Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Keeping innovation fresh – 2: Xerox PARC and Menlo Park

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on February 2, 2012

This is my second installment in a short series on serial innovation, and on keeping innovation and the unique value propositions that you offer fresh (see Part 1: everything was an innovation once.)

I briefly cited two fabled fonts of serial innovation in Part 1 of this series with mention of Xerox PARC and Thomas Alva Edison’s Menlo Park. And I pick up on my Part 1 discussion with them as brief case study examples, and with a goal of addressing one relatively simple seeming question.

• Both Xerox PARC and Edison’s Menlo Park came up with veritable cornucopias of novel and even disruptively innovative new inventions, and innovations that would go on to define and create entire new industries. Why is it that Xerox PARC is considered an almost archetypal business failure in this and certainly in its early years, while Menlo Park is viewed as an archetypal business success?

Founded in 1970, Xerox PARC was initially developed as a think tank and innovation factory for the Xerox Corporation. Their goal was to map out and develop innovative new technologies and technology applications that could be developed into the unique value propositions that would build Xerox’s future and help keep it an innovative powerhouse in its marketplaces. And if you look at its early successes in the list of innovations that flowed out of Xerox PARC, this venture was a stunning success.

A partial list of its innovations would include development of:

Laser printing,
Ethernet technology,
• The modern personal computer,
• The graphical user interface (GUI),
Object-oriented programming, enabling the development of large-scale and complex software at scales never before realistically attainable,
Ubiquitous computing, (and see my directory: Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time.)
Amorphous silicon (a-Si) applications in the development of new semiconductor technologies, and
• Advanced very-large-scale-integration (VLSI) for single chip semiconductor circuits.

This, I add is only a partial list and it leaves out quite a few very notable potential entries. My point is that the early Xerox PARC opened up entire new worlds of innovation and in both information technology hardware and software. But neither Xerox PARC as an innovation factory, nor Xerox as its parent corporation developed any of these groundbreaking innovations into realized products, and neither went on to play even just a significant role in most of the marketplaces that these basic innovations led to. Other entrepreneurs and businesses did that, reaping the wealth that these innovations made possible.

Edison’s Menlo Park may very well have been an intended and even intentionally specific role model for the early and beginning Xerox PARC. Under the guidance and management of Thomas Alva Edison, his Menlo Park laboratories developed an ongoing succession of product ideas that became marketplace entries and successes. And these products were developed in their hands. Edison, in fact, is credited with creating the world’s first true product oriented research laboratory. And Edison himself is credited with having fathered 1,093 patents, coming out of his own creative efforts and those of his innovation factory at Menlo Park.

A partial list of his inventions and innovations has to begin with development of the first successful incandescent light bulb but also includes entries such as:

• An early stock ticker that played a key role in making the current stock market possible by making it possible to track and act upon near-real time stock valuations,
• A mechanical vote recorder,
• A battery for an electric car, making many of the first successful electric cars possible,
• The first technology for public distribution of electrical power with his first working power station built in Manhattan, New York,
• Sound recording and playback equipment, and
• Motion picture recording and playback equipment.

Both of these innovation factories succeeded and to tremendous levels in coming up with new innovations. What is it that made the early Xerox PARC innovations stillborn for them, and that made Edison’s Menlo Park innovations a success for them?

This posting has laid out some of the background details that would go into answering this and my first question towards the top of this posting. I am going to pick up on this discussion in my next installment series where I will analyze and discuss the innovation and implementation development cycle as a business process cycle.

You can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 2 (and also see Business Strategy and Operations.)

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