies and business solutions, it was important to us that the work going on at PARC continues,” he says. “This donation allows the organization to reach its full potential with SRI’s resources and deep-tech expertise that can focus exclusively on the development of pioneering new technologies.”
The move will see roughly 150 PARC employees join SRI, which itself has a storied history. Originally called the Stanford Research Institute, SRI was established by trustees of Stanford University in 1946 to help support the research needs of various industries. Its researchers helped build the ARPANET (the precursor to the Internet), pioneered telerobotic surgery, and invented the technology behind the Siri voice assistant found on iPhones.
The computer mouse, which was so integral to PARC’s work on personal computers, was also invented at SRI. And SRI chief executive David Parekh says the two organizations have a long history of exchanging ideas and personnel, with many of PARC’s earliest employees having come from SRI’s nearby Augmentation Research Center. “We’ve been moving in parallel,” says Parekh. “Now we’re bringing the two together, and so that legacy that we both have built will continue.”
The donation will give SRI new expertise in areas like sustainability and precision medicine, and it will also help bolster the organization’s existing capabilities in areas like computational design, computer vision, and AI and human-machine collaboration. Parekh says he’s particularly excited about how the merger will boost the work of SRI’s AI teams around safety and trust in cyberphysical systems. “It’s going to allow us to move more quickly and to do more, because it’s all gated by great talent,” he adds.
And SRI is keen to integrate them quickly, says Parekh, thanks to lessons learned from its ownership of the research company Sarnoff Corporation, which General Electric donated to SRI in 1986. Sarnoff remained a separate entity until being absorbed into SRI in 2011, something he says should have happened sooner and led to missed opportunities for collaboration. “Technology is moving too fast, and so it’s really important for us to get our best people together right away,” he adds.
Given the interconnected histories of these iconic West Coast institutions, this merger represents an interesting full circle, says Alan Kay, who led PARC’s pioneering work on GUI and object-oriented programming in the 1970s. “Poetically, you could hardly beat it,” he says.
Kay adds that the PARC of today is very different from the one he worked at, though. The burst of creativity seen in the 1970s was thanks to a confluence of factors, including Xerox’s deep pockets at the time, an exodus of talent from the U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), and the visionary leadership of Bob Taylor, who managed PARC’s computer science laboratory.
Most significantly, says Kay, Taylor managed to secure a deal with Xerox headquarters that the company wouldn’t interfere with the lab’s research for at last five years and that researchers would be protected from increasingly cost-conscious management. After repeated clashes, however, Taylor eventually left along with many of his team, which Kay says marked the end of the productive early era that earned PARC its reputation.
“What I think of as PARC was a particular process, and that process, for all intents and purposes, ended in the early ’80s,” says Kay. “The rest is a brand name. And not necessarily for anything bad, but just for something qualitatively different.”
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Edd Gent is a freelance science and technology writer based in Bengaluru, India. His writing focuses on emerging technologies across computing, engineering, energy and bioscience. He's on Twitter at @EddytheGent and email at edd dot gent at outlook dot com. His PGP fingerprint is ABB8 6BB3 3E69 C4A7 EC91 611B 5C12 193D 5DFC C01B. His public key is here. DM for Signal info.